Procrastination — Scrum to rescue

Arvind Pal Singh
Jun 6, 2020 · 5 min read
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I am an avid learner of agile methodologies. I am also a master at the art of procrastination. I have been reading how to eliminate procrastination and could not stop thinking about how simple Scrum events have a possible cure for it.

Let me start with an example of procrastination — When I started writing this article, my brain prompted “how and where are nuclear missiles stored?”. After reading a few Quora and Reddit answers I came back to this article. Then I started thinking “How many stitches are present in a football?”. I am quite hopeful I am not the only one in this mirage of endless thoughts.

The eventual cost of such mental wandering is unnecessary fatigue, the guilt of lack of self-control and inability to give our best to the intended work.

The following are some of the most important causes of procrastination and how simple Scrum events help eliminate them.

1. Lack of clear goals

When we start working on a task, our brain constructs a visual plan to complete it. Brain imagines how success or failure will look like, what is the reward of completing it, what is the risk of not completing it. Without a definitive description of the goal, our brain struggles to visualize such a plan. We are likely to procrastinate if we fail to realize the reward of completing the task. Studies have suggested that our brain can be tricked into believing short term rewards by having a number of small achievable goals over the big ones.

Scrum to the rescue:

Scrum aims at the splitting of a large goal into multiple smaller manageable goals. A Scrum team typically has a release goal for say 3 months divided into a number of smaller sprints. Each sprint is guided by a sprint goal which takes the team a step closer to achieve the successful release. This visible division of goals helps the team get associated with the overall mission rather than the tasks.

Every task selected by the team has a clear Definition of Done making sure all aspects of the task are well understood.

2. Lack of clear priorities

When we get a long list of tasks without defined priorities, our brain struggles where to start? We may start working on lesser important tasks and realize it later. We tend to keep juggling a number of tasks without making much progress. This continuous shift of focus from a task to another makes the brain tired and tricks it to assume the goal is not achievable.

Scrum to the rescue:

Scrum aims at long term goals and short term detailed plans. Frequent discussions are held to make sure items delivering the highest value are properly prioritized. A team may use various prioritization mechanisms making sure different parameters like complexity, clarity, value delivered by the task are discussed.

A sprint starts from Sprint Planning where the team picks up their tasks that are likely to provide the highest value. The team plans only for that particular sprint. This ensures any miscalculation in prioritization will not have long term impact.

A team has an upper limit Sprint Capacity on the number of tasks it takes for a sprint. This also helps in selecting the most important items.

3. Lack of deadline & discipline

When we start working on a task with no foreseeable deadline, our brain is tricked into not taking it seriously. We are likely to procrastinate if there is no imminent risk or reward by completing the task immediately. On the other hand, watching social media feed, binge-watch Netflix guarantees short term rewards in the form of entertainment.

Scrum to the rescue:

In Scrum, the next deadline is always near. The team works within timeboxed events with a definitive start and end. This helps the brain to know beforehand how much time it needs to be in a focused state.

Team members are accountable for tasks and answerable to the team on a daily basis. So not doing something on time impacts our position and prestige in the team. This gives our brain enough motivation to get the work done on time.

4. Lack of motivation

One of the primary reason for procrastination is lack of motivation. If we do not see much value in what we are doing we are likely to procrastinate. External situations like working with unpleasant clients in a hostile environment create a further lack of interest.

A guaranteed reward after a certain amount of hard work can trick the brain to stay motivated. Being responsible for the day to day decisions gets our brain excited by the possibility of taking control.

Scrum to the rescue:

Scrum focuses on empowering teams that make independent decisions and not forced upon them. This helps to boost motivation, it makes the team realize they are in charge of their own destiny. If one's opinion is valued, their suggestions are welcomed one feel more committed.

A good Scrum master uses emotional intelligence to understand the mindset of team members and ensure individuals stay motivated and feel safe to work.

A small celebration, say after a successful sprint, a heartfelt appreciation after resolving a technical glitch works wonders in motivating individuals.

On a daily basis, team members look at the sprint board and manually move tasks from one state to another. This tricks the brain to easily imagine success and realize progress.

5. Fear of failure

Some of us don’t like getting out of our comfort zone, highlighting risks, sharing a creative idea, or unpopular opinion. We are afraid of how we will be judged or criticized for our mistakes. As a result, we delay decision making often resulting in indecisiveness and loss of opportunities. Fear of failure promotes procrastination as our brain tends to assume it is incapable of dealing with the task.

Scrum to the rescue:

Scrum aims at maintaining transparency, continuous inspection, and adaptation. Scrum events like Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospectives seek constant feedback from the team, management, and customers. This ensures that failure or potential mistakes are highlighted and necessary measures to rectify them are taken early.

In agile, success and failure belongs to the team, not individuals. Individuals are not judged for making mistakes.

Endnote

There are numerous things that lead to procrastination. We react to these issues differently based on different situations. Scrum events, artifacts are designed in such a way that it eliminates some aspects of procrastination. If you are experienced in Scrum you can now look to Scrum with a different perspective. If you are not experienced in Scrum you can now learn how following some simple practices of Scrum help you become more effective.

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