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Why Not to Extend a Sprint

28 September 2017

Shane Billings

Waterfall versus Agile deadlines

In a traditional environment, management frequently sets a deadline as a target for teams to meet. The deadline is often aggressive and, in many cases, unachievable. The idea behind a deadline is that teams need a goal that stretches them to achieve more and work harder. Sometimes this works, but in many instances it does not, for the simple fact that teams are already routinely working as hard as they can. Working harder is rarely as helpful as working smarter.

In such an environment, deadlines come and go. They get extended when the product is not finished on time. The option of reducing scope and delivering a minimum viable product may not be considered to allow the flexibility needed to meet the original date. If Waterfall methods were employed, the option to release a reduced functionality set on time might not even be an option, depending on the current development phase. But in Agile, the team has more flexibility. Because partial functionality sets are created, the decision to release sooner is available. Even if all the work in a Scrum sprint isn’t complete, other work may be complete and allow for a potential release.

The sprint end is not a deadline

The challenge is that some people may confuse the sprint end as being a deadline. This is not the case. A sprint end is a lot of things, but it is not a deadline. Yet those who confuse the deadline and sprint end relationship often try to extend the sprint because the team is not done with their work. A sprint end is a chance to measure the progress of the team or, more specifically, determine the team velocity. Velocity is an amount of work done within a period of time. The time has to remain constant for this to be a meaningful metric. When was the last time you got a speeding ticket for "going three hours"? Time is not a velocity. Even when velocity is calculated this way and perceived as fact, it is often flat and meaningless.

A sprint end is a chance to make decisions and course corrections. It’s a chance to stop to determine the next steps as the team progresses toward an end goal. A sprint end is a time for the team to hold themselves accountable. After all, they were the ones who said they would accomplish their goals by this time. Not ending a sprint on time can communicate that we don’t respect the team’s choices. Worse, teams begin to take sprint goals less seriously. It doesn’t matter that they don’t make the goal if the deadline is moved anyway.

A sprint end is a time for the team to consider ways to improve itself. They look deeply at problems exposed in the sprint and plan ways to do better next time. Sprint extensions often hide problems that the teams need to address. Even when teams extend sprints because it wasn’t their fault, they lose an opportunity to see how they can influence improvements around them.

Fundamentally, extending sprints misses out on the opportunity for team growth. The main reason cited for the extension is often that work isn’t done. To be clear, no one is saying to stop working on the unfinished items. Move them to the next sprint and keep working. Above all, take a little time to focus on improvement, accountability, challenges, and pivots. Take time to plan your next steps and adjust. There is value in doing work. There is more value in making sure teams do the right work the right way.

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.

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