Why Not Skip Sprint Backlogs Completely?

Scrum is a straightforward way for new teams to start working both iteratively and incrementally in short timeboxes — a.k.a. sprints. However, despite careful planning and daily sync meetings, the sprint rarely results in a viable product. Do not blame that on scrum.

“Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”

While it is unclear if Henry Ford really said this, he truly cherished the idea of ​​following the plan, no questions asked. However, therein lies a crucial dividing line between two types of scrum teams: busyness-driven and value-driven teams.

Imagine that our team comes to our sprint planning meeting with a list of close deadlines, a map of dependencies on other teams in our organization, and a matrix of each team member’s skills and available hours in the upcoming sprint. Using all those perceived facts as restrictive constraints for our plan, we then begin to fill the sprint with small tasks — fractions of viable value, similar to how we prepare the Christmas turkey with stuffing. Our highest priority is to get the sprint filled to the brim. This diverse collection of small urgencies may unfortunately result in a strategy-free sprint, but at least we will be guaranteed to be 100 percent busy every minute and every hour. Output takes precedence over outcome since we are busyness-driven.

Busyness-driven teams consider upfront information about deadlines, dependencies, and capacity as governing constraints.

The value-driven team, on the other hand, starts its sprint planning by deciding on a single sprint goal. They are mono-goaling. What one thing would our users benefit most from when this sprint has ended? Or, in some cases, what is the best test we can perform to gain valuable insights? From that moment and until something else is said, that single goal is the Polaris for each and every team member. When my skills are not enough to contribute independently toward the sprint goal, I join a team member who has the proficiency I lack. That is, we become two brains working together on one problem and outcome takes precedence over output.

Swarming in One Direction

Working in pairs was one of the fundamental practices already in the first version of Extreme Programming, the mother of all agile processes. Dissolving the team’s internal silo structure gives us several advantages. It may act against inattentional blindness; you know, the radiologists and the gorilla. Quality is also raised since four eyes see more than two. The continuous review helps us instantly identify small oversights as well as knowledge gaps we were not even aware of. Nota bene, the group size is not limited to two collaborators. Ensemble programming is becoming increasingly popular. This transdisciplinary setup may allow us to take advantage of the phenomenon known as “The Wisdom of Crowds.”

A strategy-free focus might be beneficial in two circumstances. First, when the timeboxes are so short, say 25 minutes, that we often get the opportunity to redirect. (Hey, there’s a book about that!) Second, a strategy-free focus tends to be efficient when everything is known in advance, such as in automotive manufacturing. Here, we can deduce a reductionistic plan of tiny tasks to aggregate. The plan inevitably leads us to a viable product at a predetermined point in time.

However, for a scrum team facing unknown unknowns, the detailed sprint backlog tends to be more like an apple. It rots from within. We work hard, and from an outside view it seems like we are doing important things. The truth is that we are mostly busy with switching between tasks.

Are We Value-Driven or Busyness-Driven?

The revealing litmus test is how we round off our sprint planning meeting. In a busyness-driven scrum team, there will always be someone asking: “Does everyone have work to do for the full sprint?” In a value-driven team, the same person might say: “Does everybody know what is most important for our team in this sprint?”

Our sprint goal tips and tricks:

  • We prepare the sprint goal upfront and review it in the sprint planning.
  • The sprint goal is the first topic on our sprint planning agenda.
  • The sprint goal is the first topic in every daily scrum.
  • The sprint goal answers our question, “Why?”
  • We do not reverse-engineer a sprint goal from an already decided sprint backlog.
  • We do not have any “and” in sprint goals.
  • Our sprint goal is preferably a direction rather than an ideal place.

Staffan Nöteberg is the author of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf.

To save 35 percent on the ebook version of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, enter promo code innovation_2022 when you check out at The Pragmatic Bookshelf. The promo code is valid through July 15, 2022, and is not valid on prior purchases. You can also read The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated on Medium.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Staffan Nöteberg

Staffan Nöteberg


🌱 Twenty Years of Agile Coaching and Leadership • Monotasking and Pomodoro books (700.000 copies sold)