UnSMART Improvements at Retrospectives — Making Your Scrum Work #18

TL; DR: Unsmart Improvements

There are plenty of failure possibilities with Scrum. Given that Scrum is a framework with a reasonable yet short “manual,” this effect should not surprise anyone. One area that typically flies under the radar is improvements. While the Scrum Guide encourages addressing the most impactful ones as soon as possible, it is up to the Scrum team to figure out how to improve. One manifestation of this core team task we often encounter is picking unsmart improvements, though.

Join me and delve into the consequences of picking unsmart improvements as a Scrum Team in less than 90 seconds.

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Sprint Retrospectives According to the Scrum Guide

There are many references to events in general and Retrospectives in particular in the Scrum Guide 2020:

  • Page 6: The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness.
  • Page 6: [Scrum Masters] do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework.
  • Page 10: The purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to plan ways to increase quality and effectiveness.
  • Page 10: The Scrum Team inspects how the last Sprint went with regards to individuals, interactions, processes, tools, and their Definition of Done.
  • Page 10: The Scrum Team identifies the most helpful changes to improve its effectiveness..
  • Page 10: The most impactful improvements are addressed as soon as possible. They may even be added to the Sprint Backlog for the next Sprint.

Source: Scrum Guide 2020. (The aggregation is taken from the Scrum Guide 2020 Reordered.)

The Scrum Guide 2020 no longer advocates the previous approach: Choose at least one high-level improvement item for the next Sprint; now, it is a suggestion. However, the Scrum Guide does not guide how to accomplish the task at hand.

Manifestations of an Unsuited Improvement Approach

In my experience, three typical anti-patterns prevent a Scrum team from improving its way of working despite pouring money, brain, and time into becoming better at their game:

  1. The Scrum team picks unSMART actions: Bill Wake created the SMART acronym for reasonable action items: S – Specific, M – Measurable, A – Achievable, R – Relevant, T – Time-boxed. If the team picks unSMART action items, though, it sets itself up for failure. Example: “We want to change the bonus scheme of the company.” Good luck achieving that goal during the next Sprint!
  2. #NoOwner: No directly responsible individual takes care of an improvement item. (If the “team” is supposed to fix issue X, probably everyone will rely on their teammates to handle it. Find a caretaker instead.)
  3. #NoFollowUp: The Scrum team does not check the status of the action items from the previous Sprint Retrospectives. (The sibling of autonomy is accountability. If you are not following up on what you wanted to improve before, why care about picking action items in the first place? Do not let the momentum of a successful Retrospect fizzle out that way.)

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Unsmart Improvements — Conclusion

Every Scrum event is an opportunity for inspection and adaptation. The Sprint Retrospective provides that opportunity to the Scrum Team itself. While the Scrum Guide is no longer prescriptive regarding improvements, it points to the importance of continuously improving as a Scrum team. Hence, avoid standing in your way by picking unsmart improvements.

Have you met a Scrum team choosing unsmart improvements? What happened? Please share your learnings with us in the comments.

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📖 Unsmart Improvements — Related Posts

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The Blame Game Retrospective — Making Your Scrum Work #6

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Stefan Wolpers: Stefan—based in Berlin, Germany—has been working for 14-plus years as an agile coach, Scrum Master, and Product Owner. He is a Professional Scrum Trainer (PST) with Scrum.org. He has developed B2C as well as B2B software, for startups as well as corporations, including a former Google subsidiary. Stefan curates the ‘Food for Agile Thought’ newsletter and organizes the Agile Camp Berlin, a Barcamp for coaches and other agile practitioners.

View Comments (4)

  • Hello Stephan,
    we have experienced some UnSMART improvements picked by the team. But the team learned soon to think about it and propose SMART improvements and small enough to fit well in a Sprint.
    Additionally, we also suffered some #NoOwner when the improvement was assigned to the Team.

    What I found particularly difficult is the #FollowUp when the improvement is a change on the way the team works (workflow, sprint dynamics, testing strategy, ...). Basically, the improvement is not a work item to do, it is a decision that the team takes. But then, the team easily forgot what has been decided or by inertia the team continues to work the same way.

    Greetings from Barcelona

  • Hello Stefan,
    Thanks for your regular ideas. I must admit that this one I did not fully understand. The Scrum Guide leads us what to do (the last in your bullet list - take the most important improvements and agree to put it into the Sprint Backlog). One can simply apply this.

    Sprint Backlog is guarantee enough, that an item gives enough attention in terms of accountability, manageability by the team, transparency what exactly to achieve etc. And the rest of ideas and wishes... yes, some are just complaints about the space around us.

    I think all the teams know this principle, at least those who have passed Sprint 3 :-).
    Thanks anyway for your ideas and thoughts - glad to receive them.
    Greetings from Prague

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