The Preconditions of Starting the First Sprint
Everyone talks about agility
Agility is a way of behaving, a philosophy that supports maximising the value of the created product, accepting and even exploiting changes while being in the workflow. But agility is not a panacea. It requires the right knowledge, practice and commitment to implement and operate it.
Most people consider the Agile Manifesto to be the foundation of agility. The Agile Manifesto was created in 2001 by 17 experts, most of them software developers. The software development background is reflected in the Manifesto’s original full name: Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Yet the name Agile Manifesto has become common in the agile world. The reason for this is very simple. The principles laid down in the Manifesto can be successfully applied not only in software development, but in many other fields as well. Reading the Manifesto gives an insight view into the essence of agility and the agile approach.
There are several frameworks for introducing and implementing agility. By far the most popular and most successfully used is the Scrum framework, which was created by two specialists, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, to develop complex products in a sustainable way. A description of the framework and the way of its application is available in several languages and can be downloaded from the Scrum Guides website since 2010.
The Scrum Guides reflect the core values of Scrum, which in practice means that the framework is periodically reviewed and adapted to make it more applicable to everyday work. The latest Scrum Guide summarises the principles of the framework in 17 pages. The language used in the guide is simple and easy to understand, as the aim is to ensure clear understanding and applicability. At first reading, it may not be obvious that in accordance with the agile philosophy, the guide does not contain any prohibitions.
Reading through the guide, you might think that Scrum is very simple, so you can jump straight into the agile world. Is it really that simple? Just read the Agile Manifesto and the 17 pages of the Scrum Guide and you have the key to success in your pocket?
On the first page of the older Scrum guides there were two references that reminded the enthusiastic but inexperienced Agile transformer that it is worth sitting down and thinking about what to do before starting the Agile implementation. These two references were as follows: Scrum is simple to understand and difficult to master.
It should also be mentioned that the Scrum Guide is a framework. So, it needs to be completed, taking into account the specificities of the organisation and its environment. It should also be remembered that the description of the framework and its translation are very condensed. The guide is only 17 pages long because practically every word is impactful!
Let’s now look at what preconditions and what activities are needed to start the first Scrum Sprint.
Something we can always rely on: the Scrum Guide
The human factor
The 2020 version of the Scrum Guide mentions the Scrum Team at the very top. So you need a team, which is the basic unit of Scrum. The Scrum Team consists of the Scrum Master, Product Owner and Developers.
The Scrum Master is responsible for the proper implementation of Scrum, the formation of the team and its effective functioning. This is one of the most important roles at the start. The Scrum Guide allows a Scrum Master to work in more than one team. When launching the very first Sprint, especially in the case of a forming team, the Scrum Master will have so much to do that he/she will not have time to work in two teams. A full-time Scrum Master is definitely needed. It should also be remembered that the Scrum Master does not only work with the team. He/she will support communication and collaboration with relevant departments who may not be working with an agile approach and he/she will be the one who will be involved in the implementation of agile within the organisation. These tasks certainly require a full person.
The Scrum Team cannot function without a Product Owner. As a member of the team, his/her most important task is to maximize the value of the product created by the Scrum Team. Therefore, the Product Owner focuses on the product. He/she is the one who knows the product, the market and develops the plans and tasks for the development of the product and then communicates them to the Developers. At the start, this role also requires a full person, especially considering that the Product Owner is responsible for the implementation of the above described tasks in one person. A Scrum Team also has only one Product Owner even if the team is working on multiple products in parallel.
A superficial observer might think that by Developers we should mean programmers. Of course, Developers include software developers, but not exclusively. Developers are people who work on the direct creation of value. They include all the roles that enable the team to do all the work needed to create value. So a Developer can be a programmer, a tester, a business analyst.
The size of a Scrum team is typically 10 people or less. The team should be large enough to do all the work needed to create value. But it should also be small enough to focus on value creation effectively and be flexible enough to manage external and internal changes.
