Several years ago, I was working with a company in California, coaching and training them on agile planning and user stories. I came across this one team. They were phenomenal. Truly. Highly collaborative, highly skilled. But they never finished all of the work in a sprint. Not once.
I observed a few of their sprint planning meetings and soon discovered the reason why they couldn’t deliver their sprint goal. It all boiled down to the influence of one of the unofficial leaders on the team. I’ll call him Marc.
Marc is brilliant, funny, and hard working. He’s also one of those people who is overly optimistic about what he can get done. So in every sprint planning meeting, he’d be the one who would say yes to that one last story. “We can squeeze that in,” he’d say. And the team would agree because Marc was convincing. And always, always, they’d commit to just a little too much.
When Overcommitting Becomes a Problem
Overcommitting is not the end of the world. But it is a mistake to allow the team to do it habitually. When a team consistently fails to finish everything, the end of a sprint becomes an arbitrary, meaningless date. It arrives and team members just move work forward into the next sprint. No big deal, they think.
You want your team to instead think of the end of a sprint as significant. Each time they finish what they said they would, two things happen. First, they experience a sense of accomplishment–a phenomenon that Amabile and Kramer call the power of small wins. Second, they gain a little more trust from the business stakeholders. That trust translates to an improved relationship.
The video below goes into two reasons why teams overcommit and three ways you can help. As always, I’ve included the text of the video as well, so you can just keep reading if you prefer.
Two Reasons Agile Teams Overcommit
Some teams never quite finish the work of their sprints. I've talked before about how teams don't need to finish everything every sprint. It's normal and sometimes good for teams to occasionally aim a little high for what they can accomplish in a sprint.
But some teams overcommit habitually, and that is a problem. Let’s look at reasons why many teams overcommit and how you can help.
The most common reason teams overcommit is pressure from leadership, or any source outside the team. Sometimes this leadership pressure is well intentioned. A leader gets excited about the opportunities presented by a product and wants more or they want it faster because of the good it will do the company and/or the product’s users.
Other times, though, the pressure comes from misguided leaders who think pressure is an appropriate way to motivate a team.
The second most common reason teams overcommit is pressure from themselves. Teams may do this for a variety of reasons, such as hoping to please outsiders or a desire to meet high expectations of themselves.
Whether pressure to overcommit comes from outside or within the team, it’s neither a healthy environment for team members nor a good situation for the organization.
Organizations Need Predictability
All organizations need some level of predictability. I worked with a rapidly growing company that was preparing for its IPO. Despite a tremendous focus on achieving revenue targets one last time before going public, the CEO told me he’d be willing to exchange some revenue for greater predictability.
When a team pulls too much work into a sprint or strives for an overly aggressive sprint goal, they often miss and that reduces predictability. Predictability shouldn’t become the goal. If it does, teams make easy commitments each sprint and achieve them.
Instead, teams should do their best to plan realistically. When a team announces its plan for a sprint, everyone both on and off the team should expect the team to achieve that goal but know that it won’t always happen.
Leaders and others outside the team then need to be understanding when a team occasionally misses the mark. When I go to my favorite restaurant, I expect them to have my favorite fresh sea bass. But sometimes they’ve sold out already or perhaps the fresh fish delivery was delayed that day.
Three Ways to Help Teams Who Routinely Fail to Finish
Here are 3 things you can do to help a team that too often does not meet its sprint goal.
1. Sprint Commitments Are Goals, Not Guarantees
First, get everyone to understand that sprint commitments are goals not guarantees. The word commitment is not synonymous with guarantee. (As Clint Eastwood’s character Nick Pulovski says in The Rookie, “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster!”)
A commitment is a team’s promise to do its best to achieve a goal. If the team is forced to make a guarantee, they will guarantee less so that the guarantee is safe.
There can be a time for guarantees. Sometimes a client or customer does need some capability by a certain date. The finance group may need to run year-end reports in early January, for example.
In general, though, we don’t want to force a team into a guarantee. Instead we want a team to commit to something reasonable and then be understanding if they miss it.
You will most likely need to convince some leaders of this. A good way to do this is to put the commitment / guarantee difference into an example a leader can relate to. For example, ask them to imagine asking the sales group how much they’ll commit to selling. Then imagine asking if the sales group will guarantee that amount or would they prefer to guarantee a different amount.
2. Never Consider Not Finishing a Failure
A second thing you can do to help a team that doesn’t routinely meet its goals is to never treat missing as a failure. It can be disappointing when a team falls short on their commitments. But it’s not a failure.
(I know I’ve used the phrase “fail to finish” a couple of times, but the English language just doesn’t have a lot of positive synonyms for miss and fail. I do mean “fail” as “to fall short” not “to be inadequate” or even “to be unsuccessful.” I don’t consider not finishing a failure, and neither should you.)
3. Identify Root Causes of Overcommitting
A third thing you can do if your team misses their goals too often is to help them identify root causes. Sometimes it’s just bad luck for a handful of sprints. More often, though, it’s because teams feel optimistic about what they can achieve. They plan their sprints to be best-case scenarios.
If you think that could be your team, in sprint planning meetings try asking questions like
- What could go wrong that could cause the team to miss their goal? or
- What has to go right for what the team is considering as its new goal?
These or similar questions can help a team see any risky assumptions they’re making about how easy the planned work needs to be.
Celebrate Teams That Go For It
It’s important for agile teams to perform their best while also allowing the organization to create reliable plans. To do that, you want a team that goes for it, that isn’t afraid to try hard things. You also need an organization–and team members themselves–who understand that an ambitious team will not accomplish its goal every sprint. Remember, they’re commitments not guarantees.
In the comments, let me know how your team is doing. Does it achieve its goals most iterations? Do you struggle with outsiders who expect your team to make it every time? If not, how have you convinced outsiders to have appropriate expectations? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.