Sprint Planning When Everyone’s New

We were working on a legacy product written in PowerBuilder. There was one engineer that had been around for a while, about 6 years. Another had been around for a little less than a year, and the rest were brand new. The entire QA team was new. They weren’t only new to that project, they were new to QA. There was also a team of business analysts. Most of them had been around for several years, but there were only 2, and this was a big project.

As to be expected on teams such as this, the process was very waterfall-ish and chaotic. The team waited for the BAs to create “the specs”, and QA waited for engineering to do the coding. Lots of waiting.

It was my job to implement Scrum at this company. We finally had a product backlog that was prioritized, but that was about it. Even though that was such a small accomplishment, it made a very positive impact on the team. Before this, the team never new what to work on next, and usually worked on things that had to be abandoned later.

So, we have a product backlog. We still hadn’t conducted a release planning or a sprint planning session. I decided to start with a sprint planning session.

Sprint Planning Session 0 = Miserable Failure

Our first sprint planning session was a disaster. First of all, the QA team did not show up. I almost just canceled right there, but I thought I’d continue this disaster.

We projected the product backlog (which was in excel) and started going down this list. The goal was to define “Done” for each item, and also to decompose it into smaller tasks, with each task less than 16 hours.

We got stuck on the first item. Everyone said “I’ll have to go back and look at the spec” for every item we brought up. And if there wasn’t a spec, it was just impossible. Everyone just stared at each other like deer in the headlights.

I also heard the engineers say things like “we’ll have to go into the code, it will take a couple of days to break this down”. Or “there is no way we can break down this 180 hour task” (yes, they had estimated the product backlog items in hours).

We canceled the meeting about 15 minutes into it. While I was very disappointed that it failed, I was excited to have a new challenge. In addition, it was great that I learned something about the inner-workings of the team. How do you conduct a sprint planning session when no one knows how to implement the features in the backlog?

Sprint Planning Session 1 = Moderate Success!

I was sure that the team just needed to do homework. But, after talking with the old timer, I realized that homework was not enough!

The code base was extremely unstructured. It had grown over the last 12 years into something really ugly and barely maintainable. Not even the engineer with the most experience would have been able to come up with sprint tasks that were 16 hours or less. I got some great advice from someone on the yahoo scrum group, about maybe using spiking to help decompose the backlog items. While I love the idea, there was no way we had time to do this on every item.

So, here’s what we did. We encouraged team to do some research on the upcoming features.

Then, in the sprint planning session, the team self-organized into smaller teams, and dug in deep on the features. We printed specs out for them, and of course had the BAs there (which were ultimately playing the role of product owner).

The engineers had their laptops so they could look into the code if necessary, I suppose doing “mini-spikes”.

This time QA showed up, but they were there in bodies and not in spirits. But, that’s a subject for another post.

We still did NOT come up with a sprint backlog. I was a little disappointed in that. However, the team came out feeling like a true team, and with a clearer understanding of the sprint ahead of them. We also had a clear commitment (which the business broke, again, for another post).

It was a definite step in the right direction. While we weren’t able to derive the sprint backlog, the team bonded during the exercise. The team also understood what they needed to deliver (they just weren’t sure how at that point). In addition, we realized where our problems truly existed.

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About Andre Simones
I am a founding partner of One80 Services that specializes in agile training, small business and startup guidance, and custom development. My goal is plain and simple. To see others succeed. I want to teach you how stop doing the things that aren't working and give you tools that will empower you to succeed on your own.

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