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Timeboxing: A Motivational Factor for Scrum Teams

21 February 2014

Savita Pahuja
Palo IT

Applying Agile is not only a process implementation. It's more understanding human behavior and changing mind-sets per Agile principles and values. Most organizations use Scrum, out of all the Agile methods. Scrum is timeboxed and motivates team members to complete work within the timeboxes. The result is an increase in productivity.

As per the Agile Manifesto: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

So motivation is the key factor to consider in Agile teams.

Scrum flow

Here we commit for the selected work in the sprint planning meeting. Within the sprint, work moves from To Do to Ongoing to Done, but the count of items on the board remains same. At the end of the timebox, or sprint, every item goes in Done.

Working in timeboxes is equal to creating short milestones and achieving those milestones in a continuous manner.

The reason for this we can understand through the Temporal Motivation Theory. This theory (TMT) was developed by Piers Steel and Cornelius J. Konig. The theory emphasizes time as a critical, motivational factor. The Temporal Motivation Theory formula can be applied to human behavior, procrastination, and to goal setting. According to Lord, Diefenforff, Schmidt, and Hall, the theory models the motivating power of approaching deadlines, arguing that the perceived utility of a given activity increases exponentially as the deadline nears.

Temporal Motivation Theory formula


Motivation = the desire for a particular outcome
Expectancy = the probability of success
Value = the reward associated with the outcome
Impulsiveness = the individual's sensitivity to delay

To see how the Temporal Motivation Theory can be applied in an example, consider a student given one month to study for a final exam. The student is given two options: studying and socializing. The student enjoys socializing but needs to achieve a good grade. The reward of studying is not immediate, thus at the beginning of the student's study period, the motivation to study is lower than the motivation to socialize. However, as the study period diminishes from several weeks to several days, the motivation to study will surpass the motivation to socialize.

TMT Graph

Graph of three students' utility or motivation estimation for socializing versus writing an essay over the course of a semester that ends December 15

That's the reason why working in timeboxes increases team motivation, hence the productivity. So selecting the proper timebox is one of the keys to success.

Deciding sprint length

When a team begins a project using Scrum, one of the important question that arises is what should be the sprint length? As per Scrum recommendations, length should be in between one and four weeks. But what is appropriate for my project is what we need to decide.

There are many arguments and logical reasons written down in many books about sprint length. Apart from team maturity and type of work, there is one more factor of human nature.

If we use a sprint length of one week, team members feel pressure. For a one-week sprint duration, i.e, seven days, they get only five-and-a-half or six days to work because of sprint planning, review, and retrospective. Some teams argue that they don't get time for innovation, delivering better-quality products, and avoiding risks of unplanned leaves. So the motivation goes down.

If we are able to deliver frequently, it's better to do continuous delivery, but for this the team should be very mature and able to go beyond timeboxes.

If we are going for long sprint durations, one aspect of human nature is for people to postpone and procrastinate on work that they know they need to do. We can also call it "college term-paper thinking." Again, there is a decrease in motivation.

As per the Agile manifesto: Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

So to work at a constant pace, we should get rid of procrastinating behavior, and that's not possible.

The best sprint length is 15 days, as suggested by everyone -- but it depends on team synergy, motivation, and maturity. So there is no ground rule; we need to first observe these factors to include in the decision making about sprint length.

Using iterations also helps combat two very common and human conditions, often referred to as the "Student Syndrome" and "Parkinson's Law." Student Syndrome refers to students who wait until the very last minute to start their project assignments. Parkinson's Law refers to the occurrence whereby work assigned to teams -- regardless of how simple -- expands to fill the allotted time. Shorter iterations help combat both of these conditions, as well as the associated risk and waste.

Timeboxes of various Scrum ceremonies

Timeboxing refers to the act of putting strict time boundaries around an action or activity. For example, you may want to timebox a meeting to be 30 minutes long to help ensure that the meeting will begin and end on time, with no exceptions. When you timebox an event, the result is a natural tendency to focus on the most important "stuff" first. If you timebox a meeting, you would expect, then, that the absolutely required content of the meeting be completed before the end of the meeting. Other meeting agenda items that are not as important may get moved to another meeting. In essence, timeboxing is a constraint used by teams to help focus on value.

Timeboxes of various Scrum ceremonies are already mentioned in the Scrum Guide. We can look into that from the perspective of team motivation. The Scrum Guide recommends a maximum time to devote to any ceremony. Let's take the example of sprint planning. We can reduce time of sprint planning to keep people motivated to participate and show interest. For this, we have grooming sessions.

If we don't decide the timebox of any ceremony, then some people will keep on discussing and others will lose interest. Moreover, the team will get less time to work on sprint tasks. So having the timeboxes is very important to keep people motivated.

Other examples of timeboxing

Timeboxing is not only important in Scrum, it's also important in our day-to-day work. Some examples are as follows:
  • If a project manager or any other role is distributed in two or three projects, the best way to gain productivity and avoid waste due to multitasking is to timebox the activities with respect to each project on a daily or weekly basis.
  • In academics, almost every institute has its own set of timeboxes to complete the course and take the exams.
  • If there are some spike stories, then we should timebox the research and analysis work, otherwise it will keep on going.
At the end, we can conclude that timeboxing plays an important role in managing the work in sprints, as well as motivating teams to finish work on time. This is related to human psychology and how the human brain reacts with respect to timeboxes.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.4 (10 ratings)


Margeaux Bucher, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 2/24/2014 2:20:54 PM
Thank you for the article and the great visuals, especially the study graph. This is one of the best explanations of the value of the "freedom in constraints" model I have seen. Apply enough pressure to maintain focus and triumph over procrastination...but not so much pressure as to be unsustainable.

Personally, I am a keen advocate of time-boxing; approaching it as a fun, game-like element (let's see how much we can get done in 30 minutes, team!). However, it has been my experience that not everyone feels the same thrill of self-challenge to being held to a time limit.

For anyone else who may encounter resistance to the time-box concept, I offer an alternative tactic. This worked for me at a past organization and kept meetings short, sweet and focused.

I struck the words “time box” from my vocabulary. Instead I would say, “I think we can end this meeting early, but I scheduled a full hour ‘just in case.’” Then I would re-state the meeting outcomes I needed to achieve with our time.

Vital to success here was honoring a certain unspoken contract. Which was that I would always dismiss a meeting as soon as the objectives were met. Attentiveness increased and glancing at SmartPhones decreased. Gaining back precious minutes of their day became a predictable outcome that they desired and could now influence.

And that is how I achieved the benefits of time-boxing meetings, for people who dislike feeling time-boxed.
Savita Pahuja, CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO, 2/24/2014 10:56:41 PM
Thanks for sharing your experience.
Ken Lewerentz, CSM, 6/30/2014 6:22:52 AM
Thank you for the article and for sharing the TMT formula and bringing it into the timeboxing context.
Ajay Solanki, CSD,CSM,CSPO, 7/25/2014 10:16:24 AM
Good article.
Hossein Taheri, CSP,CSD,CSM, 8/12/2014 5:12:15 AM
I've used couple of paragraphs of this articles in my short description of scrum timebox:

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