Velocity in Scrum, actually

In complex and uncertain environments, more is unknown than is known. There is much we don’t know. What we know is subject to change. Only what we have achieved is known (unless we prefer to cover up). Progress is in what we have done, more than in what we plan to do. What we plan to do are assumptions that need validation by emerging actions and decisions. We make and incrementally change decisions based on what is known.

In Scrum it is considered a good idea for teams to know about the progress they have been making. It is one parameter (of several) to take into account when considering the inherently uncertain future.

From the Scrum Guide (Sprint Planning):

The input to this meeting is the Product Backlog, the latest product Increment, projected capacity of the Development Team during the Sprint, and past performance of the Development Team.

Teams express this Scrum Guide guidance of ‘past performance’ often as ‘Velocity’. Although not a mandatory concept, it is a good tactic to apply in Scrum and for many teams even useful to increase their proficiency in self-management.

Painful problems arise however if Scrum gets managed through the distorting lens of the old, industrial paradigm. Purpose gets lost and ideas get corrupted. No more than an illusion of agility is created. One such case is when Velocity becomes an indicator of volume (of tasks and features produced) and is measured for external justification (i.e. beyond the team boundaries).

Although Scrum can be employed to address any complex challenge, Scrum is foremost applied as a framework for complex product delivery. For many organizations the availability and usage of their products and services is life-critical. They adopt Scrum because they need to act with more agility against that life-critical purpose. Scrum is designed to deliver agility to these organizations under the form of releasable versions of products, called Increments. The purpose is to enable organizations in having an effective impact on the market place no later than by the end of each Sprint. This is a crucial trait of agility for organizations that are highly product or service-dependent.

Against that purpose it is not helpful to not have a releasable product version by the end of a Sprint. We allow even what we have done to remain full of unknowns. We undermine the only base we have for making decisions. We undermine the solidity of our already fragile decision process even more. In terms of real progress, Velocity is actually… zero.

In the face of the purpose of increased agility through Scrum, it doesn’t add much value to discuss Velocity at Sprint Review when no releasable Increment has been created throughout the Sprint. There are probably more serious problems to address first. There are more important challenges than measuring how many points were burned. Let alone the completely futile attempts to standardize, normalize, industrialize, or equalize Velocity across an organization.

In the absence of teams’ capability to effectively produce releasable Increments, such discussions do no more than distract from the more serious problems. Velocity becomes an obfuscating indicator. The definition of Done provides the real transparency for inspection and adaptation. The definition of Done shows what is lacking to increase product quality up to the point of Increments being releasable. In the face of the urgency of agility, the question of what is defined as Done is much more important than registering the amount of unreleasable work produced.

You can obviously measure the Velocity at which undone work is created, and be more predictable in creating even more undone work. It will not help you make progress towards increased agility and having an impact.

Rather, at the Sprint Review ask yourself “What is our impact on the market? What is our ability to go to market?” It will steer the conversation in very different directions than merely reporting how much tasks were completed. Take the findings to your Sprint Retrospective to figure out what is needed to improve on the possibility to go to market next Sprint. Have the ambition of going through an engaged retrospective, rather than one of unfocused fun. Aspire to start creating valuable Increments with a demonstrable impact, no later than by the end of your next Sprint. Nobody external to the team will care about your Velocity, as an external indicator of progress, anymore.

In the face of the purpose of increased agility through Scrum, Velocity, actually, only makes sense if a measure of a team’s capability to create releasable Increments of product, no later than by the end of a Sprint.

Inspection without adaptation is pointless in Scrum

People are naturally Agile. Our personal lives require us to demonstrate our ability to adapt more than our professional environments often allow us to do. Scrum, much like life, is all about adaptation. Scrum sets opportunities for professionals to regularly inspect in order to adapt. Inspection without adaptation is pointless. An act of futility.

The simplest word that might adequately define “agile” is “adaptive”. Adaptiveness, the ability to adapt, is more than ever needed in our world of complexity, creativity, fierce competition and unpredictability. Hence, the criticality of agility, not the illusion of agility that many Agile transformations result in. Agility is reflected in an organization’s unique way to respond to change, absorb important disruptions, capitalize on unforeseen opportunities and -ultimately- cause innovative change.

Scrum is all about inspection and adaptation, and therefore a way to become more Agile, to increase the ability to adapt. The framework of Scrum is a foundation upon which to increase the agility that emerges from frequent inspections and adaptations. Scrum sets no more than boundaries to elevate self-organization with frequent reminders for all players involved to adapt upon observations (inspection) of reality, new insights, acquired experience, changing expectations.

