Scrum: No Commitment Required!

This content is syndicated from Do It Yourself Agile by Damon Poole. To view the original post in full, click here.

A couple of years ago I first talked about applying the decoupling principle to Scrum. Since then I've turned a bunch of that material into a presentation called “Scrum and Kanban Like Chocolate and Peanut Butter.” I’ve made many updates to the presentation and presented it to a wide variety of audiences. One of the main points of the presentation is that all of the things in Scrum that are coupled to iterations can be defined in such a way that they are no longer coupled to iterations. I argue that once you have done that with everything, there is really no value left in an anchor point which anchors nothing. That is, there is no fundamental need for iterations in Scrum.

From time to time I’ve realized that I forgot to decouple something, figured it out, and added it to the presentation. For example, burndown charts, burnup charts, and per-story timeboxes. The per-story timeboxes were tricky to even notice because in Scrum we generally think of timeboxing at the iteration level, but in effect that also imposes a timebox on individual stories. If you remove iterations without taking this into account then you are also removing the per-story timeboxes.

But recently, buried among the many feedback forms from presenting at Agile 2011, I found three little words: “What about commitment?” Ouch. I had missed a big one! The Scrum team makes a commitment that is tied to an iteration. How could I have missed that?

As I thought about it more, I realized that I do actually address this point in an off-hand way when talking about decoupling story assignment from iterations. However, I am very grateful for the comment. It helped me realize that I had been effectively dismissing commitment as though breaking a promise with a shrug.

Scrum's Commitment
It turns out that Scrum's commitment is a bit too strict. Even the version of the Official Scrum Guide as revised by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, the co-creators of Scrum acknowledges this. In the new version of the Scrum Guide, the commitment has been replaced with a forecast. The idea is that the forecast represents the combination of what the product owner wants and what the team believes it can deliver as the next shippable increment. This is a reasonable response, but I think something is lost in the change. Let's look at this another way.

Mutual Trust
The original idea behind Scrum's commitment is that the team commits to finishing what they have signed up for for the sprint and everybody else commits to leaving the team alone. It is really two commitments based on mutual trust. Without this mutual trust, both commitments break down. But both commitments are actually completely unreasonable and don't reflect reality. The goal is good, but the implementation is poor.

The problem is that the team is not prophetic. They can't possibly know how the work will turn out until they have actually attempted it. More often than not, their estimates will be wrong. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Things happen. The product owner is not prophetic either. They can't possibly know what demands of the business will come up or how customer needs may change within the timeframe of a sprint. A set in stone commitment makes it difficult for both parties.

In practice, the most important ingredient is mutual trust between the team and the product owner. This rapport allows the team to go to the product owner when they discover they have made an unrealistic promise and ask to switch out a story. It also allows the product owner to come to the team with a new request that is more important than another unstarted story and ask to swap them.

Decoupling the Forecast
If Scrum now talks about a forecast, and we are comfortable with the transition of commitment to mutual trust, then the real question is how do we decouple the forecast from iterations? First of all, ask yourself if you need it. If you don't, then there's nothing left to do.

On the other hand, if you feel the need for a forecast then the same approach can be used as for decoupling other aspects of Scrum, you simply redefine the timeframe. By default, the forecast is tied to the timeframe of the iteration. If your iteration is currently 2 weeks long, then go ahead and provide a two week forecast. It is a subtle point, but by defining a forecast period on its own, it is no longer tied to your iteration length. For instance, you may be doing four week iterations and then move to two week iterations. But if you decouple the forecast from the iteration then you can keep your four week forecast. And once again, after you have decoupled everything in Scrum from iterations, what's the value of an anchor point that has nothing anchored to it?

You may also be interested in the follow-up to this post, "Sticking to Estimates"

5 Responses to “Scrum: No Commitment Required!”

  1. Kelly Waters says:

    Thanks Damon, good post, but I’m not sure about the merits of encouraging teams to lack commitment. I totally agree with the spirit of what you are saying and what the updated Scrum guide is saying, but I think of business more like sport.

    If I’m watching a game of football, I expect the players to commit to winning. I expect them to do everything in their power to win. I expect them to believe they can win. I suppose the subtle difference is that I don’t expect them to always win, because that’s unrealistic. But I do expect to see their 100% commitment in trying to win.

    I think taking that sense of commitment away is a little bit dangerous. Businesses have to be competitive to succeed, just like sports teams. And perhaps never more so than now in this difficult economy. If it doesn’t matter whether the team completes what they forecast, I doubt you will see a very competitive culture, and in the end I suspect this will lead to less competitive products, and a less successful business.

    It reminds me of the non-competitive culture we have in schools in England now. I’m not talking about academically, because that is extremely competitive. I mean in sports.

