Better Scrum sprint planning – look to the demo

After having worked with Scrum for a number of years, I still witness sprint reviews where the team’s demonstration of the product is confusing and the value produced in the sprint is unclear. The demo may consist of just a bunch of different functions and screens without any meaning. Or maybe the team is just talking about what happens behind the curtains in the database. Or maybe the demo just doesn’t display the value that the team was supposed to give to the stakeholders. Most teams have okay demos most of the time, but every now and then, it’s a complete train wreck.

If you’ve experienced a sprint like this, you probably noticed some problems from the very beginning. The sprint planning may have been chaotic and the work during the sprint may have felt purposeless. Chances are that the team was most of the time discussing technical terms that didn’t make much sense to the product owner.

If your team learns to be clear about the sprint goal, you can avoid anemic demos, unstructured planning and undirected work. “But wait”, you may say, “we had a sprint goal and our demo still sucked”. You may think you have a clear sprint goal, but very few teams know what a sprint goal looks like. You may have one, but you might have gotten there by accident.

Here is what a sprint goal looks like: At the end of this period of time, we will demonstrate something to our stakeholders. What we will demonstrate will tell a compelling story that demonstrates real value. We can create the first draft plan of what the demo will look like already at the sprint planning, and we can use this description both to verify our understanding and plan our work.

Let’s say that the product owner says “the goal for the next sprint is to verify the payment solution.” What would a plan for this sprint look like?

At a sprint planning meeting, after the product owner has described the goal, the team plans its work. Then they come back to the product owner to verify that their plan matches the goal. This is what a good plan may sound like: “We will set up so that all users on the web site has a random set of items in their shopping cart. Then we will go to the checkout page. Here, we will see that the shopping cart is displayed in a reasonable way. When we click the payment button, the user will be redirected to the test site for payment provider. We’ll input credit card details and pay. The user will be redirected back to the web site and the web site will display the success or the failure of the payment. We’ll also show the order along with the payment status in a early mockup of the order list page”

The product owner may agree to this sprint plan. If the team knows their technologies well, it is now easy to break this down into tasks, such as “create a shopping cart model”, “display shopping cart page”, “retrieve the payment status from the payment provider” and “store the payment status in the database”.

This demo script will guide the team both during the construction and during the actual sprint review. During the construction a team member is now in a position to solve the sprint goal in the simplest way possible. By focusing on how the team will demonstrate value instead of what technical tasks may or may not be required (e.g. “construct a new order facade service” – whatever that may mean!) we can dramatically cut down on wasteful and convoluted design.

Agile methods emphasize “adapting to change over following a plan”. The same holds true for a demo script. The purpose of the script is not to create a perfect plan (which is of limited value), but to get a clear picture of what we need to create and how we will demonstrate that we have indeed delivered real value.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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