ART OF SCRUM: Agile Does Not Mean By the Seat of Your Pants

Posted: November 17, 2008 in Art of Scrum, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Something about “being Agile” tends to make people think that productivity magically appears when you install Scrum as if it was some sort of speed boosting software optimization. This is not the case; it takes preparation, dedication to the methodology, and above all, discipline. Daily Scrums are a good case in point; many times I have seen participants show up to this critical forum without being prepared to transfer knowledge. The traditional Daily Scrum asks three questions to try to evoke the necessary intel from the Sprint participants:

  1. What did you accomplish yesterday?
  2. What do you plan on accomplishing today?
  3. Are you impeded?

There are two issues that arise from the Daily Scrum formula that I have encountered: one, the answers to these questions from each Team member don’t always get to the best information that needs to be shared; and two, Team members are not prepared to answer these questions with valuable 411. Both devalue the Scrum, and with a 15 minute timebox, it is critical to impart focused, specific information as fast as is productive to the Team. With this in mind, here are a few suggestions to keep Daily Scrums from becoming rote meetings that developers and other participants show up at, roll their eyes when they’re asked the same old questions, and — as one developer I worked with threatened — produce a simple audio file to play when asked the questions above.

Ask the right questions to get valuable answers:
Every project is different, and the questions asked of the Team should be designed to insure that knowledge is transferring properly between the Team members. This does not mean that you abandon the yesterday / today / blocked formula; rather, it means that the ScrumMaster should know enough about each Team members’ commitments to be able to help them with getting to the good stuff. The key here is to reinforce that the Team succeeds or fails by the estimation, communication, and hard work of the individuals that comprise that Team, as Clinton Keith adroitly notes on his discussion of Daily Scrums. The questions that are asked of the Team are not designed to be a simple formula so that you can repeat the same valueless information; that is why I prefer to use the term “accomplished” rather than “do”; this engages the Team member in a different way — it asks him or her to report to their Team members if they met their commitment from yesterday’s Daily Scrum. Keith makes a good point that the key to the first two questions is commitment: if a Team member commits to finishing feature x and does not, this is an impediment that is telling you a lot about the progress of the Sprint.

Be a Boy or Girl Scout; come prepared to the Daily Scrum:
Because Daily Scrums are usually timeboxed to 15 minutes, a lot of participants think they can just show up and answer the three questions and then get back to work. If this is what is happening in your Daily Scrums, you are in danger of having these crucial meetings become valueless and might as well let people play audio files to report their status. I found quite a bit of value when I insisted that Team members bring the ticket numbers for the Tasks that they were working on from whatever tracking system was in place was enough to make ’em prepare just a little bit before showing up to the Daily Scrum. This also had the side benefit that they would bring a pen and a piece of paper, which would at least have the materials present to make a note in case (shocking!) that something came up in the meeting that they were not expecting, such as “have a conversation with so-and-so immediately after this meeting to help them with impediment z”. Stacia Broderick has a wonderful phrase for a common symptom of Daily Scrum fatigue: DSW or Daily Standup Withdrawal. She prepares herself before each meeting; I don’t see why the same, short, focusing process shouldn’t be encouraged for each participant.

Handle diverging conversations immediately:
As a CSM, I have always found that the most memorable part of teaching Scrum to people is using squeaky toys to prevent Daily Scrums (or other meetings, for that matter) spiraling out of control into technical discussions, impediment removal, or other unfocused diatribes. Scrum is full of animals, starting with Jeff Sutherland’s Pigs and Chickens, but I can still remember the rubber rats from my CSM training with Dan Rawsthorne when he handed them out and thinking “what the hell are these for?” Since then I have used a front desk bell, a squeaky dog bone, and even threatened an air horn with a particularly garrulous group. The squeaky toy almost becomes like the conch shell in Lord of the Flies with some groups; even reaching for the talisman has an instantaneous effect on someone who is off on a soliloquy once they know what it means. This does not mean that you should be a heavy-handed ScrumMaster; on the contrary, it is the sign of a good Daily Scrum when a Team diverges to try to solve a problem. In this case, I take a page from XP and shut it down by providing a concrete way forward, such as “ok, you three obviously need to have an offline discussion about this; how about right after this meeting for 15 minutes and somebody be responsible for communicating the resolution?” This prevents the squeaky toy from becoming something to be feared and restores it to what it is for: focusing the Daily Scrum.

Provide concrete output from the Daily Scrum:
Whether it is on stickies, a quick set of notes, or directly updating the community Scrum Board, make sure that there are tangible results coming out of your Daily Scrums. The most important thing is definitely in the heads of the Team members, but it is highly valuable to have some sort of record of what went on yesterday today. This is a prime way to ask those extra questions suggested at the top of this list if necessary — review what the commitments were from yesterday and insure that each Team member is answering whether or not they accomplished what they set out to get done. These notes also become a key starting point for Sprint Retrospectives, when I have found there is naturally a lot of brain fade after a successful delivery. Like most everything else in Scrum, find what works for you; I have provided concrete output from Daily Scrums a variety of ways, but it is another Scrum operation that can be shifted from person to person, or combined with the Scout rule above — if Team members know that there is concrete output from the Daily Scrum, they are more likely to come prepared. These types of notes, especially in an electronic format such as a shared document or an e-mail update, also provide the added benefit of being able to communicate Sprint status on a daily basis to other interested parties, such as business owners and / or stakeholders, if necessary.

As usual, these are my observations from practicing Scrum at several different organizations, and I would be interested in any feedback about how you focus your Daily Scrums to prevent DSW, insure effective knowledge transfer, and make your Daily Scrums something that people look forward to because they provide help and value to the contribution of the Team to the Sprint.

Comments
  1. I’ve had good results focusing the Daily Scrum by changing the questions to center on completing tasks rather than just working on them. You move in this direction with “What did you accomplish yesterday?” but I find that “What did you *complete* yesterday?” does a better job of focusing the meeting because of the direct reference to a state on the task board. I’ve written more about this approach and some of its beneficial side effects here: http://www.richardlawrence.info/2008/07/11/one-word-can-change-your-daily-scrum/.

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