Sprint length… do you think it is ever a good idea to go to 1 week sprints?

A friend sent me the above question about sprint lengths over Twitter but I think some other people might want to know my answer too. A question like that doesn’t have a clear cut answer, it’s more of an open-ended question that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” But the answer is no.

Well…

I don’t think it’s valuable to perform all of the Scrum ceremonies in a single week; the planning:production ratio is way off with one 1 week. In an effort to seem like the kind of person to which you would ask this kind of question, I responded with a question of my own: “What are you trying to accomplish by shortening the sprint length?” and that was the real answer: “I am leaning towards 1 week sprints to help developers understand how long something really takes.”

A developer that is over-optimistic with their estimates? Now I have heard everything!

Shortening the sprint isn’t the first tool I would use to accomplish that. Instead I would be focusing on velocity. I’m not a huge fan of velocity (or pure Scrum for that matter) but it definitely can provide some perspective in sprint and long-term planning. I don’t care if you’re using an average or Yesterday’s Weather or what, as long as you are keeping good track of how much you are getting done.

First I would make sure that we are not half-assing Planning Poker. The goal is to come up with a size that everyone can agree on, and step 1 means using real cards or an app. Get some reference stories. I might be projecting a bit (why else would I have a blog?) but if you commit to a size and don’t have an easy out it forces a much better conversation about size. If I’m using my fingers it’s pretty easy for me to fudge that 5 to a 2 when I see what other people are saying. Everyone has a smartphone, use it.

The next piece is to have a good definition of “done.” The traditional goal of Scrum is to have a potentially shippable product at the end of every sprint, which lends itself to a decent definition of “done” but your team knows what’s right for them. Once you have that definition in place you do not count a single point until a story has reached that state. No “This 8 pointer is 75% done, so we’ll count 6 points this sprint and re-label it as 2.” No points until it is done.

Once you have that in place you should have a pretty clear picture of velocity emerging. At that point you can have the sprint planning session that you were waiting for all this time:

“Well we’ve committed to 50 points but we’ve never finished more than 20 points. Why is it a realistic amount for us to commit to this sprint?”

There will probably be some excuses and you can either push to reduce the sprint or let the team commit to it and bring the velocity up in the retro as a reason why the team couldn’t complete the sprint with a sustainable pace. (Aside: how did Scrum ever figure that you should “sprint” at a “sustainable pace”?) I would lean towards pushing the team to reduce the sprint size because I suspect the team is aware they are not finishing sprints on time, and another missed sprint would demoralize folks more. You can always offer the carrot “let’s commit to 20 and pull in more stories if we have time.”

Like I said, I don’t love velocity but I think that it’s the right tool for solving this problem. It isn’t about having a high score to beat, it’s about having a yard stick for understanding if a sprint is realistic.

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