When you're about to engage in a risky activity, such as flying an airplane, it's wise to be prepared. The cost of a mistake may be measured in lives. Thankfully, aviators have figured out a simple but effective means to keep planes flying safely. It's called a preflight checklist, and there's one for every aircraft.
Below is the Cockpit section of a Cessna 152 preflight checklist:
Aircraft docs Check
Control wheel lock Remove
Master switch On
Fuel quantity indicators Check
Master switch Off
Fuel shutoff valve On
The complete list contains eight sections (cockpit, fuselage and empennage, right wing, nose, left wing, before starting engine, starting engine, before takeoff), and a total of 80 items to be checked before the wheels should leave the ground. (It also contains checklists for those scary moments when things go wrong, like engine failure.) Keep in mind that the Cessna 152 is just a single-prop plane with fixed landing gear. It's about as simple a motorized aircraft as you'll find, and yet there's a long list of things to look after before each flight. Imagine if you had to remember the complete list. Could you do it flawlessly, every time? Would you want to even try?
Checklists have proven to be highly effective, not just in aviation but in other fields as well. In his book The Checklist Manifesto, author Dr. Atul Gawande describes how one doctor dealt with patient infections that resulted from the improper administration of IVs. By introducing checklists in the OR, the infection rate fell from 11 percent to 0 percent, saving many lives and millions of dollars. This led to widespread use of checklists in hospitals.
Why not apply this idea to Agile project management? After all, if you're the ScrumMaster, you're about to go on a journey with your team that will last many months and cost the project's sponsors a lot of money. Lives may not be at risk, but a failed project can lead to missed business opportunities, and it certainly doesn't enhance the team's reputation. Suffice it to say that failure is bad, and it's best to do everything possible to achieve success, especially if the remedy is really simple.
Sprint planning is a critical Scrum ritual that I've seen conducted in a variety of ways, and with widely varying degrees of success. If you're a ScrumMaster, you know very well how a sprint planning meeting should run. There are premeeting steps that must be taken, such as working with the product owner to groom the backlog, getting high-level estimates from the team, booking a conference room, and picking up the doughnuts (please don't forget this step if I'm on your team).
During the meeting, you'll propose an agenda that will include having the product owner describe the goal of the sprint, selecting high-priority stories, decomposing them into tasks, estimating tasks, assigning them to resources. But wait — did the team remember to use the feedback from the last retrospective? Did you get updates on vacation plans? Did you update the storyboard? There's a lot to get done in a few hours' time, and in the heat of the moment, you may forget a few things. Those forgotten steps can be costly.
Try this experiment: Start your next sprint planning meeting with a checklist that consists of an ordered set of essential steps. Post it on the wall at the start of the meeting, and review the steps with the team. Then go through those steps in order, and check them off as each one is completed. When the last item is checked, your meeting is adjourned.
Why is this so different from including an agenda in the meeting invitation? Isn't that a checklist? Yes, that's an entirely fair question; but how many times have you actually checked off each item in your agenda in front of the team? I think the difference with a checklist is that you establish the expectation of formality and structure by going through every step and actually checking it off in dramatic fashion. This illustrates the team's progress almost like a histogram, which helps the team gauge how far it has come and how far it has to go.
Last, you may want to save your checklist as a reminder of the steps you went through. It will come in handy in your sprint retrospective meeting. Perhaps more important, other teams may decide to try your checklists, and this will bring consistency of execution to other projects.
Thanks to Latha Krishnaswamy for the inspiration for this article.