If the language of Scrum sounds intimidating to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
I get it, Scrum can be difficult to understand at first, but it’s a lot easier when you think about it as simply different steps that a team moves through as they build a working product, then continue to build and improve it.
To help show what I mean, let me introduce you to the WorldsSmallestOnlineBookStore.
The WorldsSmallestOnlineBookStore is a fictional product we use to demonstrate how Scrum works in the real world. The bookstore caters to the view that Amazon is wrong. Readers don’t want an infinite supply of books that they have to spend hours agonizing over and deciding from. They just want the right choice for them, so they can quickly buy and then spend more time reading.
So we’re going to join the team who have already built and launched an early version of the bookstore website.
So far, the team has a website up and running where a book buyer can visit the site, find books recommended by staff, and purchase them. There is a rudimentary shopping cart system in place, but more features are needed.
We’ll use this scenario to demonstrate the different aspects of Scrum, in a way that moves the Scrum team through the process so you can understand how it’s structured, and – even more importantly – why.
Our Story So Far
But before we let them jump into Sprint Planning, the first event in a Sprint, we need to clear up some common confusion. And to do that, we need to explain what Product Backlog Refinement is, and why it should happen before Sprint Planning ever begins.
Product Backlog Refinement – Before the Sprint Starts
The Product Backlog is the big picture list of all the items that the Team intends to build for a product or project in the near term.
Product Backlog Refinement is when the Product Owner and the Team refine that list to prepare for Sprint Planning, by ensuring that:
- the Team understand the work items in the Product Backlog so they build the correct thing (e.g. User Stories)
- the Team give their best guess as to how much effort Product Backlog item will take to complete (Estimation)
- and the Product Owner prioritizes the Product Backlog queue for what is next most important
This Product Backlog Refinement is preparation work that happens before the first Sprint, and during, every subsequent Sprint.
That’s pretty self-explanatory, but let’s touch briefly on User Stories and Estimation.
The team can’t build the right product unless they spend time with the Product Owner learning their current thinking. They do this by discussing each upcoming Product Backlog Item with the Product Owner to understand how it relates to a user’s needs.
This is where User Stories come in to use by many teams. In our WorldsSmallestOnlineBookStore example, Paula has collaborated with the team to create User Stories that describe each feature in a language that the whole team understands. Each User Story is a short description that acts as a reminder to the Team members of the bigger discussion they had around the user’s needs. They can be handy, but it’s important to note that User Stories are not officially part of, or required by, Scrum.
Estimation is when the Team … well, estimates… how much work is required for each of those items on the list, and how long each will take to accomplish.
The Team also split large Product Backlog Items into smaller, more manageable, parts during Product Backlog Refinement.
Many people think that Sprint Planning includes reviewing the Product Backlog Items (or User Stories) and Estimating them, but that just isn’t effective. Yet too many teams do this in Planning, and I strongly recommend against it. If you do it in a single session it takes forever and makes it difficult to also focus on planning. For a host of reasons, this leads to a crappy Sprint.
The Product Backlog Refinement preparation work should be ongoing and happen at any convenient time during the Sprint. This keeps the understanding about what they’re building current and consistent among all team members. That way, when Sprint Planning actually starts, the Team already has the best information to work with.
So now our World’s Smallest Online Bookstore Team has refined their Product Backlog and they can start their Sprint with a Sprint Planning session and focus on the question, “What is our Goal? Which Product Backlog Items can we do this Sprint that contribute towards our goal?”
Sprint Planning – Goal Setting
The Developers, along with ScrumMaster Steve and Product Owner Paula, meet at the beginning of their 10th Sprint for Sprint Planning. They start by discussing what they think they can accomplish in the next two weeks. This will become their Sprint Goal.
Paula explains that she has been getting a lot of requests for the ability to send gift cards to friends. She also wants to allow authors to give their readers discount codes, so that they can promote their new books.