Scrum re-inserts some common sense of life back into a professional environment.

The process of inspection and adaptation, and therefore Scrum, thrives on a dualistic relationship with transparency. The process of inspection and adaptation requires as well as creates transparency. Adaptations that are not based on observations of reality, but of some faked reality, make no sense. They even have the danger of worsening a situation, and increase obfuscation rather than enhance transparency. On the other hand, Scrum also makes reality highly visible, at least at each event. This transparency offered by Scrum is easily cheered and embraced when progress and results are as hoped for, but not so much when that is not the case.

Inspection and adaptation are inseparable acts. Adaptation is a conscious decision about the nearby future.

Even the decision to keep a certain way of working in place, actually, is an adaptation, when taken consciously. For a decision of adaptation to be an informed decision it is best based on inspection, i.e. an act of observation and consideration. Adaptation without observation and reflective inspection misses direction. It is likely no more than a shot in the dark, rather than a deliberate evolution. Inspection without adaptation, in our world of complexity, creativity, fierce competition and unpredictability, makes little sense. It makes little sense to gather information about the past without considering how to deal with that information next. In Scrum, inspection without adaptation is a futile act that serves pretend-agility at most.

The artefacts of Scrum are dynamic placeholders holding essential information that serves the process of inspection and adaptation. Every event in Scrum is an opportunity to inspect and adapt upon this evolving information. The purpose, time-boxes and frequency of the events allow people, the inspectors, to balance focus on getting work done and openness for change.

Inspection for the mere sake of inspecting, without the ambition to adapt, is pointless in Scrum. All Scrum events are intended to be forward-looking, as opportunities to shape the future. None of these events were designed for reporting or status purposes. In the world of high dynamism that leads to deploying a work process based on Scrum it would be very strange if teams did not capitalize on new information and insights that improve their work life as soon as possible. Scrum makes sure it happens never later than at the foreseen events. Scrum assures that the art of empiricism is performed no later than at the time of these events.

Within a Sprint, as an overarching event, development standards and practices provide additional feedback loops. Across multiple Sprints, where a Sprint is a completely defined cycle in time, forecasts can be made, and growth tracked, towards goals and ambitions. Scrum helps you inspect and adapt your way to unpredictable destinies.

In complex and changing environments adaptation is key. These are the environments that demand the adoption of a framework like Scrum. Inspection without adaptation is pointless in Scrum. It is an act of futility and pretend-agility.

(Thank you Higher View and Jellylab for the videos and for the graphics)

Closed-loop feedback control with Scrum

Scrum is a simple framework to manage complex challenges. Software delivery is a complex challenge. Software delivery encompasses a multitude of complex activities to create and evolve complex products in complex circumstances. Scrum embraces and emphasizes the complexity of software delivery by implementing the only process type that fits its complexity, empirical process control.

Complexity

There are many variables that have an impact on delivering software; requirements, skills, experience, people, teams, technology, integrations, market conditions, company strategies, budgets, regulations and dependencies, to name just a few. Not all known variables are controlled by the people doing the work, although they have to incorporate the impact on the work. For some known variables too much detail is needed to fully comprehend them. Even if a variable is known, its behavior -now or in the future- may be unknown, or different from what is anticipated.

Products are created by people with cognitive capacities. People are not robots, or replaceable pieces of machinery. The outcomes are hard to describe in an exact and detailed way; before, at the beginning or even as the work advances. Every product created is unique and what is appreciated can only be established when released. The activities to be undertaken aren’t predictable with any degree of high precision. They have not been performed before, in the same way, under the same conditions, several times. The environment evolves constantly. And, most annoying, not all variables are known. There is a high degree of unpredictability.

The degree of dynamism of a challenge requires the right process to be in place in order to have control:

Open-loop systems

An open-loop system is designed for execution of a series of preempted steps to result in a defined outcome in a single run. Such a system assumes a near-perfect predictability of the variables that influence the process as well as of the process activities themselves.

For larger problems, typically a chain of open-loop subsystems is created. The output of a subsystem is the input to the next subsystem. Although theoretically risks should be confined to the smaller subsystems, in practice the whole system’s vulnerability increases exponentially. In situations of turbulence and change, deviations and variances accumulate across the various subsystems, e.g. in timing and quality. It is not uncommon for the accumulated problems to surface only at the end of the final subsystem.