    My son is just finishing primary school. In our primary schools today, they don’t celebrate winning even in sports. “Everyone’s a winner”. It’s all about the taking part and in the interest of being nice, they’ve forgotten that actually it is all about winning in sport, and to a large extent also in business.

    Unfortunately I think that can lead to a nation of also-rans and I would hate for my teams at work to be also-rans. I’d want them to be true winners. Teams that can forecast reasonably accurately most of the time. Teams that can commit to what they’ve forecast and are professional enough and have enough pride to do everything in their power to deliver what they said they would. But at the same time, I wouldn’t beat them up every time they lose a game. And I wouldn’t stop supporting them when they’re in a rough patch.

    The problem you’re describing is with some business people having too high expectations and expecting their team to win every game. And then not supporting the team to help lift them to raise their game. That’s a behaviour worth trying to stop – I agree. But I don’t think the solution to that problem is to move away from the idea of committing.


  2. Mike says:

    Hi Kelly,

    I believe that commitment is more a state of mind. You expect a football team to have a winning mentality but they do not predict how many goals they will score in a game.

    There are too many random factors that could be applied to sport and that is why any sort of prediction is gambling and more often than not, the house wins.

    I think that by having a team that has bought into the needs of the business, understands the business’ goals and has that committed mentality is much more important than trying to predict what work they would achieve over a period of time.

    I do understand the importance on reporting back to business on what will be achieved in a given time scale, especially in the current climate, but if a team is constantly delivering and they are working closely with the business and the business is prioritising the work and are fully involved, that this is much more integral to delivery.

    I hope I have not missed the point on this. I would much rather have a team of people that are committed and focussed on delivery and working on functionality rather than spending time estimating and committing to work.


  3. Damon Poole says:

    Thanks for the detailed response Kelly. The “no commitment required” title is a bit tongue in cheek. Absolutely commitment is important, but I don’t think that making it part of “Scrum” will suddenly make a team with problems estimating better at estimating or automatically improve a bad team/PO dynamic. People with a good work ethic will work hard. If you have folks with a poor work ethic, I believe Agile will expose this more clearly and then you can use your management skills to address it one way or another. Hopefully, with a win-win solution.

    I agree with your points about encouraging competition in sports. My goodness, if “everybody is a winner” does that mean that when I leave school I get a society provided job, spouse, house, etc because “everybody wins?” I think not. You’ve got to earn all of those competitively. Just imagine showing up to a job interview and saying “what do you mean you want my resume? Everyone’s a winner, when can I start?” :)

    I also agree that business is competition and that the team should be thinking competitively… against the success of competitive products or businesses. But I don’t think that translates to do or die when it comes to meeting estimates.

    Estimates are just that, estimates. They are a good-faith representation of what the team believes it will take with the information they have at hand. When something is discovered, then it is important for the team to communicate that to the PO, but I don’t think it means that they have to stick to the original estimate. Is that “letting them off the hook?” I don’t think so. Let’s face it, if they estimate 8 hours, but it turns out to take 24, the only way to do it in 8 is to do 8 hours “on the books” and 16 hours off. To have the team absorb those extra 16 hours means that they will have to take it out of their own time which is violating the idea of sustainable pace.

    If you have a team that consistently misses their estimates, that’ something different. Missing estimates should be the exception rather than the rule. When it becomes the rule, the question is what’s going on? Is team morale low? Why?

    One other thought here is that the whole story points/velocity approach should mean that there isn’t a problem with estimates because story points and velocity should make the issue of estimates a moot point. What I mean is that if all estimates are bad, the result is simply that velocity goes down. If estimates have always been bad then velocity will not be going up or down, it will just be fairly constant. Really then, the “problem” may be manifesting itself more as a general feeling of “this team just doesn’t seem to be as productive as it could be.” But then you are back to “why not?” I don’t think an enforced framework of commitment will change anything if the team has, for instance, low morale.

    Ok, really last point. If the problem is wildly varying velocity (perhaps due to wildly varying accuracy of stories) then I would venture there is a good chance that the stories are just too big in general and a good remedy to consider is to aggressively split stories into smaller stories.

  4. Kelly Waters says:

    Thanks for your responses guys, very interesting comments and I think I agree with everything you’ve both said. These days I much prefer it if teams can break stories down small enough that they don’t have to break them into tasks and estimate in hours. So I guess really my comments are just about the notion in my mind that when people don’t “commit”, they are less likely to push themselves to achieve the best they possibly can. And I think that’s important…


  5. Damon Poole says:

    I second the motion to “break stories down small enough that they don’t have to break them into tasks and estimate in hours” !!

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