However, agility is not just a way of organising, it is a mindset that needs to be reflected in the way the team works.
Therefore, it is important that the team is not just a group of people, but a real team, ready to work together to help each other and to meet the customer’s needs. We are not always lucky enough to work with “ready-made” teams. Typically, the group becomes a team through working together. Although the task of establishing a team is not exclusively related to agility, yet it has a very important role in a Scrum framework. Creating a team is one of the primary responsibilities of the Scrum Master. Without his/her help it is very difficult to transform a group into a team.
Before starting the Sprint, the team should have at least a theoretical understanding of the agile values and framework. It is therefore important that team members receive training appropriate to their role.
The Scrum team is open to Agile values. They know and understand the empirical pillars of Scrum: transparency, inspection and adaptation. These pillars ensure team functionality and continuous improvement of teamwork.
It is also necessary to understand and live the core values of Scrum, as they are the foundation for success. The 5 core values are: commitment, focus, openness, respect and courage.
If the team is open to these, then the human side is ready to launch the first Sprint.
According to the Scrum Guide, the first event of the Sprint start is Sprint Planning. To successfully execute the planning, you need to have a well-defined, orderedtask list, the Product Backlog. The Product Owner is responsible for the creation and management of the Product backlog. The refinement of tasks is typically done jointly by the team. It is recommended that Developers know the highest priority items in the Product Backlog in advance and also consider whether the tasks can be broken down to require approximately 1 day of resources to complete. In other words, a properly prepared Product Backlog is a prerequisite for launching a Sprint.
The preparation of the product backlog can be effective if the Team has the necessary knowledge of the relevant industry and the product, Also if they know and understand the Product Goal set by the Product Owner. Knowledge of the Product Goal and to understand it is vital as the Team is focused on this goal at all times.
According to the Scrum Guide, satisfying the human factors and material conditions described here is a necessary prerequisite for starting the first Sprint. But are these conditions sufficient to make the first Sprint a success? The answer is clearly no. Not because the Scrum Guide is flawed or incomplete. But it should be remembered that Scrum is a framework, it needs to be extended with the company specific content. That is how you get a complete, working system.
Adapting the Scrum Guide to the corporate environment
The Agile Manifesto emphasises the importance of face-to-face communication and considers it the most effective way of information transfer within a team. Personal communication is even more effective when the team is physically working in the same place. A shared working environment also helps team members to become a successful team that works well together.
This is difficult to achieve in international teams, but it is important to minimise segregation within the team.
In the case of already functioning teams, it may be the task of the Scrum Master to create a common working space. Of course, it is also good if the Scrum Master is supported by an Agile leader. In the beginning, when the team is still being assembled, these tasks are typically performed by the Agile leader.
One of the responsibilities of an Agile leader is to ensure that the right people are available for the team. In many cases, this can be done with external resources: recruitment and selection processes are part of resource management.
Ensuring the professional development of individuals, evaluating the performance of individuals and other people management tasks could be performed by the Scrum Master, but in this case the equality of team members and the servant-leader role of the Scrum Master would be compromised. Most of the people management responsibilities related to individuals are difficult to perform in public in front of the team. In many cases it is the Agile leader who deals with team members as individuals.
The team gives feedback in retrospective meetings. The Agile leader can also be helpful in processing the feedback received, by helping colleagues to do this in private, behind closed doors. The Agile leader’s feedback is primarily for the professional development of the individual, but can also play a role for example in resolving conflicts outside the team.
It is important to note that an Agile leader is not a traditional leader, much less a manager. An Agile leader promotes an Agile culture and thus fosters innovation, creativity, empowerment and collaboration. This support can only be achieved if the Agile leader avoids micromanagement and trusts motivated team members to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
According to the agile approach, leaders need to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. The relationship between Scrum teams and organisational leaders is based on collaboration, open communication and trust. In line with the agile approach, both parties must be ready to continuously improve and learn new things.