Predictive plans and hand-overs of work between separate functional groups are implementations of open-loop thinking. Predictive plans can only include known variables, their known details and their anticipated behavior, creating the illusion that no unknowns exist. Open-loop thinking invites lengthy upfront consideration of all elements of the plan, and ultimately attempt to foresee the unforeseeable.

An open-loop system is -by design- unable to cope with the amount of disruptions and unknowns typical for complex challenges like software delivery.

Closed-loop systems

Closed-loop systems implement frequent opportunities for inspection so adaptations can be implemented. The actual outcome of the system is compared in a timely fashion against a desired outcome. Desires may change. Variances or undesired results are eliminated or corrected in the next or in future runs. Not all variables and parameters need to be known precisely and in detail, as the process is self-correcting. The system requires and creates transparency. Reality is inspected, and exposed, so that appropriate adaptations are undertaken. The people performing the inspections have clear and agreed standards in place to inspect-and-adapt against. Inspection for reporting and status purposes is pointless. Inspection without adaptation is pointless.

Closed-loop feedback control with Scrum

Scrum embraces and stresses the complexity of software delivery by implementing empirical process control. Scrum replaces the open loops of traditional, phase-gate, staged or similar processes with closed-loop feedback. Scrum defines regular opportunities to inspect and adapt. Scrum enables players to halt the traditional rat race. The players are enabled to stop, reflect, learn from inspections, gather feedback over the output and change course, re-organize, update priorities, improve, adapt. Scrum brings reality back in the game. Scrum brings transparency. That is pleasant when all is progressing well. That is crucial when all is not progressing as hoped for. It allows re-positioning and correction.

In Scrum all work is organised in Sprints. Sprints are time-boxed to assure timely inspection and adaptation. A Sprint forms an ‘inspect and adapt’ cycle of a few weeks at most that wraps the 24-hours ‘inspect and adapt’ cycle of the Daily Scrum:

  • At the Daily Scrum the people doing the work inspect their progress, and identify their most important work to do next within the container of the Sprint. They use the Sprint Backlog, the Sprint Goal and a progress visualization to self-organize within the Sprint. The daily cadence assures they never get out of sync for more than 24 hours.
  • A Sprint is a cycle that starts with identifying and interiorizing the most important ideas instantiated on Product Backlog. Sprints end with an inspection of the product Increment that was actually released or could be released, as well as how it was built, the process, the interactions, the technology at play. As with all inspections, they are forward-looking. They serve the purpose of adapting.

All events of Scrum set a frequency for the inspection and adaptation process, where the artifacts contain the information to be inspected and adapted. Scrum describes the accountabilities needed to perform the inspections and adaptations.

Organizing work in Sprints allows people to take a breath, to break with the traditional rat races, and work at a sustainable pace. Explicit reflection moments are introduced that are crucial for humans to thrive in cognitive, creative work of high complexity, like software delivery is. Within a Sprint, additional feedback loops are created, e.g. through agreed work and development standards.

Note: above text is adapted from my book “Scrum – A Pocket Guide (A smart travel companion)”. If you have more time to spend, consider reading it.

Done is a crucial part of Scrum, actually

If Scrum was to be reduced to one purpose, and one purpose only, that is the creation of a Done Increment in a Sprint. The typical term in Scrum to describe the state of software being releasable is “Done”. All that this state of releasability encompasses is captured in the “definition of Done”.

Done Increments are THE way to achieve agility through the empiricism of Scrum. 

Empiricism

The empiricism of Scrum, the process of regular inspection and adaptation, only functions well upon transparency. Transparency is having insights into reality but is is additionally upheld through standards and agreements, against which inspection and adaptation happens. The definition of Done is such a standard. The definition of Done is part of professional Scrum development. Other standards, like development and engineering standards, might even be derived from the definition of Done.

The frequency of the inspection and adaptation should be high enough to be able to act in the moment yet not too high to preserve the ability to get considerable amounts of work done.

The definition of Done serves empiricism

The definition of Done should be shared, explicit, clear and concise.

A Development Team will use the definition of Done to consider the amount of work to be pulled into a Sprint during Sprint Planning.

The evolution of an Increment is managed via collaborative inspection and adaption of the actual development work against the forecasted Product Backlog and the Sprint Goal; at least on a daily base, possibly sooner. A Daily Scrum assures that the people accountable for the actual development optimize their work plan against new insights and achievements. The definition of Done supports identification of work remaining to get the software to “Done”.

No later than at the Sprint Review, the Increment is collaboratively inspected and adapted with the stakeholders. This inspection opens up the opportunity of incorporating feedback from these stakeholders to identify what is most important to do next. Purpose is the open identification of what is important to do next, not hindered by unknown, unpalatable, unestimatable remaining work.

