Friday, February 19, 2010

The Meaning of Commitment

A common dysfunction I encounter when coaching Agile teams is a failure to understand the meaning of commitment. Scrum teams commit to delivering the Sprint backlog -- complete, tested, and ready to be shown to stakeholders by the end of the Sprint. That commitment means that the team members agree, freely and entirely of their own volition, to do their level best to meet their collective Sprint commitment. Does it always work out exactly as planned? No, of course not. But over the course of repeated Sprints, teams learn what that commitment looks and feels like and they get better at delivering on their commitments.

The lament I frequently hear is: "This team always misses its commitments." Oddly enough, I almost never hear that from members of the team in question. The source of the complaint is almost always from a stakeholder, functional manager, or executive at some level.

In the rare instance of a team whose members acknowledge that they routinely fail to meet their commitments, I work with the ScrumMaster, Product Owner, and team to ensure that they have good stories, solid acceptance criteria, follow the Agile rules for estimating, and that they understand the importance of building trust by doing what you say you are going to do. A team-based commitment failure is usually not difficult to overcome, although sometimes there can be a painful drop-off in perceived productivity as the team learns how to make a realistic commitment and deliver on it.

The much more common case of a stakeholder, functional manager, or executive expressing exasperation with routine commitment failure is usually easier to diagnose, but often more difficult to cure. The essential problem is a failure to understand that the team itself must commit to the Sprint backlog, freely and with complete consensus among team members. Any hint of a commitment that is forced from outside or arrived at without team consensus is automatically invalidated.

Think for a moment about the nature of commitment. We make commitments at many points in our lives. Marriage is a commitment. Having children and being a good parent is a commitment. While a Sprint backlog is trivial in comparison, the nature of the commitment required is exactly the same. Commitment must be voluntary. Commitments cannot be taken lightly. Commitment is a personal decision, sometimes taken in a collective context, as with a Sprint commitment when a team arrives at consensus.

One recent example of habitual commitment failure demonstrates very clearly a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of commitment and the inevitable result. On a coaching engagement, I heard from an executive that several teams never met their Sprint commitments. He was intensely frustrated with the situation. A little probing of the situation revealed the exact nature of the problem: When asked where the Sprint commitment for the teams in question came from, his response was, "I tell them what they'll commit to each Sprint." It turns out that he had laid out the teams' Sprint commitments months in advance. I explained that a Sprint commitment forced on a team from outside placed the team under no obligation whatever and that such a policy had completely undermined the company's entire Agile practice. When the members of the teams confirmed my assessment of the situation, the executive backed off and started allowing each team to make and deliver its own Sprint commitments. The problem of Sprint commitments not delivered vanished instantly.

A related problem at the same client proved to be the result of the ScrumMaster assigning all tasks at Sprint planning. The team did have control over its Sprint backlog commitment, but pre-assigning tasks left the team fragmented, demoralized, and unable to make the daily adjustments necessary to meet their commitment. When the ScrumMaster agreed to allow team members to self-assign tasks on a daily basis and to self-organize, using the daily Scrum, to ensure that they did everything possible to meet their Sprint commitment, the result was amazing. The team became cohesive, lively, and productive. They began meeting their Sprint commitments and experienced a remarkable increase in velocity after a few Sprints.

Commitment is not just a buzz-word. It is a vital component of Agile and a key ingredient in every team's success. So do the right thing, empower your teams to commit and reap the benefits.

All for now....


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