We’re Learning: Inspiration Emails and Sprint Planning

by Lyssa Adkins on August 30, 2012

You probably know that I send out a weekly Inspiration Email and have been doing so for 108 weeks running (so far).  If you don’t get this and want to, sign up.  People love it. Well, most of the time.

The email contains a thought-provoking quote and a short note from me that I think of as a “love letter” to the more than 1,000 agilists that receive it.  Oftentimes, I keep the “love letter” very high level because I know there are many ways to practice agile.  This past week, I was inspired by some of the work I did recording the Coaching Agile Teams Video Lessons (coming in November!) and got into the practices level.  Specifically I addressed Sprint Planning and heard about it immediately from Henrik Berglund.  Henrik and I exchanged some emails and we decided to make our conversation transparent here so that we can all learn and so that others can join in.

Here is inspiration email that started it all…

“It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?“ ~ Henry David Thoreau 

Dear Henrik,
Sprint planning is all about choosing the important things, planning them enough to get going and then go! There is never enough time to plan things to match our desire for comfort and assurance. Knowing this, next time, set a timebox for sprint planning with the team and hold the timebox for them.Every minute we’re in a meeting is a minute we’re not producing value. Hold the timebox, inspect what caused the team to get the purpose of sprint planning done in the timebox (or not) and get better at sprint planning next time.
We are meant to improve the meetings, too.
Lyssa

And here is Henrik’s response…

>Every minute we’re in a meeting is a minute we’re not producing value.

Wow… perhaps it would be best then to cancel all meetings and keep everyone typing away in solitute in separate cubicles? We can email the task breakdown to them…

Fairly strange approach to describe people working together to release a product as waste.

Echoes in my head of mass production, productivity, efficiency and other old ideas not really applicable if one wants to get ahead today.

Just one way of looking at what you wrote, I know. Hopefully this is not what you intended, but this is what a lot of people think. This is why the mail pushed my buttons. For me it is not helping the cause to describe scrum activities (“meetings”) as waste. I find people working alone mostly are wasting their time…

I hope this was not to confrontational, I just wanted to share my perspective!

Cheers, Henrik

And now, Henrik and I (and whomever joins us) will continue this discussion in the comments.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather Williams June 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm

I think a really important point is hiding in Gary’s message, even though it may not be the point he was trying to make. The team LEARNED something from that 8 hour meeting! Isn’t that exciting? Now they can reflect on that failure and use it to figure out how to get better!

Any part of the process can be “wasteful” and any part of the process can be productive. I don’t think you can apply a “one size fits all” mentality. Even to ghastly, never ending meetings.

I think it is a really important part of our jobs as coaches to have an eye on when the activity, whatever it is, has lost it’s ability to move us in a positive direction, but it’s also our job to know when allowing something to flail is exactly what the team needs. That could include taking the time to fail at something (like sprint planning) so we can learn from it.

Valerie Santillo November 16, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Hi Lyssa,

I have recently heard many team members frustrated by the “overhead” of Agile. So, the point Henrik is making is a valid one. It’s interesting to ask those who think of it as overhead what they would do to make it valuable and productive. Hopefully, team members understand the value of these team events. If not, it would seem the Scrum Master would have some work to do. As always, I hope you are well!

Valerie

Gary Bamberger September 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm

This topic really hits home for me. I was in an 8 hour sprint planning meeting once. Just once. As an agile coach / mentor, I allowed the meeting to take it’s natural course so the team & product owner could experience it fully. It was like watching one of those slow motion crash tests for cars with the crash test dummies flailing around.

The next day, I pulled everyone aside after the daily scrum meeting to have a mini retrospective on what happened. I simply asked some questions that gave the team an opportunity to discuss the meeting and generate ideas on improving it. It was an important learning exercise for the entire scrum team.

So, I’m in agreement with Lyssa that ineffective meetings are wasteful and take away from the team’s ability to produce working software…whether it be through coding, designing, understanding requirements or testing.

Best regards,
Gary

Bruno Heufelder September 7, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Hi Lyssa, Henrik & Peter, and all other that might be reading,
the post “caught me at _exactly_ the right time with just the message I needed to hear”,a s Peter wrote.
It is just what I intend to do for the next Sprint planning, and this post reenforced my confidence, as it came in the _exactly_ right time.

It is interesting how “meeting” in the “old paradigm” is something that does not add value, and “meeting” in the “new agile paradigm” is a creative event.
And how depending on if our thinking framework is “more in the old or the new paradigm” at the moment of reading, we interpret, and “buttons get pushed”.

And Lyssa, Thanks for the good music, keep playing it, I love it 😉

Lyssa Adkins September 3, 2012 at 11:25 am

Hey, Peter…welcome to the conversation! I appreciate you adding your voice and point of view. And, thanks for the last post, Henrik. You know, it’s tricky business putting one’s ideas out there in the world. Thanks, guys, for helping bring into sharp focus the dangers of trying to write a useful, and short, note each week.

I can’t remember which president said this (Roosevelt?) when speaking to reporters. A reporter asked him how long it would take to prepare for a 30 minute speech and he said something like, “Oh, about a day.” And then the reporter said, “How about a 10 minute speech?” to which he replied, “About a week.”

