Teams Perform with Agreement-Based Planning

Scrum teams perform best when they take the work. This is why Scrum uses a pull mechanism, facilitated by Agreement-Based Planning, instead of push when doing the work. In other words, work is pulled through the pipeline by people rather than pushed through the pipeline by process. To help teams pull work through, the mechanism Sprint Planning can be used. Sprint Planning offers a first step toward encouraging people to have a sense of free-choice when taking work. The power of free-choice can be understood by looking at self-determination theory, which aims to explain how we can improve focus, attention and interest. Self-determination theory can offer insights into why some practices in Scrum have proven so successful and can be used to deepen our understanding of Scrum. It’s important to note here that the current practices in Modern Scrum were arrived at through the effort of trial and error in building software products.

Agreement-Based PlanningIn Scrum, we can begin to tease these desired team behaviors to the surface by using the practice of Agreement-Based Planning. Agreement-Based Planning is not a ‘free-for-all’ do whatever you want mechanism however; there is a high level of autonomy on a Scrum Team when taking the work. The other important aspect of Agreement-Based Planning is that team members recognize that they are not alone in doing their work.  These two aspects give people role models (by watching each other) as well as a sense to jump in a ‘try something’ that might have appeared to be at the edge of their abilities but that they are still willing to try because they are not alone. Agreement-Based Planning is not the only practice in Scrum that can help tease the desired team behavior to the surface; it is simply one part of a mosaic made up of Scrum Practices. However, in this article we will focus on Agreement-Based Planning since its mechanism is easily understood and explained.

Agreement-Based Planning can be understood by asking some simple questions. We often say in agility that the process (the one you actually follow) is driven by the questions that you ask. Here are some simple questions to tease apart Agreement-Based Planning:

1)   Is the story well understood?

At the start of planning, the first question is brought to light by moving one story into focus. The story is moved from the Back Burner (Product Backlog) to the Front Burner (Sprint Backlog) by the Product Owner (for more o. The Product Owner and the team discuss what is written in the story by using dialog to ensure that they have a clear grasp on what is being asked of them. The team then holds a separate discussion to deepen their understanding about what it will take to do the job. The product owner can listen in at this point but usually does not because the detailed discussions are not something that he/she is interested in. Sometimes we call these ‘technical’ discussions or ‘how’ discussions. Regardless of the words you choose, they are details that the product owner relies on the team to handle. The product owner is available for further clarifying questions but is not actively involved in detailing the team’s tasks.

2)   Can the story be accomplished within the sprint?

The second question is a check with the team that they are not taking on work that is too big to be accomplished within a sprint. When work is too big, we call that an Epic. In Scrum, we break that work down into smaller ‘bites’ so that we don’t ‘choke’ the team during the sprint. This step is important because the team is taking on work it thinks they can accomplish and the question is helping them be realistic in their understanding. In practice, I find that teams still tend to take on too much work and fail to find ways to ease the pressure. When there is too much pressure, ‘free-choice’ feels less free and teams feel more compelled to do the work despite the enormity of the obstacles. Motivation then suffers. When motivation suffers, attention, focus and interest suffer as well. In short, we don’t do our best job.

3)   Can you take on another story?

By asking the third and final question we are seeking to fill a sprint based on a team’s self-perceived capacity to do work (how full they feel). Again, teams will overload themselves and potentially adopt damaging behaviors that rob them of motivation and hurt performance. Typically, most people want to do the work and want to do the work quickly. However, they have trouble identify what full means.

A good Scrum Coach uses Agreement-Based Planning to help the teams learn how much work they can handle. The Agreement-Based Planning activity will improve the team’s ability to pull work that they desire. Great teams will desire to build products customers love. So by working towards their desires, they will help solve the number one risk we have in Product Development, which is building the right product. Most of the software we produce does not satisfy the customer but it does get checked off as done. Self-Determination for a team can be nurtured in a direction that focuses their intellect on building high quality products that customers love. The success that we have seen when using Agreement-Based Planning can be explained as a way to help teams tap into the power of their intrinsic motivation while satisfying business objectives.