The Team spends half an hour discussing the Backlog Items with Product Owner Paula to get more clarity, and they craft the following summary statement: “Buy, Send and Use Gift Card” as their Sprint Goal.
They decide that handling the discount code is too much work for the next two weeks and so they don’t do it this Sprint.
Sprint Planning – Sprint Backlog
After setting the Sprint goal, they walk through the product backlog, in priority order, determining which Product Backlog items they forecast they can achieve this Sprint.
Once the Team has determined what they’re capable of accomplishing in the Sprint, they finish planning by discussing how they are going to accomplish the work. Many teams also use this time to break their Product Backlog Items down into tasks. Since their discussion will be technical, Product Owner Paula steps out of the room to work on other things, but stays nearby in case the Team has follow-up questions.
After completing their Sprint Planning, the Team takes their list of Product Backlog Items with associated tasks and turn them into a Sprint Backlog (effectively a Task Board for the Sprint).
The Team selects two Product Backlog Items (PBIs) to start work on immediately. They break into groups: Tonia, Martin, and Doug tackle “Buy a $10 Gift Card”, and Brad, Ian, and Kirby work on “Send Gift Card by Email.”
For the next hour or two they work together to ensure that they have precise agreement about what they’re building and what the underlying need is. This will reduce the chance of a surprise after the Product Backlog Item is implemented when one Team member says that item isn’t built in the way they expected. For the next few days, they work on these PBIs.
To ensure everyone on the Team is collaborating and are focused on the goal, (“Buy, Send, and Use Gift Card”) they meet for Daily Scrum.
Daily Scrum is a short event that occurs first thing in the morning on each day of the Sprint. The Team stands in front of their Sprint Backlog to review where they’re at and recheck their progress towards the goal they set for the Sprint.
Each Team member explains:
– What did I complete towards achieving the Sprint goal in the past day?
– What do I commit to today towards achieving the Sprint goal?
– What is slowing our progress towards meeting the Sprint goal?
Since Daily Scrum is a self organizing activity for and by the team, they should adapt the questions to help them meet the need: improving collaboration and completion of the Sprint Goal.
Product Backlog Refinement… again…
Sometime during the Sprint the team work together for a couple of hours to refine the Product Backlog. This is the activity we discussed as happening before the Sprint began. The team work to see if all of the existing Product Backlog Items still make sense. They also split larger items as they move up the product backlog, and they estimate in preparation for the next Sprint Planning.
We do Product Backlog Refinement frequently to make sure that the Team always has a good understanding of what’s coming next in the Product, and to have the information needed for Sprint Planning at the start of each Sprint.
End of Sprint
As the Sprint draws to a close, our Team has had some successes and some challenges. Throughout the two-week Sprint, the Team collaborated to build and test the Product Backlog Items. In addition, they checked in with their Product Owner on a regular basis to ensure that they were delivering the product she expected. They have completed four of the five Items that they forecast they would achieve in Sprint Planning. They also checked them against the Definition of Done.
The Definition of Done is a checklist of specific criteria that the Team compiled to ensure that each item is, indeed, finished to a high standard of quality and is deliverable. It’s not a set-it-once and move on kind of thing. It gets updated frequently as the team learns more about their product and the technical environment, and as their skills grow.
On the last day of the Sprint, the team gather with Paula (Product Owner), Steve (ScrumMaster) and various stakeholders to review what they have built. In the Sprint Review, Paula reminds people of the Sprint Goal, explains which Product Backlog Items, have been completed. She checks them against the Definition of Done list that the Team has previously compiled.
The “Done” items are shared so everyone has a good understanding of how the changes actually work. Ideally this isn’t done as a demonstration but, instead, with the stakeholders themselves using the done items. The intention is to engage them in the actual use of the product and ensure that their feedback is grounded in that personal experience. The group (including executives, end users and other interested people) collaborate on deciding what is the next most valuable thing to be worked on.
After a lot of discussion, it’s decided that the gift card features have been well enough implemented and that discount codes are no longer the highest priority.
