Scrum History — The evolution of the Sprint Goal

Scrum then and now, part 6

Willem-Jan Ageling
Jul 10 · 6 min read

Scrum has been around for years. Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber presented it to the world at OOPSLA in 1995. They based it on “The New New Product Development Game“ (1986) by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka.

Since 1995, many elements of Scrum have not changed at all. By contrast, some other parts of Scrum have continued evolving. With this series I aim to show you how radically Scrum has changed over the years. Through this I wish to achieve transparency on why certain ideas about Scrum materialised and help raise understanding on the current definition of Scrum.

With this article I aim to give you an overview of the evolution of the Sprint Goal through the years. The Sprint Goal is a very important aspect of Scrum. With Scrum you wish to give teams a goal and let them decide themselves how to reach this goal. With a well defined Sprint Goal Development Teams know what they need to do in a Sprint.

The New New Product Development Game

The paper that started the ball rolling — ‘The New New Product Development Game’ — already states that teams should be given a goal instead of a clear-cut plan, allowing them to have a lot of freedom to determine HOW to reach the goal:

“Top management kicks off the development process by signaling a broad goal or general strategic direction. It rarely hands out a clear-cut new product concept or a specific plan. But it offers a project team a wide measure of freedom and also establishes extremely challenging goals” — The New New Product Development Game by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka

This is one of the key aspects of the approach that evolved into Scrum: give teams a goal and let teams decide themselves HOW to reach this goal. This requires a self-organising and cross-functional teams.

This — together with the concept of “the Rugby approach” — is why this paper from Takeuchi and Nonaka is considered to be the start of Scrum.

The first Scrum paper — 1995

With the OOPSLA paper in 1995, Sutherland and Schwaber introduced their own adaptation of Scrum. This paper discussed how a comprehensive backlog list should be created. It doesn’t describe how this happens and there’s certainly no mention of a Sprint Goal.

Instead of giving the team the freedom to determine how to reach the Sprint Goal the team got the freedom to determine how to finish the selected items. This is an important nuance and feels like a step back compared with Takeuchi and Nonaka.

SCRUM: An extension pattern language for hyperproductive software development — 1998

There’s one spot where the words “Sprint” and “Goal” are used in one sentence:

“The goal of a Sprint is to complete as much quality software as possible and to ensure real progress, not paper milestones as alibi.” — Mike Beedle, Martine Devos, Yonat Sharon, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber 1998

Obviously this is not about the Sprint Goal. But there’s also this:

“The team selects a cohesive group of top priority Backlog, that — once completed — will have reached an objective, or milestone. This is stated as the Sprint’s objective.” — Mike Beedle, Martine Devos, Yonat Sharon, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber 1998

The Sprint Objective is the first version of the Sprint Goal.

First Scrum Book 2001

The book “Agile Software Development with Scrum” introduced many things, including the Sprint Goal. However, also here the Sprint Goal is crafted by the team to fit the selected backlog items:

“Working with the Product Owner, management and customers, the team identifies the Product Backlog that it beliefs it can develop during the next Sprint.” — “Agile Software Development with Scrum” Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle

And then:

“Having selected the Product Backlog, a Sprint Goal is crafted” — “Agile Software Development with Scrum” Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle

The book mentions the Sprint Goal quite often:

  • The team should include all the people required to be able to meet the Sprint Goal.
  • They work in Sprints to reach the Sprint Goal, finishing the selected items on the Sprint Backlog.
  • There is some room to choose another approach than planned as long as the Sprint Goal is not endangered.
  • The Sprint can be cancelled when the Sprint Goal becomes obsolete.
  • At the Sprint Review the team and the stakeholders discuss if and how the Sprint Goal was met.

The Sprint Goal became the measure of progress and success. From 2001 to 2010 these practices remained the standard on how to define and work with the Sprint Goal.

First, Second and Third edition of Scrum Guide — 2010, 2011

The first three Scrum Guide versions still followed the order of first selecting Backlog Items and then defining the Sprint Goal, as can be seen here:

“In the first part, the Product Owner presents the top priority Product Backlog to the Team. They mutually decide what functionality to develop during the next Sprint.” — Scrum Guide 2010

And then:

“Having selected the Product Backlog, a Sprint Goal is crafted. The Sprint Goal is an objective that will be met through the implementation of the Product Backlog.” — Scrum Guide 2010

The most prominent change is that the Daily Scrum is now also specifically used to inspect progress towards the Sprint Goal. However the three questions asked at the Daily Scrum don’t emphasize this, as can be seen below:

“- What has been accomplished since the last meeting?

- What will be done before the next meeting?

- What obstacles are in the way?” — Scrum Guide 2013

Fourth edition of Scrum Guide — 2013

The fourth Scrum Guide — published in 2013 — finally gives the Sprint Goal a pivotal place at the Sprint Planning. Teams now first discuss the objective of the Sprint and then choose the Backlog Items that will help meet the objective.

“The Product Owner discusses the objective that the Sprint should achieve and the Product Backlog items that, if completed in the Sprint, would achieve the Sprint Goal.” — Scrum Guide 2013

So the 2013 Scrum Guide established that the objective combined with the selected Backlog Items allow you to create the Sprint Goal.

In 2013 Scrum went full circle and returned to the essence of using a goal that determines what to do. Just like 1986 paper “The New New Product Development Game” did.

Also essential is that the famous three questions during the Daily Scrum got an update:

“- What did I do yesterday that helped the Development Team meet the Sprint Goal?

- What will I do today to help the Development Team meet the Sprint Goal?

- Do I see any impediment that prevents me or the Development Team from meeting the Sprint Goal?” — Scrum Guide 2013

All practices involving the Sprint Goal that were established in 2013 are still true today.

Conclusion

The Sprint Goal is pivotal in Scrum. Teams know what they need to accomplish by defining the Sprint Goal. At the Daily Scrum and Sprint Review teams inspect and adapt based on the Sprint Goal. Defining a “goal” as the way to determine what you wish to achieve already surfaced in the first Scrum paper (1986) and the evolution of the Sprint Goal in Scrum is a very interesting one. It tells you a lot about the evolution of Scrum over the years. Giving teams a goal and empowering them to decide how to reach it is an important element of self-organising, autonomous Scrum teams.

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Willem-Jan Ageling

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Interested in ways to work better together. I love the discussion with open-minded people.

Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.