Strengthening your scrum team through consistency

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Understand how to keep your scrum teams working efficiently within an ever-changing environment.
Jul 22, 2019
Written by Stephen Crandall, Manager Agile Center of Excellence for Solü Technology Partners.
I am often asked how to keep scrum teams focused and efficient in an environment that lends itself to distractions and changing priorities. My answer is simple, make as much of the process as boring as possible.

I’m sure your scrum teams are already doing the standard ceremonies (backlog grooming, sprint planning, daily stand-ups, etc.), but how many of these are happening at the same time and the same place every week or every other week? Hopefully, your answer is “All of them.” If not, this is the first thing to change.

A team that has a predictable set of meetings on their calendar will be more efficient. Expectations must be clear, so teams can focus their brainpower on problem-solving, not guessing when they will have their next meeting or what is the purpose of the random meeting that just popped up on their calendar.

One example I often see is sprint reviews being canceled at the end of the sprint because teams fall into the “we have nothing to demo” trap.  Even if a team doesn’t have a slick demo, they should still meet with stakeholders to review what they accomplished. This may be boring, but that’s okay. Likely, the team has done research or identified critical work items that stakeholders should hear about.  If your sprint reviews are canceled frequently, you may lose stakeholder trust or they may stop showing up to reviews because they have come to see them as low value or not important.

Consistency sounds so easy, the complicated part is keeping things consistent, while also being agile and allowing for the necessary distractions that are inevitable in an agile process.  Let’s breakdown some of these distractions and discuss some approaches I have found to be successful. 

What happens when you receive new or changing requirements?

Yes, this happens all the time and should be welcome in a truly agile organization.  This is especially challenging when changes come in mid-sprint and threaten to disrupt a team focused on their commitments.

Most of my scrum teams have two 1-hour grooming sessions a week (always on the same day and at the same time). These sessions are used to elaborate stories, plan sprints, and for the occasional special topic. This is nothing new or earth-shattering as that is the purpose of these meetings as prescribed by almost every book written about scrum. The secret here is to make certain that the entire team understands and acknowledges priorities and stays focused in meetings by outlining an agenda ahead of time. A detailed agenda helps teams stay focused under normal circumstances, but also helps to ensure transparency and open discussion when new or updated requirements come up.  If changes impact the current sprint, the best approach is to try to avoid changing the current story. Create a new story to address the change and manage it like you would any other story in your backlog. Again, the key here is to make your ceremonies consistent, so everyone knows that if a change gets thrown into the mix it is okay… we can handle it!

What about when someone outside the team needs something and requires a meeting? 

These requests happen ALL THE TIME.  The first thing I like to do is ask myself “do we really need a meeting, or will an email suffice?” Spoiler alert… usually an email or phone call is fine.  However, if a meeting is necessary find out who is really required. The goal is to minimize distractions to the scrum team.  Maybe a meeting with just the product owner and scrum master can provide all the necessary information. If not, then perhaps setting aside some time during one of your standard ceremonies will work.  It’s always nice to have a special guest if their agenda is clear and it does not derail the flow of your meetings.

What do you do when you have items to discuss outside of the standard ceremony agenda?

Another approach I find successful for these standard ceremonies is reserving time every meeting for special topics. Rather than disrupting the team and adding more meetings to their day, why not take 15 minutes from one of your scheduled ceremonies? 

A 15-minute time slot for special topics should suffice. This will vary depending on the topic, of course, but hopefully, most topics or changes can be covered in a short period of time. It is unnecessary to schedule 30-minutes to an hour for special topics. If something does come up that is outside of the standard agenda items for a scheduled ceremony, I will briefly cover it at the end of scrum and let the team know we will add an agenda item to one of the upcoming meetings. 

Our environment allows for many disruptions and changing priorities. Emphasize process consistency to keep your team focused will lead to not only increased velocity but improved team morale.


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