One of the great things about Scrum is that you have pre-defined meetings and ceremonies that keep the cadence of your Sprints moving so that you are always feeding the development machine with appropriate and prepped activities. You are grooming and planning your upcoming sprints and ensuring that each upcoming Story meets its definition of ready so that when the Sprint starts your team are “sprinting” at full capacity; you’re identifying your business priorities so that you are working on the correct functionality; and you are reviewing your process to check for areas of improvement. But what happens when your meetings become your bottleneck and when your ceremonies fail?
Recently I attended a planning meeting that exhibited the above characteristics. The meeting comprised of the complete Scrum team reviewing tickets for the next Sprint. Each story was dissected and elaborated by members of the team; questions were raised about a story’s efficacy and it was clear that the team were lacking the understanding to validate how each story would be accepted by the business. The team had been trained on Scrum and knew what to do but had fallen into a trap that we often see and needed immediate help. There was a universal look of exhaustion as the meeting went on and worse, the enthusiasm for Scrum as a means to manage business requirements and their implementation was fading fast.
To me the issue was obvious and had nothing to do with Scrum or the process but with people adopting a new process and needing a helping hand: reminding them of how to do things. Time wasted leads to unproductiveness and demotivates the team so this must be addressed quickly to get things back on track. It was a kind of entropy fuelled by the increase in boredom as the length of the meeting grew. The next planning session by contrast took 45 minutes, was highly productive, executed with energy and there was even time left over for looking at ways to improve the next meeting. So what happened?
Firstly we prepared some cheat sheets reminding everyone of the pre-requisites for the meeting, its purpose, and the do’s and cardinal don’ts. This was the cornerstone of our fix. Our aide memoire was then circulated two days prior to the next meeting allowing everyone to be ready and complete their required inputs and to really strive to get each ticket to a definition of ready ahead of the meeting. In the meeting we introduced a new opening format, which was to present the cheat sheet and to remind everyone what they were here to do. We also introduced a time-wasting alert. One thing I’d noticed in the previous meeting was that conversations, which were inappropriate for the meeting, were derailing the team. We’ve all been there and we’ve all done it but the Scrum meeting should be focused and efficient. We added a “Britain’s got Talent” approach to meeting deviation which people from the UK maybe familiar. Attendees could not interrupt the flow of a conversation unless two or more people made an “X” with their arms in the meeting indicating that two or more people felt the meeting was going off-piste. We selected two people as we wanted consensus that deviation was actually occurring. Requiring two people to hit the buzzer introduced fun to the proceedings and meant that a single individual could not block the flow of the meeting without agreement. It worked! And it worked rather well. This bit of fun was taken as a non-aggressive and empowering reminder that brought focus back to the team and only needed to be used a couple of times before it wasn’t needed again. Using this kind of gamification reinforced the purpose of the meeting in a simple way by reminding the team that the meeting was there for a specific purpose and to leave other discussions for another time. Of course, the extra preparation the team undertook ahead of the meeting meant that the opportunity to deviate was reduced.
The cheat sheets which we posted on the wall are now allowed to be embellished as the maturity of the team grows and serve as a reminder to keep people focused on their immediate task; they have become a great tool for the adoption of Scrum; and to help educate new or infrequent participants as to the house-rules for the meeting. This experience reminds me that what is learnt in the classroom can be challenging to implement in the wild and often takes a little innovation and adaptability to succeed.
By Paul Tough