Releasing the software closes the feedback loop to the market and the users of the software. Releasing sooner is better in order to remain in line with external expectations and experiences. It is the only way to ultimately validate all assumptions (of functionality, and others) built into the product. Not being able to release an Increment at the end of a Sprint, or sooner, impedes agility. The decision of releasing an Increment by the end of a Sprint is a Product Owner decision, as the sole representative of users and stakeholders on the Scrum Team. The Product Owner’s shipping decision should not be constrained by ‘development’ work.

Undone software is best not released. There might be situations in which undone software is consciously released. An extreme crisis maybe? The least to do is make the undone work transparent via Product Backlog, knowing and understanding that any estimate of such corrective work is probably totally off and the nature of the work unplannable. This ‘registration’ does not render an undone release any more professional, and probably the crisis you are hoping to solve with the unrelease, will re-appear because an unrelease will not fundamentally solve it. Unreleases backfire. Probably better to Scrumble.

At the Sprint Retrospective, the Development Team might inspect and revise its definition of Done; incorporating new insights, new expectations, higher standards. Ownership over the Definition of Done lies with the Development Team. It is their accountability to develop software that lives up to the definition of Done. In many organizations the definition of Done is likely to be derived from organizational standards for development quality. A Development Team will enact them, expand them. If “done” for an increment is not a convention of the development organization, the Development Team will create their definition of Done, appropriate for the product.

Regardless, the definition of Done provides transparency over the state of an Increment at the Sprint Review, where this state optimally reflects ‘releasable’.

Done is a crucial part of Scrum, actually

Although no official artifact, the definition of Done is a crucial part of Scrum in upholding transparency over the state of releasability of the software created. No transparency means no meaningful inspections, and no meaningful adaptations of Product Backlog through stakeholder feedback upon review or through user feedback upon release.

In the last updates to the Scrum Guide (most recent: July 2013) the definition of Done was given considerably more attention. Rightfully, as “Done” is absolutely crucial in Scrum.

Here’s how I stressed the importance of Done in my book, “Scrum – A Pocket Guide“:

The empiricism of Scrum only functions well with transparency. Transparency requires common standards to work against and to inspect upon. The definition of done sets the standard for releasable.

 and

The definition of done is essential to fully understand the work needed to create a releasable Increment and for the inspection of that Increment at the Sprint Review. The definition of done serves the transparency required in Scrum in terms of the work to be done and the work actually done.

Scrum, actually

Scrum, actually, has been around for a while. Scrum emerged in the early 1990’s through the work of Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. They packaged their practices into a cohesive set of rules and roles and named the entirety „Scrum“. The term, actually, was inherited from the ground-breaking 1986 paper The New New Product Development Game. The reference to the game of rugby reflects the importance of team engagement.

Scrum, actually, has had a stable core since its first public presentation in 1995. The essential definition of Scrum was codified in the Scrum Guide in 2010. This definite body of knowledge describes all parts of Scrum, and the rules that tie them together. Scrum is defined as intended and designed, i.e. a cohesive set of rules and roles implementing empiricism for complex product development. The rules and roles described in the Scrum Guide gain full clarity when read as an expression of the Agile values and principles.

Scrum, actually, is intentionally kept low prescriptive. Scrum sets the frame for people, teams and organizations to create, maintain and sustain complex products. Scrum does not replace people’s intelligence and creativity, merely guides the work. Scrum’s basic rules are immutable. Flexibility comes from the zillion variations to apply the rules, selected and tuned to context and circumstances. Hacking the basic rules of the framework breaks the cohesion, and disregards one or more principles and foundations upon which Scrum is founded.

Hacked versions and implementations of Scrum are possible. Isolated use of Scrum’s terminology or practices is possible. They might work. They might be fun. They are not Scrum.

Scaled implementations of Scrum don’t change the fundamental rules and roles of Scrum, nor the underlying principles. They only require different tactics. Instances that change the core of Scrum are not Scrum.

Scrum, actually, in itself is not the purpose. Scrum is a tool. Scrum enables people to live the art of the possible, to make the most out of every single day constrained by their means, to maximize the value of their work in the face of uncertainty. Scrum can wrap many development and organizational practices, tools and techniques. Scrum creates the capability of continuous adaptation in a environment of constant change, regardless whether that change is caused by our own will or by external turbulence. Scrum turns complexity from a threat into an asset.

