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What Happens if We Fail One or Two Sprints?

Learning through failure

8 February 2017

Lee Elliott

I ran a company ScrumMaster Summit recently, to which we invited 42 ScrumMasters for a day of learning. At one point we had a "Lean Coffee" discussion, wherein anyone could vote on the topics for discussion. One of the more interesting topics (which, unfortunately, didn't get any votes) was: What happens if we fail one or two sprints?

You should be failing more often than one or two sprints. As a team, we need to be challenging ourselves more, trying new things, and experimenting. All of those things will lead to failure, which leads to learning, which is great for its own sake. I want the teams to fail, but I want them to fail fast. Try something new for a sprint, see if it works, how you can tweak it, what is unusable, what can be taken away, and then start again. Get into the pattern of trying and failing.

In talking to the ScrumMaster who wrote the topic, his concern was around velocity and that his team should be hitting the exact number each sprint. It's actually good that they are not hitting that number sprint after sprint. They should be challenging themselves with a higher number once in a while. It would be too easy to not challenge yourselves and keep the same number for every sprint, setting the number 10 points lower than what you know your team can do and then coasting. But that's not good for the morale of the team, for the education of the team members, for the project/sprint — not good for anyone all around.

They should set the sprint goal higher than they have been doing, subject to the team's agreement. The team must not game the system by converting a 5-point story to an 8-point story; they should take on more than what they would normally and determine whether they can do it. Or they can keep the same velocity target and try pair programming — anything that gets the team trying new things, learning, and pushing their boundaries, whether personal or team-based.

The main question, however, has some deeper undertones, unfortunately. Traditionally in the workplace failure is punished, and we have ingrained into our people the fear of retribution. I think the question is more like, What will management do to us if we fail one or two sprints? Most companies that are working in an Agile manner and have adopted the Agile mindset will be open to experimentation and failure. Fortunately, we are encouraging this where I work; we want our people to try, to strive for more, to learn, and, yes, to fail. Management will do nothing if we fail, so we keep trying.

Velocity and other metrics are meant to offer a team an opportunity to improve and to give them insight into how they are performing. These metrics are not to be used to measure teams against each other or to say that Team A is better than Team B simply because Team A's velocity is 10 points higher. Management should be looking to the teams to see how they can help them become better, not using metrics as a punishment tool.

To answer the original question, What happens if we fail one or two sprints? You learn.

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: 5 (1 ratings)


James McDonagh, CSP,CSM, 2/8/2017 10:31:18 AM
Good article and good points.

I used to have a boss years ago who would get genuinely excited whenever he made a mistake. Unsurprisingly, I learned a lot from him.
Manutosh Pandey, CSM, 2/8/2017 12:27:16 PM
Good article. Everyone can not success every day and failure always give a great lesson and open the room to do something meaningful next time. Every sprint is challenging.

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