Home > Agile > Sprint Goals, Backlogs & Star Trek

Sprint Goals, Backlogs & Star Trek

I’ve recently been working with a number of scrum teams, across a few different organisations, and I’ve started to notice a bit of a trend with regards to agile practices dropping by the wayside. Now, this might be a sweeping generalisation, but I’m noticing something of a correlation between Scrum teams who are struggling, and the “disappearance” of Sprint Goals and Backlog Grooming. Even with ScrumMasters around, these 2 practices seem to be the first to bite the bullet, which makes me wonder if their importance is not as well understood as it could be…

Red Shirts
If Scrum “good practices” were an episode of Star Trek, I imagine Stand-Ups would be Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Retrospectives would be Spock, Sprint Planning would be Scotty, and so on until we’ve covered all of the main characters & characteristics. Now let’s imagine the crew of the enterprise are assembling a landing party, to investigate a strange new world, home to as-yet unknown and possibly hostile alien life forms. The usual suspects are on the holodeck waiting to be beamed down, along with one new lower-ranking character wearing a red shirt – yes, say hello to the Sprint Goal.
If you’re not familiar with the whole “red shirt” thing with Star Trek, it goes a bit like this – in the original Star Trek series, whenever the crew beamed down to a hostile planet, they were seemingly always accompanied by a lower-ranking disposable crewman wearing a red shirt, who would promptly die in some sort of fight with an alien life form. It was always the red shirted guy. If you’re interested and fancy a bit of a giggle, this website actually contains a statistical breakdown of how likely a “redshirt” is to die. Brilliant stuff.

Sprint Goals - The Agile Red Shirts

Sprint Goals – The Agile Red Shirts

Anyway, back to the Sprint Goal – it appears that rather like the redshirt, when the going gets tough, the Sprint Goal appears to be the first one to cop it. This isn’t wholly surprising, because the Sprint Goal doesn’t scream “I’M IMPORTANT AND DELIVER VALUE” in quite the same way as stand ups and retrospectives do. But they are important and they do deliver value. Sprint Goals are rather like acceptance Criteria, in that they ensure that we are doing the right thing. Bear with me on this…

  • Any project or product will have an objective
  • The objectives get transformed into a plan
  • The plan gets split up into milestones and iterations
  • The milestones and iterations are made up of sprints
  • The sprints contain numerous stories

Hopefully this little list will help to demonstrate how detatched a story can be from the original objective. Sprint Goals are a way of making sure our stories are all aligned with our project or product’s objectives, and not just a collection of seemingly misaligned tasks.

If we just start plugging away at stories without having a goal or objective in mind, then we’re not really giving ourselves the right amount of context to make the best decisions.
I sometimes see this issue more clearly on so-called “self-organising” teams, where everyone seems to be sprinting, but not necessarily in the same direction. Deciding on a Sprint Goal before your spint starts is a great way to ensure that everyone is collectively sprinting in the right direction.

We're all sprinting, just not in the same direction...

We’re all sprinting, just not in the same direction…

Sometimes people tell me that it’s really hard to define one single sprint goal for their sprint, and so they don’t bother with one at all. In this instance I would recommend setting more than one sprint goal! Working towards 2 or even 3 complimentary targets is surely better than not working towards one at all.

This feels a lot better...

This feels a lot better…

Backlog grooming is the other practice that I see slipping. I’ve even seen a few teams who just stop doing it altogether. By backlog grooming I mean making sure the backlog is relevant and up-to-date, and that the upcoming stories are of an acceptable standard.
When backlog grooming starts to deteriorate I see scrum teams really struggling. Firstly they struggle to get through planning because the stories are not broken down or thought-through sufficiently. Secondly they struggle to work on the stories because they aren’t of an acceptable standard, thirdly they get interrupted with re-work from the previous sprint (because the stories were unclear and so they built the wrong thing), and fourthly the backlog becomes a big scary mess of out-of-date stories and only the Product Owner knows if they’re still relevant or not.
As you can probably see, failure to properly do backlog grooming can seriously impact a team’s ability to deliver high quality solutions on time. This is why backlog grooming is so important.
So what can you do if you see backlog grooming slipping? It’s easy to say “Just make sure it gets done”, but that just doesn’t work. I’ve also seen senior managers forcing stories into a sprint knowing full well that the stories weren’t of an acceptable standard. The result is the same, stories that are unfit for consumption.
If this situation sounds at all familiar, I recommend adopting a more disciplined approach to accepting stories into a sprint – this is your first layer of protection against poor-quality stories. I encourage the use of the INVEST principle (or rather the NEST principle – I’m not too bothered about the I, and the V).

If you’re not already familiar, here’s what INVEST stands for:

  • I is for Independent, meaning each story should not have to rely heavily on any others. I ignore this one simply for a happier life
  • N is for Negotiable, but I like to think it just stands for Now Go And Talk To Someone, because I like to use it to remind people that a story is the starting point for a conversation, not a massive requirements document!
  • V is for Valuable. This one’s straightforward, but for me a bit superfluous. If a story isn’t valuable then what’s it doing on the backlog on the first place?
  • E is for Estimable. If the story is impossible to estimate to any degree of confidence then it’s too risky and needs breaking down or time-boxing.
  • S means Small. Sort of related to Estimable. But if a story is too large then that should set off alarm bells. Smaller is better when it comes to stories.
  • T stands for Testable. Yup, I’m afraid we’re going to have to think about how we’re going to test the story!!

You could try to make sure that your backlog is split up into 2 pots of stories, those that have been INVESTed (or NESTed, if you’re more like me) and those that haven’t. Be clear that you can only accept stories from the NESTed pot. If you find yourself in this situation and you’ve adopted the NESTed approach, then let me know how it goes!

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