Scrum, actually, propels agility through releasable Increments of software. A releasable Increment is available by the end of a Sprint or sooner, not later. A Sprint takes no more than 30 days, and is often shorter. Frequently an updated, improved version of software can be made available to its users and consumers. Feedback from actual use can be gathered to drive changes, improvements, enhancements. Assumptions are turned into learnings, ultimately into a pivot if required.

Scrum, actually… is a means to an end, a tool designed for a purpose: people, agility, value.

Meetings in Scrum, actually

Scrum has no meetings, actually. What we call ‚meetings‘, even in the Scrum Guide, are planned occasions at which people meet, where meeting (the activity) takes place.

Scrum’s meetings are not about reporting, status, bureaucracy, spilling ink, documenting the past. Scrum’s meetings have a purpose. Scrum’s meetings are about collaboration, discovery, opportunities, conversation, ideas, constructive disagreement, looking forward to the (near) future. It’s why Scrum offers opportunistic events more than obliges (what we generally know as) ‘meetings’.

Scrum’s events provide people with an opportunity to incorporate change into the daily work, instead of locking it out. The old notion of ‚change’ dissipates. Change becomes natural, the regular way of doing business, even a welcome source of ideas and innovation. Change is used in a team’s or an organisation’s advantage.

Scrum’s events serve the empiricism that Scrum brings to software development. Empiricism thrives on inspection & adaptation. Inspection & adaptation happens at a frequency, in regular intervals. Adaptation only makes sense when inspection is done against reality, when the actual situation is made transparent.

  • Scrum’s events define the frequency at which inspection and adaptation takes place.
  • Scrum’s artifacts hold the primary information to inspect and adapt.
  • Scrum’s teams are the inspectors, the people accountable for performing the inspections and adaptations.

Empiricism in Scrum

In Scrum all work is organized in Sprints. Sprints deliver releasable Increments of software. A Sprint is a time-boxed feedback loop in itself, a container event containing the above Scrum events.

Deciding over Sprint length is a different decision from the perspective of inspection and adaptation. The Sprint length determines the frequency at which stakeholder input is formally gathered and shared with the full Scrum Team. It’s the minimal frequency at which organizational or market changes can be incorporated, the last possible moment to decide on releasing software to collect feedback so it can be adapted to, to decide what the most valuable work is to work on next. When Sprints are too long, important opportunities that require adaptation may be missed. When Sprints are too short, the ability to get significant work done might be lost.

The time-boxes for all events, as set by Scrum, provide focus. It avoids the creation of waste. It focuses people’s minds on collaboration and importance.

Scrum frames the creativity of people. Scrum provides boundaries that re-inforce self-organization. Scrum says not how to run the events. Scrum defines the input to the meetings, the expected outcome and a timeframe.

In Scrum, actually… meetings are opportunities where people meet to change their mind.

Team size in Scrum, actually

Self-organization is an essential management principle of Scrum. Yet, its importance and potential are only seeping through slowly. Despite the wide adoption of Scrum.

The most basic form of self-organization in Scrum holds that Development Teams organize and manage their own work within a Sprint, autonomously, against a forecast and a Sprint Goal. Where acceptance of this practice grows, few organisations take it a step further. Few teams are supported to figure out their own team size in order to best collaborate towards the creation of a releasable Increment of product in a Sprint. Understanding that the foundations for great work are commitment and motivation, Development Teams should be able to also create and re-create their structure and composition across time.

Collaboration is key. From collaboration performance emerges. Teams have the highest cohesion, the deepest trust and the most effective interconnections when the size of the team is around seven. Scrum used to have the rule known as 7 +/- 2, meaning a Development Team was expected to have at least 5 people, and 9 at most. The Scrum Guide has evolved this guidance to 3-9 people. This is confusing when looking for academic exactness, less confusing if this is seen as guidance against the goal of being “small enough to remain nimble and large enough to complete significant work within a Sprint“ (quote from the Scrum Guide).

Although the Scrum Guide sets an expectation for the size of a Development Team, there’s no formal process needed to really enforce this if self-organization is enacted. Through self-organization a team will adjust its size autonomously for optimal performance. Rather than instructing a team on their mandatory size, help a team discover what works best for them, including what team size maximizes the communication bandwidth. No external body can do this better. No external body can assess the combined effects of team dynamics, being co-located or not, availability of people and resources (tools, infrastructure), and all other parameters better than the people actually doing the work.

Try something you believe might work for you. Inspect it, adapt to your findings. Repeat. When heavily constrained in doing this, sticking to the guidance of having 3-9 people in a Development Team is a good idea.

In Scrum, actually… team size is a team decision.