Scrum: The art of what not to do

In Jeff Sutherland’s bestselling book, Scrum – The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, he describes the beauty, simplicity, and discipline of Scrum. I often reference his book to prospective clients and customers when engaging with them. It’s a great read and describes “how individuals, teams, and organizations can genuinely accelerate by selecting the highest priority work to complete, and by ignoring the rest of it. Although Scrum helps to prioritize and identify what will get done, more importantly, it helps organizations and teams to declare what will not get attention.” And that my friends, is where we tend to run into trouble!

Organizations, teams, and people rush to the doors of Scrum like a New Year’s Resolution hoping to get themselves in shape, to once and for all get some long-awaited projects and deliverables DONE. And like those resolutions, about two months in, they have either bitten the dust entirely or have ceased to resemble the initial intention of completed work and organizational fitness.

Here is an example of a client situation in which we can all relate. They have a portfolio that is approximately ten times the size of the staff they currently employ. All the projects are a MUST for the coming year. Actual results show that the team is finishing work representing about 50% of the total capacity of the workforce! 

Wait for just a second! What is happening to the other 50% of capacity? Is this now, Scrum – the Art of doing Half the Work in Twice the Time? That seems entirely messed up, but unfortunately, it’s more common than we think.

The key here is that while the portfolio of work to be done is being identified and declared, what has not been officially announced, loudly, is an organizational edict of programs and work not prioritized. Which should not get any attention or capacity.

Without that simple, clear communication, we can find some interesting behavior behind the scenes. What I have often seen are secret negotiations from a few “Program Sponsors,” whose work did not make the cut. We find them working with and pressuring team members to get a “little of this and a little of that…when they have a couple of available hours,” maybe in exchange for a bagel or a donut!

This type of drain on the organization can build up. I’ve seen some situations where capacity drain can be in the 30-60% range. The capacity that should have been dedicated to the work that was prioritized and selected. In fact, in one client, a group of nine Scrum teams identified that 1/3 of them were spending less than an hour per day on the sprint selected work due to redirection requests!

For a moment, let’s assume positive intent. Our jilted program sponsors may simply be aware of some pauses in prioritized work and are just looking to fill idle time, for the benefit of the entire team. That could be the case, or maybe not, it doesn’t really matter as it’s a simple problem to solve. 

As Scrum declares, we need clear, concise communications to everyone indicating what work will and what will not receive attention. At least for now– not necessarily forever. We need to ensure all available time and capacity is spent in the pursuit of the sprint commitments. This way, we position ourselves to receive the full benefit and fitness of agile organizational discipline!

Now let me ask you. What are you NOT doing?

About Jim Grundner