An Agile leader can only do this if he/she is familiar with agility and believes in agile principles. He/she must be familiar with the Agile changes that have been introduced in the organisation and with the common vocabulary that has evolved. In all cases, Agile training helps the leader to learn and develop an Agile approach. The training plays an important role in ensuring that the leader and the team members are equally familiar with the methods and that a shared, company-wide agile vocabulary is developed. The training will lay the foundations and thus help Agile leaders understand the basics of Agile methods and their effective application in dealing with people, as well as establish the basis for a common vocabulary, which is essential for successful leadership communication.
To do this, leaders are in regular contact with teams, listen to their ideas and concerns, and provide support and help to remove impediments. Organising regular communication, making it transparent, is not a prerequisite for the first Sprint launch, but it is a major contributor to the success of an agile transformation.
Contact with decision-makers
Agile transformation and successful agile operations cannot be reached without the support of top management. Top management support can be effective if top managers are familiar with agile operations, agile culture and agree with agile principles and behaviours. Otherwise, Top management activities, such as micromanagement, “bad” change requests, which interrupt the pace and arc of agile operations, will soon appear and become more and more prevalent, making agile transformation and everyday work difficult and often impossible.
Agile training of top managers is needed before the first Sprint is launched and top management coaching is strongly recommended, especially in the early stages of agile operations.
The activities of top management have a great impact on the functioning of Scrum teams, therefore the key to a successful start and operation is to establish a way of top management communication before the first Sprint starts, keeping in mind the principle of transparency and the importance of informing the management based on pre-agreed criteria. The top management’s calendar is usually busy. Regular meetings between the team and the top manager should be arranged before the first Sprint starts and dates should be booked in the calendar.
Stakeholder analysis is an effective tool for the team or team representative to hold regular meetings with relevant top managers.
Relationship with the departments of the company
A Scrum team rarely works alone. In most cases it will be in contact with other Scrum teams and other departments in the organisation. Agile transformation does not always happen at the organisational level. Often only certain departments are involved in the transformation and it is also the case that the introduction of agile operations is done gradually within the organisation. In many cases the Scrum team works with units that do not operate according to agile principles.
The launch and success of the first Sprint will be greatly aided by informing the relevant departments about the new operation. This includes agile training and communication channels appropriate to the new way of working. Experience has shown that even after careful preparation, old reflexes may still work, e.g. team members may be directly assigned tasks. To avoid such cases, the Agile leader can be involved, alongside the effective work of the Scrum Master and the Product Owner and the corporate Agile Coach team can also play a role.
Experience plays a very important role in the successful launch of an agile operation. Experienced practitioners are able to understand the benefits and limitations of the agile environment and way of working, and know how to apply them in practice effectively. An experienced transformation expert helps to identify and manage the challenges and risks of starting agile at the design stage and builds on their experience to suggest solutions to potential difficulties.
Finding experienced agile practitioners is not easy and when things are ‘going well’, there is not as much need for a helping hand any longer. An optimal solution is to find a consulting firm with good references and experience and involve them in the transformation process. This way, the organisation not only gets help in planning and getting agile work up and running, but also has support available during the initial stages of the transformation when the organisation or team faces unforeseen challenges.
Experienced advisers are also a great help in the early stages of the necessary training. Good training alone is a huge gain. Agile training typically includes situational games, where the real value is in the evaluation of the game. Answering the questions asked during the training sessions correctly and confidently not only transfers knowledge, but also puts hesitant colleagues on the path to agility.
Ready, steady, go…
Preparatory steps have been taken: training sessions have been held, future cooperation with managers and partner departments has been outlined. The team’s workspace is ready, and the hardware and software infrastructure to create value is in place. With only the preparation for the first Sprint to go, the cross-functional team will be even more in focus.
Let’s summarise what the immediate tasks are before the first Sprint.
1. The team gets to know the industry and the domain to the extent necessary to do its creative work.
2. The team knows and understands the product vision, is clear about the product’s place and role and what value it brings to the customer.
