It's a Good Kind of Chaos!

29 April 2014

As an agile coach and trainer, I get the opportunity to facilitate many Scrum teams’ first sprint planning meetings. Now these meetings do start out like typical meetings, with everyone sitting around a table and one person talking. But as the meeting progresses and discussions begin around the work, it can begin to look like chaos to an outsider. What I didn’t realize until recently however, was that it can also look like chaos to some of the insiders as well!
 
In the midst of the chaos during one of these meetings, the first with a newly formed team of Scrum beginners, I turned to the ScrumMaster and said, “Isn’t this wonderful?”  His reply – “Is it? Are you sure?” woke me up to his concerns about seeing everyone talking with one another without any obvious structure. As the team started swarming, it was just simply not like any meeting that he was used to seeing.
 
So this brings me to the two things about chaos that I like to share with my new teams. They’re both from Rob Brezsny’s book on optimism, Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. It’s a neat book full of interesting and upbeat information and stories.
 
The first chaos item is simply a quote about chaos:
 
“Chaos comes in two varieties. One is destructive and disorienting; the other is rejuvenating and exciting.”
 
Scrum’s chaos is the latter form! Those who are involved in the sprint planning meeting discussions appear to be energized and enthused, and this feeling carries forward through the sprint. As a Scrum Master or other agent of organizational change, you should be on the lookout for the former version of chaos, one that is the result of missing or improperly applied agile disciplines and principles.
 
The other item about chaos is a story about the ability to go on a wild ride, have fun, and still maintain balance.  It’s called “careen-stable,” a variant on chaos. Here’s Rebecca Rusche, again from Brezsny’s book, to tell you of the term's origin:
 
"In high school, my mom used to let me use her VW Beetle to go to basketball practice. One night after practice, a friend and I were chatting and drinking Coke when we decided to see how fast we could get the Beetle going down a nearby dirt road. Soon we were careening at 65 mph, shouting 'careen!' every time we hit a bump and went flying into the air. When we arrived back at the gym and got out of the car half an hour later, we saw my Coke can sitting on the front bumper next to the license plate. I nudged it softly to see if it was lodged in there somehow, but it fell right off -- wasn't stuck at all. I thought, 'There must be a word for this magic,' and thus 'careen-stable' was born. It came to mean anything that maintains its poise in the midst of wild, fast movement."
 
So to answer the ScrumMaster’s earlier question – “Is it okay? Are you sure?” – I can respond with a resounding “Yes!”.  Scrum provides the framework to contain, focus, and direct this chaos, and lively discussions are part and parcel of the whole.
 
Enjoy your careen-stable rides!

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Comments
Larry Cooper
Brilliant! Short and to the point with no additional story'features'. Why, you might even say it's Agile. :)
5/29/2014 12:06:21 PM

Steven Crago
Great article Michelle. Looks like I've got another book to add to my reading list.

Thanks!
5/25/2014 11:18:16 AM

Brian OReilly
I've been in many scrum meetings including a few with you Michelle. I like the chaos because it is as you say a good chaos. It's like the god of destruction; there is an end to the old practice of top down management to begin a new style of collaborative discussion. One of those makes one person happy, the other makes everyone happy.
5/2/2014 2:01:36 PM

Jon Jorgensen
It doesn't take much to stabilize an aluminum can when you've got so many hard surfaces on a VW, that the light can just isn't going to squeeze through no matter how hard it gets pushed.

I've seen the face of chaos in Sprint Planning manifest when a team simply rejects the notion that an Epic sized piece of functionality can be vertically sliced. Sometimes, it feels like suspension of the team's disbelief in slicing stories is just too much to ask of them. Despondency quickly turns to fear, then panic, then sheer chaos if someone who has rapport with the team does not start expressing their confidence in:
1) The team's collective potential
2) The time-tested applicability of Scrum to every imaginable setting

I've witnessed these simple words expressed to a team by an internal champion of the Scrum framework act like a nail to the bottom of the Coke can, instantly. Careen-stable thinking emerged. Many shoulders shrugged, and it was as though the chaos melted into an avalanche of user story desegregation.

Chaos? Meh....
Just another bump in the road. The story seams practically slice themselves apart, if you'll just let them. It's a state of mind, not matter.
5/1/2014 12:58:11 AM

Jai Singhal
Great post Michele!

This is so true and Scrum-newbies find it hard to see the constructive pattern in the team swarming. The pattern emerges into something wonderful as the team members are vigorously discussing the implementation details and identifying the tasks, dependencies, and ways to complete a backlog item.

First half of Sprint planning appears organized as the Product Owner discusses to backlog item from the top and the Team selects based on average velocity and team's capacity for the Sprint.

The second half is where it appears to be chaotic. Scrum Masters take some time to get used to it. Here swarming is a sign of a motivated and self-organizing team. Team members share and even brainstorm different ideas and ways to implement a backlog item. Once the coarse grained structure is out, the teams seem to calm down as they complete the dependencies, uncertainties, gaps, and any associated risks. I normally coach Scrum masters to wait and watch. The attempt to intervene, to bring order, is destructive to the Team's self-organizing behavior.

Interesting story about the variant of chaos: careen-stable. Hard to explain yet it works!
4/29/2014 8:14:14 PM

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