Commitment considered harmful

Some Agile evangelists are very keen on the idea of “Commitment.” i.e. the development team “commit” to doing an amount of work within a time-box (normally an iteration.) The team do this work come hell or high-water. They do what it takes. Once they’ve said they’ll do it they do it.

I believe the idea of Commitment was baked into Scrum – see the Scrum Primer by Larman, Benefield and Deemer for example. And I’ve heard Jeff Sutherland proclaim the power of Commitment in person. But it seem Scrum is less keen on it these days. The October 2011 “Scrum Guide” by Schwaber and Sutherland does not contain the words Commit or Commitment so I guess “commitment” is no longer part of Scrum. Who knew?

I’ve long harboured my doubts about Commitment (e.g. from last year see “Unspoken Cultural differences in Agile & Scrum” and “My warped, crazy, wrong version of Agile”, and from 2010 “Two ways to fill an iteration”) but now I’m going to go further and say the Commitment protocol for filling an iteration is actively damaging for software development teams in anything other than the very short run. This reassessment has been triggered by a) watching the #NoEstimates discussion on Twitter and b) visiting clients were teams attempt to follow the Commitment protocol.

1) Commitment can lead to gaming by developers who have an incentive to under commit (my argument in “Two ways to fill an iteration”).

2) Commitment can lead to gaming by the need/business side who have an incentive to make the team over commit

3) Commitment combined with velocity measurement and task estimation leads to confused and opaque ways of scheduling work into a sprint, Since (#1 and #2) developers over estimate stories and tasks and the business representatives apply pressure to reduce estimates. This prevents points and velocity of floating free instead they become a battle ground. (Points are a fiat currency, if you don’t allow it to float someone, somewhere, has to provide currency support; overtime from developers, or , more likely, inaccurate measurement.)

4) At one client commitment led to busy developers for the first half of the sprint (with testers under worked) and then as the sprint came to a close very busy testers with developers taking things a little easier. Except developers where also delivering bugs to Testers, the nice pile of bugs kept developers busy but meant that a sprint wasn’t really closed because each sprint contained bugs. On paper, on the day the sprint closed the sprint was done, but it soon required rework. There was also a suspicion that as the end of sprint approached Testers lowered their acceptance threshold and both Developers and Testers asked fewer probing, potentially disruptive, questions later in the sprint.

5) Developers under pressure – even self imposed – to deliver may choose to cut corners, i.e. let bugs through. Bugs are expensive and disruptive.

6) Developers asked to Commit ask for more and more detail before the sprint starts. A “cover your ass” attitude takes hold and stores start to resemble functional requirements of old with all the old problems that brought.

7) Developers become defensive pointing to User Stories and Acceptance Criteria and saying “Your bug isn’t included in the criteria so I didn’t do it” (the other end of a “cover your ass” attitude.)

8) Developers who have not totally mastered Test Driven Development will be tempted – even incentivised – to skip this practice in order to go faster. They may even go faster in the short run – building up “technical debt” – but in the long run will go far far slower.

9) Business/Customers conversely have no motivation to support development adoption of TDD or to invest in automated acceptance test (ATDD, BDD, SbE etc) of their own because, after all, the developers are committed.

Maybe I should say that I currently believe Estimates can work, I have sympathy with the #NoEstimates argument but I have clients where Estimates do work, one manager claims “to be able to bring a project in to the day” using estimates. So I have trouble reconciling #NoEstimates with experience.

Part of the #NoEstimates argument is that “estimates” are too easily mistaken for “commitments” and when they do so teams cannot be expected to honour them but some people do. Obviously if you remove commitment then the transmission mechanism is removed and estimates might still be useful.

While I’ve been suspecting much of the above its taken me a while to come to these conclusions. In part this is because I don’t see that many teams that actually do Commitment. Most of the teams I see are in the UK and I’ve always thought Commitment was a very American idea – it always creates images of American Football teams in my mind – “win one for the Gipper”.

Actually most teams I see are teams I have taught so they don’t do it. (they do some variation on Xanpan if I’m being honest). While I talk about Commitment I teach the Velocity protocol and it is estimation and velocity that is baked into Xanpan. (I hope to be able to push out my notes on Xanpan very soon so join the list.)

Three backlogs?

Now I know some people dislike backlogs – queues, wait states, work we want done – and I buy the argument. But the Scrum Sprint (Iteration) and Product Backlog model actually fits for a lot of organizations.

Maybe its a temporary state before moving to continuous flow, continuous value but it might also be a sensible state for many organizations. The Product Backlog is stuff they would like to do but haven’t gotten around to yet.

While I generally accept and teach the Product/Sprint backlog model (all the stuff we might do sometime in the future / the stuff we are of focused on for the next two weeks) I keep thinking its wrong.

There should be Three Backlogs

1. Opportunity backlog: all the ideas which have been suggested ever and have been considered worthwhile for recording. Recording such ideas does not in any way commit anybody to actually undertaking them.

2. Validated backlog: items from the opportunity backlog which have been examined, researched and discussed enough to be considered valid candidates for future development.

3. Iteration/Sprint backlog: the work that will be attempted in the current iteration.

While the iteration/sprint backlog plays the same role as it ever did – setting the agenda for the next iteration – splitting the product backlog allows for a clear separate of “good ideas” and “validated ideas.” Moving from the former to the latter involves checking ideas with stakeholders, measuring them against the over-arching goal, considering the benefits in the market or to the organizations and perhaps conducting experiments to measure benefits.

This three backlog model naturally maps to the three planning horizons I described a while back, and to the commonly used Epic, Story, Task work breakdown used by teams:
  • Opportunity backlog contains big items with little breakdown, Epics. These may be happen sometime in the longer term, over future quarters and years. They may appear on a roadmap or they may be more speculative.
  • Validated backlog items should be at the story size – small enough to be deliverable soon but demonstrating real business value. These items may be developed sometime in the next quarter so they appear on the quarterly plan.
  • Iteration backlog items are here and now, they are task sized and are in the current iteration.

There is no point in doing more work on any item until it moves to the next backlog, into the next planning horizon. At each stage some items will disappear, upon closer examination they will not be judged worthwhile.

Epics need not be broken down in their entirety before any work is undertaken. Ideally the first stories broken out of any epic would be experiments which could test technology options and, more importantly, market and client reaction.

For example the first stories for an epic entitled “Launch French version” might describe a series of data gathering experiments to assess the size of the market and opportunities. Translation, payment and such can wait, they might never need doing.

As for estimation:
  • Items in the Iteration backlog may well have detailed effort estimates arrived at from work breakdown if needed
  • Items in the Validated backlog probably have ballpark estimates and, very importantly, value estimates (how much is this item worth?)
  • Items in the Opportunity backlog might have effort scores taken from historical averages (why spend time estimating something that might not happen?) and can only move to the Validated backlog when a value estimate has been made and the item has been judged as worth doing relative to everything else

Three backlogs. What do you think? Good idea or silly?