Agile tales: Failed sprint

news · 9 years ago
by Miklós Vargyas
Speaking about failures (see: the demo effect), I often hear from scrum fellows that "our sprint failed". I always wonder: what does that mean? The usual explanation goes like "We could not finish all stories". "What!? Hang on a minute!" - I say. "That's not a failed sprint." "Did you work at all?" - I ask. "Yes, of course we did. We worked hard throughout the sprint but we did not finish some stories." "Hm, then perhaps you failed with your size estimates (which is just normal), but not with your sprint!"

A sprint fails only if nothing was learned in its course. If no work was done. If the team went on holiday or played billiard for two weeks. If learning has happened, about the product, about the stories, about the process, about the team themselves, whatever, then there's no failure. It can be very demotivating, demoralizing and even devastating to hear from the PO "The sprint failed". As it was the team that worked in the sprint, their work constitutes the sprint. The team made their commitment, and thus the "sprint failed" sounds like: you failed. Shame on you. This is a judgement. The strongest the PO or anyone can say: it's not done. The sprint DoD was not met. This is not a judgement, but the perception of the situation. There's nothing wrong with failure in general. Agile fosters and promotes the fail early, fail often, fail fast principle. What is a failure in agile? An example is when it turns out that a story cannot be done because of some technical difficulties or due to insufficient negotiation with the user etc. So what characterizes the various forms failures? The failure is when the work we started cannot be done. When something really and unchangeable went wrong. When we realize that from that point there is no way ahead. When we need to find an alternative, start it over and go other way. But when something (story, whatever) has not yet been done because time is over, then it has nothing to do with failure! When the work has not done yet, then it can be (and in most cases it should be) continued. If that piece of work still has to be done then we start a new sprint. When something has not yet been done and we declare that it is a failure, then we are less likely to feel motivated to keep going. Why should I continue after I failed? Why don't we (or the PO - and here I'm not talking about our PO) say instead that "It is great work! I understand that it has not been done yet, this few criteria are not yet met, but the direction is good, and I can see that it can be done. So keep going and doing it. It will be an awesome feature!" Then the team will be very motivated to finish it. And, as a PO, it is your best interest to give the team one final boost that enables them to finish that story. We all should go beyond the carrot and stick "motivation" by leaving the old command-and-control like management attitudes behind.