Shorter is definitely more difficult.

Henrik Berglund September 2, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Great story Lyssa! So perhaps for you this phrase got associated with the good things you remembered happening at that time?

For me, since I was not there, it meant something completely different.

So, this is why I stopped using the term Scrum “meetings” a while ago. For me, it is positive when people “meet” and create value, i.e. communicate, solve problems and learn. As Peter said, this is what it is all about.

But then we have a whole industry where people already have lots of other types of “meetings” already. Sadly probably quite a few of them are what you call “tiresome old-style meetings”, keeping people from creating value. This, the word “meeting” is contaminated.

So when we tell these people there will be a few more agile meetings, they are likely to misunderstand and come up with things like when you are in sprint planning, you are not adding value…

So how about “Scrum activities” 😉

Best
Henrik

Peter Green September 1, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Hello Lyssa!

I had the same initial reaction to that line as Henrik. We fight a lot against the idea that any time spent away from coding is wasted time. As Alistair Cockburn often says, software development is not about typing code, it’s about knowledge creation and sharing. A sprint planning meeting is a great opportunity to create and share knowledge within the Scrum Team. If, instead of the line: “Every minute we’re in a meeting is a minute we’re not producing value.”, we said something like “The timeboxes are time tested – if we’re going over them, it’s a likely indication that something less than effective is going on, and every minute we’re in an ineffective meeting is a minute we’re not producing value”, I’d be much happier. I think that is the intent of what you wrote, so I didn’t reply to the original email, but since you’ve posted it here I thought I’d share my viewpoint.

Thanks for sending out the weekly emails; there have been a couple that have caught me at _exactly_ the right time with just the message I needed to hear. As such, they have been a welcome and important gift to me, for which I am very grateful.

—Peter

Lyssa Adkins August 31, 2012 at 11:01 am

Let me tell you the story about that…
I was coaching a team that routinely spent a day (or even more) in sprint planning. There were lots of reasons for this: product backlog not being well-understood by the PO, poor communication among the team members that had them talk and talk and get nowhere, shifting priorities at the senior leadership level that the PO could not “corral” in time, etc. So, the team said,”Let’s just take a planning break between sprints. Since this eats up a day or two of our sprint time we don’t want this to “count against” us and rob us of the time to get the work done.”

This is when a lightbulb went on for me. I said something like, “You know, we’re meant to get better at these meetings, too. That’s also part of agile. And the meetings are *inside* the sprint so that when they eat up your time to get the work done, it’s painful for you. So painful that you might then be compelled to address the problems that, in this case, have Sprint Planning eating up your time.”

“Oh!” they said. And, then they said, “Ooohhh…Oh, no. That means we need to talk about the things that are really the problem, like our product owner not understanding the product and senior leadership changing their minds.” “…and the way you guys communicate,” I added. So, we did. Over time, the phrase that you mentioned emerged as a watch-word for when a meeting was “running amok.”

When a meeting would go off the rails, they would turn to one another (and start saying to their managers) “every minute we’re in a meeting is a minute we’re not producing value.”

So, I can see how that phrase by itself sounds kinda jarring, but I hope you see genesis and intention of it now.

Henrik Berglund August 31, 2012 at 4:05 am

I looked back and I actually agree with everything you wrote about the spring planning! There is just one line that caught my eye (and buried the rest of your message for me):

>Every minute we’re in a meeting is a minute we’re not producing value.

I find it provocative and interesting…any thought on why you picked those words?

Best

Henrik

Lyssa Adkins August 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I certainly hope they don’t spend time in things that don’t add value. Sprint planning certainly adds value, and I have also seen it devolve into a tiresome old-style meeting (in the worst sense of the word). I coach teams to keep sprint planning from becoming a marathon-length event where we don’t get the purpose accomplished (or we’re not sure if we did). That’s why I suggested using the timebox. If we have a timebox and we didn’t get the juice and purpose out of sprint planning by the time the timebox is up, well then, we have great information for improving it next time.

Henrik Berglund August 30, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Thanks for getting back to me! I do see the point your trying to make I think, Perhaps it is still the case also that we do have different basic views. I’m thinking; why would teams engage at all in any activity that does not add value…

Best
Henrik

Lyssa Adkins August 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm

I’m so glad you wrote. Your opinion and perspective is always welcome, even if it is confrontational (and this was not). I always imagine agile being done at its best and I try to call all of you forth to that. Here’s what I imagine, which may not be the average case: I imagine that the agile team is working together within eyesight of one another and that they are engaging in high-contact, high-bandwidth communication all the time, not just in meetings.

In that case, keeping each meeting to its intended purpose and getting good at getting that purpose completed in less and less time (while not sacrificing the depth of the meeting) is a good thing. That’s the frame I had in mind when I wrote the inspiration email. If the best time (maybe the only time) your team collaborates is in the proscribed agile meetings, I can totally see how this pushed your buttons. For certain, I don’t think people working in their cubicles alone, disconnected from the process of creating the plan together, is a good idea — in fact, I don’t want to see them doing that for even a minute of the day!

Sincerely, humbly,
Lyssa

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