3. The Definition of Ready is formulated. The Definition of Ready is a list of specifications for a task to ensure that the task contains the information needed to start the work.
4. A Definition of Done is formulated. The Ready definition contains the tasks and conditions that are necessary to make product growth complete and usable. More useful information about the Definition of Done can be found in our article.
5. The Product backlog is complete and its high priority items are ready for the team to review.</span
6. The team has reviewed the higher priority elements of the Product backlog, breaking down the large tasks into smaller manageable parts if necessary, while monitoring whether the elements of the backlog meet the Definition of Ready requirements.
Traditional Sprint preparation or Sprint 0
The preparation steps can be carried out in the traditional way, as described above, with a time limit assigned to each activity. Perhaps closer to agility is the implementation of the execution of the activities in the so-called Sprint 0.
A Sprint 0 or Preparatory Sprint is a Sprint used in the Scrum framework to make preparations before the first full Sprint. The aim of Sprint 0 is for the team to prepare the working environment, set up the necessary infrastructure, define the backlog and the tasks to be performed in the first Sprint, and prepare itself for the first Sprint. The duration of Sprint 0 is usually 2 weeks, but it may vary depending on the teams and the nature of the products.
Sprint 0 and traditional Sprint preparation have their advantages and disadvantages. What to consider when choosing the method depends on the needs of the organisation, team and project.
Sprint 0 provides an opportunity to strengthen communication between the team and the client, to clarify objectives and expectations, and to get the team to understand the initial order needs, priorities and the full picture of the product. During Sprint 0, the team members have become familiar with the agile framework and the Sprint, so they will approach the first Sprint with more confidence.
The advantage of a traditional Sprint preparation is that it takes less time than Sprint 0 and developers can start work sooner. Communication with the client during the preparation phase of the Sprint should also be a major focus, but this process can be simplified by describing the tasks in detail.
Overall, both methods can be used successfully to start a Sprint. The decision depends on the characteristics, needs and preferences of the team, project and organisation.
Whichever method is used to prepare for the Sprint, it is recommended to involve an experienced Agile Coach, who will use his Agile knowledge and experience to make the stakeholders aware of the completeness of the tasks and who knows how to avoid and overcome possible difficulties.
When not to start the First Sprint
We have reviewed the conditions for starting the first Sprint. However, it is also important to say a few words about when not to start the first Sprint.
If you encounter one of the following, you should not launch the first Sprint:
1. The culture or management style of the organization does not support the agile mindset, or the management is unwilling or unable to learn and apply agile thinking.
2. If the team does not have the knowledge, skills, experience or agile vision to adopt the agile approach.
3. If team members are not able to work together or there is inadequate communication between the team and managers or between the team and the related departments.
4. Lack of resources for implementation. Scrum teams are not complete, cross-functionality is not achieved, there is no appropriate Scrum Master or Product Owner.
The list above is only an example and covers common cases. It is important to note that every situation is unique, no two first Sprint launches are the same, so it is always worth carefully considering the circumstances.
If a team is not ready to make the agile transition, it doesn’t mean it has to give up agility. The maturity of the organisation and the team can be developed. To develop, get started and overcome the initial operational challenges, it is worth bringing in agility experts with professional knowledge and experience.The primary criteria for external assistance are experience, number of successful transformations and references. Remember that the most expensive agile transformation is a failed transformation.
The Sprint is on! Hurray!
The launch of the first Sprint is not the end of something, but rather the beginning of a new world. The team will face many challenges while still learning the practical approach of agile behaviour. The world does not stop, new tasks are added to the Backlog.
But, the team is already on the path to agility. True, the newly formed agile team still needs the help of experienced agile professionals to stay on track. Soon, the team will be more and more confident in the new world. In line with the core value of adaptability, the team will undergo a series of mini “transformations” as they work together more easily, enjoying more and more the creation of value. But that’s another story.
Written by: Péter Ökrös, Sprint Consulting