Using the 5 whys for self-reflection

I was early into coaching a new Scrum team when our client contract came to a grinding halt due to a significant oversight. Until this was resolved, we were directed to cease all coaching which couldn’t have happened at a worse possible time.

You see, the team was approaching their very first sprint review along with their normal planning, retrospective, and refinement events. I was excited to witness the initial software demonstration and observe stakeholder feedback. I was also looking forward to teasing out the next epic with the product owner and team.

I diligently followed the direction given to me. I let the team know they were temporarily on their own and sent them off on their way, minus their training wheels. A day later, their “pre-refinement” meeting was cancelled. This is not an official Scrum event, but a more intimate discussion that includes the product owner, Scrum master and UX designer. The focus is to build up the backlog so the team has stories they can pull from during refinement.

Resisting the urge to jump in and help

Following that cancellation, I received another for the team’s story refinement event, which included the following note: “The team has decided to focus on new work for this hour, we will pick up next week.” I peeked into their product backlog (yes, I know I was supposed to be hands off – but I’m nosy) and I counted two stories in total. We recommend that the product backlog contains enough work to fill 2-3 sprints. This team barely had enough items to pull in as stretch stories!

My first instinct was to reach out to the product owner and Scrum master to persuade them to reconsider by explaining the importance of the refinement. To reinforce that sprint planning becomes relatively simple because the Scrum team starts the planning with a clear, well-analyzed, and carefully estimated set of stories.

Also, I would have liked to dive deeper into why the team felt that focusing on the new sprint was of utmost importance. Did they overcommit during sprint planning? This was day two of their sprint – were they already feeling anxiety or angst?

Asking “why” instead of overreacting

Instead of overreacting, I paused to reflect on my strong desire to insulate them, using the 5 Why’s as guidance. The “5 Why’s” method is a handy tool to use to uncover our internal motivations, and ultimately helps us to determine which path to take.

For me, it’s the bridge between panic and stillness, and the exercise begins by identifying a problem statement that defines the issue at hand. 

In this instance, my problem statement was this: I feel the need to redirect the team.

  • Why? I want to protect them.
  • Why? So they don’t experience the distress and frustration of a last-minute scramble.  
  • Why? Because it’s a chaotic and stressful feeling when you arrive at sprint planning and realize there’s insufficient work ready for the sprint.
  • Why? Because the time that’s been set aside for sprint planning will need to be lengthened to allow for story refinement, which means a longer and more arduous event.
  • Why? Because they can’t move forward with sprint planning until they have their product backlog determined.

As you know, self-reflection is one of the most important skills of an Agile coach. In reviewing my answers, it became apparent that this was not a life-or-death situation. I’ve been reinforcing the Agile mindset, Scrum values, and principles. I’ve guided and walked along side of them, while teaching the nuances of Scrum patterns (and anti-patterns). I’ve done my part. The direction they decide to take is ultimately up to them.

Deciding to stand down

With my whys firmly in place, I made the decision to do absolutely nothing.

I figured the worst-case scenario is that the team arrives at the next sprint planning meeting and are faced with an empty product backlog. They’ll inspect, adjust, and adapt. Later, they’ll reflect during their retrospective and will arrive at a few solid action items.

In short, they will learn. On their own. And isn’t that what agility is all about?

Learn more about Vaco’s Senior Agile Coach, Kimberly Andrikaitis here.


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