Up Periscope!

“Inspect and adapt” is a key phrase in Scrum.  Many parts of the framework ask you periodically to check in on something, see how its going, and modify your next steps as appropriate.  One of the inspect-and-adapt meetings is Sprint Review, where you inspect the product increment (Scrum’s fancy way of saying “what you built in the last sprint”).  There are a bunch of important things to check, but here I’d like to focus on this one:

  • How are we doing toward our longer-term goals?

During sprints, we are cruising along, focused on the details in front of us.  It’s incredibly important to look up from what you are doing and make sure you are still headed where you meant to go.

Here is one particularly effective way I’ve found to connect this inspection question to adaptive actions.  It assumes that you are using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) set on quarters, but you can easily swap in whatever mechanism/time period you are using to set goals beyond those of the sprint.

  1. Bring up the OKRs on a shared screen.
  2. Read out the first key result.
  3. Ask the question: “Are we on track to complete this key result by the end of the quarter?” If people aren’t ready to vote, discuss.  Otherwise, on the count of three, everyone votes as follows:
    • Thumbs up = Green: We are on track.
    • Thumbs sideways = Yellow: We think we will complete this, but we have some definite risks
    • Thumbs down = Red: At present, it doesn’t look like we will complete this.
  4. Discuss differences between the votes.  Revote as necessary.  Once you have a consensus, if the consensus is yellow or red, discuss two follow-up questions:
    • Why is it yellow/red?
    • What specific actions can we take to get it back to green?
    • Write the answers somewhere everyone can see.
  5. Repeat until you’ve gone through all key results.  (Note: I don’t find it as useful to do this for the objectives, but if you want to do that, knock yourself out!)

A few common questions about this technique appear below.

If we’re behind, can we really afford the time to have a conversation about risk?
A frequent mistake is to stop after step 3 and say, “Oh, boy, we’re in trouble! We’d better get back to work!” It’s very tempting to do this!  You just identified that you are behind, and it is counterintuitive to think that the right action is to not jump right back to work.  Think of it this way instead: you have identified that you are on a course to failure; why rush getting back on that course?  Instead, take a moment to look at the risk in more detail as noted in step 4.

Why write the answers about risk somewhere everyone can see?
As a general rule, it’s a great practice to record the conclusions of a conversation in a shared place.  It greatly reduces the risk that participants come away with different memories of the conversation.  In addition, you can refer back to it, and if you make it fully public it can help communicate status to people outside the team.

How detailed should my answers be?
Only as detailed as is useful for your team. For example, you might write something as simple as: “Concern over content being ready for us in time. Juniper escalating to Max.”

How do we rate a Key Result we haven’t started work on yet?
You should rate every Key Result in every iteration.  Again, rate it based on confidence you’ll complete it by the end of the period.  Just because you haven’t started something doesn’t mean it’s at risk.  Let’s say you are renovating a bathroom.  Painting the walls might be one of the very last tasks.  Early on, you can still be confident that you’ll finish it on time even though you won’t start it until much later.  On the other hand, if earlier work starts running behind, you might start to worry that you won’t get the painting finished.  In fact, the piece that is running long (say, building the vanity) might be green, meaning you’ll finish it by the end of the period, but its overruns mean that later pieces (like painting) switch to red.

Why not replace the confidence ratings with our percent done?
You should certainly consider percent done so far, but the amount you have completed is not a great indication of whether you will get it all done on time.  Being ahead early doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll finish on time, and being behind late doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll finish late.  Since the point of this exercise is to inspect progress and adapt appropriately, we need a signal to tell us whether to adapt.  Confidence that we will get it done by the end of the period is simply a better indication of whether or not we need to change our plans.

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