Chapter 9 in Fixing Your Scrum, Practical Solutions to Common Scrum Problems, by Ryan Ripley and Todd Miller, tackles the sprint. To paraphrase the Beach Boys

Everybody’s gone sprintin’

Sprinting’ Scrum-i-a

Along with the Daily Scrum, the sprint has become ubiquitous. The technique of timeboxing using a sprint is one of the first indications that a team is using Scrum. As with any powerful and useful technique, there is a natural tendency to bend, fold, staple, and hybridize the idea leading to all sorts of different problems. I have worked teams that adopted one-week sprints (and got a huge value from the quick feedback) and I have run into teams with multi-month sprints (these almost always end up ending badly). The Scrum Guide (new version), as the authors point out, states that sprints are one month or shorter. The sprint is a timebox in which work is done and a scaffold for the Scrum events.

The first of the antipatterns that Todd and Ryan tackle is one of the most common that I observe, the need for a special Sprint. There are nights when I lay awake contemplating the possibility that someone or some school somewhere is teaching newly minted Scrum Masters to add special sprints. Todd and Ryan point out any number of different variations on the special sprint theme;  sprint zero, design sprints, development sprints, integration springs, hardening, testing, bug, and planning sprints.  Maybe even sprints for sprints. In the end, what is being described is a timeboxed waterfall approach. If I was going to do waterfall I would want to timebox, but I would not call them sprints NOR would I try to rationalize that this was any form of agile. These special timeboxes are an attempt to deal with organizational issues that can span organization design or lack of training without addressing the underlying problem. A classic example of this issue is the testing sprint (development is done in one sprint and then testing in the next). Having written a few lines of code in my career facing this type of scenario, I can assure you that trying to get back into the same frame of mind as you were when you originally wrote the code isn’t easy and causes a lot of rework and technical debt. These types of issues are often dismissed as “culture.”  Remember that culture is a choice, not an excuse. 

Another of the common antipatterns is the “variable-length sprint.” Honestly, until three months ago I would have said that I had not seen this antipattern in nearly half a decade. People who don’t like timeboxes generally have gravitated toward Kanban or gone back to waterfall. To my shock, when gathering information to bid on a piece of work, I ran into an organization that blithely announced that they regularly changed the length of a sprint because they weren’t going to get everything done (they also had a testing sprint afterward). The product owner was less than sanguine as she had zero idea of when anything would be delivered and spent a decent amount of time making excuses to customers. I did not bid on the job and note on LinkedIn. Unfortunately, I now have encountered this old bugaboo several more times (all in one geographic area). Some of the issues reflect the lack of knowledge needed to break work down, having hit a velocity standard, or the ability to control work entry. Changing the sprint length does not address the root cause of the behavioral problem, but rather masks them.

The sprint is one of the most ubiquitous artifacts of agile, even when they are not using Scrum. Sprints are timeboxes that help teams to focus on delivering a specific goal and then get feedback quickly. Sprints are great but don’t work well when they are modified to hide organizational problems. 

The Coaches Corner in this chapter hit home for me the second time I read the book. The value of works like books, blogs, and podcasts change as we encounter situations in our careers. The exercise in the coaches corners provided me with ideas to help a group of people doing very different and unrelated work identify the common parts of their work-life so they discover how they could work together a little (and a little better). 

 If you have not bought your copy — what are you waiting for? Fixing Your Scrum: Practical Solutions to Common Scrum Problems 

Previous Installments

Week 1: Re-read Logistics and Front Matter 

Week 2: A Brief Introduction To Scrum, and Why Scrum Goes Bad 

Week 3: Breaking Bad Scrum with a Value-Driven Approach 

Week 4: The Product Owner 

Week 5: The Product Backlog 

Week 6: The Development Team 

Week 7: Embracing The Scrum Master Role – 

Week 8: Management