At Devex we try to optimise every aspect of our work and at times try radical new things. In this post I describe one of these journeys, that led us from Scrum, to Six Week Cycles, to Frankenscrumcyle and a possible future.
In the product team at Devex we used a pretty standard Scrum process for about four years. In the beginning with one team in Manila and one in Barcelona and later with one or two teams just in Barcelona. As it is the case for most companies this wasn’t a 100% out of the book Scrum, but slightly adapted to our needs.
We always had one week sprints, with Demo and Retrospective on Fridays. Grooming on Thursday and a daily stand-up meeting. Everything managed with Jira.
It was going pretty well, but there were certainly some aspects we were not quite happy with.
- Very flexible in adjusting work to requirements
- Easier team / resource allocation, we can pull the things from the backlog which fit the available team
- Communication is encouraged through various meetings
- It is widely used and very easy to find help and information
- Transparent by relying on Jira and communication
- We had some tech backlog management, even if it wasn’t perfect
- Too many meeting with everyone, even if they are not relevant to all
- Jumping between tasks as there tended to be a lot of unrelated issues in each sprint
- Bigger teams, which also didn’t always work on the same project
- Micro management through detailed Jira issues and easy access to the work in progress
- No fixed scope for a project, it is easy to add yet another sprint to a project as you can always find another feature to add
- Not dotting the i’s for a project, even though the project took forever we never had a chance to give it a final polish and to fix small bugs we had left over
- Difficult to fit in tech tasks as features always seem to trump tech backlog
- No space between projects to regroup, you always feel rushed
- Jumping between projects for some people, as you would be assigned depending on requirements
Six Week Cycle
At some point some people suggested trying something created, used and advocated by Basecamp called here the Six Week Cycle. You can read up on it their posts, but the basic idea is that you have a focused work of six weeks for one project (or a collection of smaller ones). The six weeks are chosen to limit the scope (“there’s a great six week version of nearly everything”) and to allow a time without distractions from other projects. Between cycles there is a time to regroup, clean up and plan the next cycle.
Teams are relatively small with up to four members improving in-team communication.
We gave this a go for nearly six months and saw some advantages, but already run into problems relatively early on.
- Scope limit, because there is a fixed amount of time we have to reduce the scope to release something
- Buffer week, a time to regroup and plan for the future in between projects
- Enough time to also work on the technical side of projects and not just user facing features
- Deeper understanding of product by developers, because they are bound to one project for the cycle and often had direct contact with stakeholders
- Smaller teams, compared to the multifunctional scrum teams
- Autonomy / self organization to be flexible in planning order of tasks
- Fast in team communication, due to the smaller team
- Less context switching as there is always just one project per person
- Less irrelevant meetings, this is mostly about the grooming and whole team kickoffs
- More direct contact with relevant stakeholders
- Time to consider in between projects
- Less reactive as the scope should be predefined and the cycles are too long to quickly change
- Fixed six week length of cycles doesn’t always fit the projects
- Short three weeks cycles, which er also tried, had a very high ramping up/down overhead, compared to working time
- The buffer week was not always used for the intended purpose, the project continued into it and planning moved into the cycle. A problem with reducing the scope.
- Team composition dictated the solution, instead of the opposite
- Not flexible enough to adjust to projects, team or changes
- Lack of communication and transparency between teams and to the outside (infrastructure, QA, planning, … )
- Not widely used and difficult to find documentation or experiences from others
- Some confusion about where to fit tech tasks into the cycles
- Progress during the cycle was not very transparent
I have to confess that I was not happy with the Six Week Cycle idea from the start. But I was willing to give it a go, because I saw problems with our Scrum and was hoping to at least learn from the experience.
One problem was the lack of information about the whole idea. In the beginning there were only two blog posts by Basecamp themselves and then a few others who also gave it a go. Beginning of this year Basecamp released a series of YouTube videos with more insight. One interesting insight is that they just use it for two teams themselves, all other teams are organised in a different way.
In the end I decided that we had to change again and I had to convince the team that this new way is better, even if it won’t be perfect either.
It needed a name to sell it, so I made up Frankescrumcycle, because it takes ideas from the Six Week Cycles and Scrum. In reality it is mostly Scrum, but with some hard rules to avoid some of the problems we previously had.
Fully epic based
Each team is going to work only on one epic per sprint, to allow focusing on the work and context switching. This is a takeaway from the cycles and also allows deep diving into each project and involvement with stakeholders.
Team size will depend on the projects, but should be two to four developers.
Epics from one to three sprints
Depending on a rough estimation and how much value an epic brings we can decide on the length of each epic. This takes the idea of limiting scope from cycles and avoids the never ending epics of Scrum.
This also includes some planning and ramping down at the end of the epic, closing all the remaining issues and tech tasks for this epic.
The different lengths are allowing a bit more flexibility for different sized projects or value.
Optional epic extension
Each epic can be extended by one sprint and only one sprint.
If the team, together with product owner and stakeholders decided that an extension is necessary an epic can be extended by one sprint.
Sprints are now two weeks and this makes extending expensive option, so it shouldn’t be the standard option for an epic.
Bug / tech tasks / stakeholder request sprints
As with the current small batch team, we are going to have some sprints which are just issue based. We can work on our smaller tasks and bugs that pile up when we are focusing on the epics.
These should also be scheduled between product owners and stakeholders (including technology stakeholders).
One epic = one slack channel
For each epic we are going to have one slack channel, which will be closed at the end of the epic.
No issue estimation and grooming
At least for now. We are going to watch the number of stories instead. I checked historical sprint data and story points and issue number burndown charts behave pretty much the same.
Each epic team has to figure out how to best organize their stories to fit them in the time decided on.
Something we are picking up from the #NoEstimates movement, which really is a no time/story point movement. You are still estimating the size of stories and split them up in reasonable chunks.
One board with epic filters
For now we are just going to use one Jira board and project and will add or remove filters for epics, whenever we start a new one.
This also means that everyone would use stories to make it possible for others to see what is going on and for QA and infrastructure to see what is being launched or needs testing. During the Six Week Cycle experiment some teams decided to use Google Docs to organise their work, which made it really hard to find out about the status of the different projects.
Instead of daily stand-ups we are going to have a slack channel with a daily reminder. (spoiler: this is not really used)
This is just to post blockers or information that might be relevant to other teams. For status updates we have the Jira board.
We have been running with this for a while now and it improved some of the problems we had seen previously.
But some things didn’t work as planned.
We are having too many Small Batch sprints to accommodate the many requests from different stakeholders. This kind of brings us back to jumping between tasks and random backlog of Scrum.
The #Ping channel doesn’t work. It is no replacement for an in person or even hangout stand-up.
This won’t scale in the future. Our team is growing and managing four epic teams at the same time is borderline, five or six is going to be impractical. Managing this all on one Jira board is also cumbersome.
Constantly forming new teams is also confusing and teams don’t really gel. The often cited “forming, storming, norming, performing” doesn’t happen in a meaningful way and will get harder the larger the team becomes.
One of the problems we have at Devex is the number of different products. It makes it difficult to form product teams with the number of developers we have.
Until now we always had project teams that reformed after projects, with all the problems this brings. It would be nice though to move in the direction of product teams to align the teams with the company goals and avoid a lot of the context switching not only from the developers, but also the product owners and even stakeholders.
More on this in the future …