Interviewing a potential new colleague is always an interesting event. Sometimes you get unexpected answers to your questions. A couple of weeks ago I was interviewing a promising candidate. The interviewee was describing how a transition to Scrum had improved performance. The following question popped into my head:
“What does Scrum mean, according to you?”.
This was his answer.
No more deadlines.
This was an unexpected answer to me. Every sprint has a goal in Scrum. The team can say how much work they will take on in the next sprint, based on empiric measurements. So you need to check how much you’ve done, in order to set a realistic goal. If you set that goal at the start of the sprint, should you then not attempt to reach it? Is that not the definition of a deadline?
Since you’re reading this piece, this remark has obviously triggered something in me. Do scrum deadlines exist? Spoiler: they don’t.
Scrum deadlines in tooling
All the agile tooling that I’ve used so far refers to committing to a sprint. For instance, in the Jira velocity chart there is a comparison made between the amount of committed work vs the amount of completed work.
Another tool that I’ve used is called Agilo. The following is in their section about starting a sprint:
[..] The Product Owner is not allowed to change User Stories once the team has committed to them.
Doesn’t committing to the sprint at the start imply a deadline?
So what about The Scrum Guide?
Reality keeps on showing us that it is difficult, if not impossible, to always fulfill this self-imposed commitment without making compromises to quality. A Sprint Backlog is complex enough that uncertainty is always present, and common sense tells us that we shouldn’t promise what we are not sure to be able to deliver. When we use the word commit, we can be easily biased towards that duty-obligation-promise way of thinking.
So team members shouldn’t commit to every single item in the sprint backlog. They should commit to the sprint goal. It’s true that some user stories are more important then others. Sometimes you might need to do additional work to accomplish the sprint goal.
Every non finished user story will go back to the backlog, without shame, to be finished another sprint.
How a subtle word adjustment can change a lot. It made Scrum more agile.