The Team is now being asked to refocus on items that help to sell more books to the same customer.
The Product Owner wants bundle pricing – if you buy the book that you’re looking at along with two other books, you get a small discount. The hope is that this feature of the website will increase the volume of books being sold.
The resulting new Product Backlog Item is: “Related Products – Bundled Pricing” and it’s agreed that Paula will add this to the Backlog before the next Sprint. This is a great example of the power of Scrum and its ability to adapt quickly to the changing needs of a client.
Once the Sprint Review is complete, the Team, including Product Owner and Scrum Master, reconvene for a Sprint Retrospective to look at the last two weeks, with the goal of improving how they worked together in the last Sprint.
As a result of their discussion, the Team identifies several things that contributed to them missing the goal for the Sprint:
- They over-committed.
- They took on large Product Backlog Items without splitting them down to smaller Product Backlog Items.
- They put too much work into progress.
For the next Sprint they identified several improvements they could make:
- Always split large Product Backlog Items into several smaller parts.
- Never have more than 3 Product Backlog Items in progress at once (this forces people to collaborate and focus on completing items).
- Find a way to start testing the original the Product Backlog Items before they’re complete
Having completed their Sprint Retrospective, the Team is ready to start planning the next Sprint tomorrow morning.
Read more stories of the WorldsSmallestOnlineBookStore team finding their way with Scrum in Scrum by Example.
Frequently Asked Questions About Scrum and Scrum Events
Our story tries to answer many of the common questions about Scrum, but story-telling format can’t answer all questions. Below are some of the most common questions we hear.
What is Agile vs. Scrum?
Agile itself is just what founders of the movement agreed to 2001. There is no Agile methodology. Rather Agile is four value statements and twelve accompanying principles. You can’t “do Agile” because there isn’t enough detail there to follow a process.
In contrast, Scrum is a framework, and it provides just enough guidance to help your team get organized and then gets out of your way. As a framework, it avoids telling you how to do your job.
What is an Agile sprint? What is the purpose of a Sprint?
As mentioned above, Agile doesn’t have any practices and so there aren’t Agile Sprints. The Scrum Framework is where Sprints come from. In Scrum, a Sprint is a fixed period of time where the team turn ideas into a product. Each Sprint is expected to produce a Product Increment – a small change(s) in the product. This is at the core of Scrum.
In Scrum, the Sprint acts as focusing tool, getting the team tackle a specific goal. At the beginning of a Sprint, the team plan what work they will complete . At the end, they examine what they built, with the intent to make it better and reflect on how they worked as a team. The dual improvement process – product and process/team – sets Scrum apart from other approaches.
What are the 4 phases of Sprint in Agile?
No Agile approach has phases. Phases (like requirements gathering, implementation and testing) are things that happen in the traditional world. In the Scrum approach, every Sprint is intended to build a working product increment. So every Sprint needs a little bit of requirements gathering, some implementation and testing, etc. Effective teams learn how to do this continuously.
How many days is a Sprint in Agile/Scrum?
Before we answer this question we need to step back and ask ourselves why we have Sprints. As covered earlier, the Sprint is a focusing tool and each Sprint should create an new increment. At the end of every Sprint, the team pauses to get feedback on the Product Increment they built. They also take the time to learn about improving their process and how they work as a team.
The Scrum Guide sets the upper bound for Sprint length at one calendar month. Most teams now select shorter Sprint lengths of 1 – 2 weeks, rather than longer 3 weeks to 1 calendar month periods. When selecting the Sprint length, we need to balance allowing enough time to build something meaningful with the need to get feedback (both on product and team). Too short of a Sprint (2 days?), and it will be hard to do meaningful work. Too long of a Sprint, and feedback opportunities will have been missed. The latter is especially important, because the faster we get the feedback, the faster we learn. Optimizing for speed of learning maximizes the amount of value the organization will deliver in the long run.