From The Front Lines: Task Ownership

This is a success story since becoming a tactical ScrumMaster at work. It’s nothing that directly relates to personal growth, yet the following practice can aid in not taking on too much during your Sprint, just as it is helping my team members work at a sustainable pace.

In theory, Agile teams are made up of generalists: coders, testers, requirements folks, release engineers, all these people can do the jobs of the others; they are, well, agile. This way, anybody can do any task associated with any story in the Sprint backlog. In Scrum, this is encouraged; assign your name to a task that you are doing, or about to do. Nobody assigns your name to a task without your permission, since this violates the principle of Scrum teams being self-managed.

In practice, folks aren’t as agile. For example, I test medical devices. (To younger folks, I say something along the lines of, “I break expensive equipment, and they give me money to do it.” To complete strangers at my favorite cafe, I lie.) You want me coding? Fine, but I’m rusty; it’s inefficient and will drag down team velocity unnecessarily. Thus, per story, coding tasks will most likely be done by one of the coders, testing tasks will most likely be done by one of the testers, etc.

Introductory passages out of the way, here was the pain point. Our team is doing better than expected regarding velocity, in part due to the high level of commitment to the team each member has, as per a recent survey, and as per my own Spidey-senses. This commitment was so high, that sometimes, a team member would dive into implementing a story, realize it was hairier than the number of Story-points reflected, and (not-so-) quietly trudge uphill to get it done in time for testers to play with it before the Sprint end. This meant longer hours, which is not a sustainable pace – bucking against another Scrum principle.

Each morning, we do that 15-minute stand-up meeting, taking turns saying what we did yesterday, what we plan on doing today, and if there is anything stopping us or slowing us down. Ah, transparency, right? How much more see-through could we get? Well, this meeting did not cover a simple comparison: remaining hours of tasks assigned to me vs. remaining hours in the Sprint.

I recommended that we tweak a Scrum principle of self-managed teams: Assign your name to every task you think you will most likely do. The benefits:

  • The tool we use for Scrumming (tracking tasks, stories, backlogs, etc.) shows a simple graph of remaining hours per person, so we can all use that to ensure nobody is overloaded from a pure numbers perspective.
  • Assigning a task to yourself is not an etching in stone, so we can all see who might need help completing their tasks: you can hand off your tasks.
  • We can all see who is wrapping up their tasks and thus has bandwidth to help somebody out in completing a story.
  • With testing tasks usually done towards the end of the sprint, we can all see roughly by when the coding tasks for a story should be done, thus acknowledging inter-dependencies.

I asked that we all do this, not so that management could see what everybody was up to, but so that we had opportunities to help each other out as we got stuff done, at a sustainable pace. This added level of transparency was adopted by the team and I think it’s been helpful. We’ll see at the next Retrospective.

How does this help you with your ScrumOfOne? If you have hours associated with stories in your Sprint backlog, just total them and compare that with the number of hours left in your Sprint that you think you can dedicated to stories.

Be realistic: do at sustainable pace.