Apply FOCUS to set great Sprint Goals

Sprint Goal Apr 22, 2019

Setting a good Sprint Goal is challenging and important. How do you nail Sprint Goals?

Setting a clear and overarching Sprint Goal is the most important part of planning a Sprint.

With a solid Sprint Goal you can recover from a poor Sprint Backlog or inadequate Sprint Plan. With a poor Sprint Goal it is difficult to get back on track. The Development Team will struggle without a North Star to help guide their plans and decisions.

To stress the importance of the Sprint Goal I published an article: the only thing that matters when planning a Sprint. After publishing the article I was overwhelmed with responses. Many people reached out to me and said: “I’m convinced, but how do you actually set a good Sprint Goal?“

To help answer this question I came up with the FOCUS mnemonic to inspect the quality of your Sprint Goals.

2020 Update: I improved and altered the acronym by including the Intent (Outcome + Why it matters). I removed sensible (should fit in the Sprint), as it is kinda obvious.

FOCUS stands for:

  • Fun
  • Outcome-oriented
  • Collaborative
  • Ultimate
  • Singular

Fun: set an inspiring goal to help motivate your team

Nothing is more boring than a Sprint Goal written in factual terms like ‘Refactor search results page to improve maintainability’.

Set a goal that is inspiring and fun, if possible! This one can be hard to do, but it will help with inspiring your team. By injecting personality and flavor you can even make something boring exciting.

An example would be to have a Sprint Goal called ‘Make filtering great again’. You would still need to specify the outcomes that are expected as part of the Sprint Goal. This could be a fun way to refer to your Sprint Goal, while everybody has common understanding of what is expected to achieve this.

Outcome-oriented: focus on a valuable result and not the way of getting there

“The problem with specifying the method along with the goal is one of diminished control. Provide your people with the objective and let them figure out the method.” — L. David Marquet

Sprint Goals should be focused on a valuable outcome, not the path to get there. By entangling the path in the outcome, you may set yourself up for failure. Allow me to explain using an example from experience.

A development team member had the idea to reduce the costs of a data warehouse. This was to be achieved by changing the database to one that was less costly. The Sprint Goal would be formulated as: reduce costs by changing database of data warehouse.

The weakness of the Sprint Goal became clear when another team member actually noticed there is a much easier way: reducing the amount of instances. Without adjusting the Sprint Goal, you rob yourself of the freedom to take this direction.

This is why you should specify the outcome, but leave the how out from the Sprint Goal. Leave it up to the team to figure out how to obtain the result. If unforeseen obstacles appear the team has the freedom to change approach.

Collaborative: the whole Scrum team crafts the Sprint Goal together

Product Owners are outcome-oriented and love coming to the Sprint Planning with a fully realized Sprint Goal. However, when you do this you are missing out big time.

The Sprint Goal should be debatable and open to discussion until it is finalized. The Scrum Team can rework and adjust the Sprint Goal until it is satisfactory. I even prefer setting the Sprint Goal together with the whole team by looking at the prioritized Product Backlog. This way the whole team can pitch in.

This achieves two things:

  1. Buy-in. Everybody supports the Sprint Goal because the team created it together.
  2. Common understanding. By determining the Sprint Goal together and having a conversation everybody will have the same understanding. What you write down is imperfect and by having a conversation you can reach a better understanding of the objective.

Ultimate: why does the outcome matter?

The final explanation of the why behind what you aim to achieve. By understanding why the outcome matters to customers and the business, your Scrum Team will have the best understanding to make the right decisions if circumstances change. The Sprint Goal should include an ultimate explanation of why it matters to customers and the business.

Defining an outcome isn’t enough. If circumstances change, and the team doesn’t understand why the outcome matters, they won’t be able to make the best decisions. By providing the outcome together with the way, the team will have the ultimate freedom to do what’s best as reality unfolds.

Singular: encourage teamwork by setting a common objective

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hoffman

It is easy to hedge your bets and decide on three things to add to your product.

What if you are only allowed to add a single thing? That’s much harder isn’t it?

As written in the Scrum Guide:

The Sprint Goal can be any other coherence that causes the Development Team to work together rather than on separate initiatives.

An example of a poor Sprint Goal consisting of three separate elements:

  • Implement filtering on Product Lister Page.
  • Improve site search speed.
  • Support Facebook login.

A Sprint Goal with three sub-goals is like having no common goal at all. You dilute the efforts of your team over different objectives, impeding teamwork.

A focused Sprint Goal allows the team to work together towards the same goal. By focusing the efforts of your team you will increase collaboration and speed up time-to-market.

So in the three examples above, you would just be allowed to pick a single one. That would be an example of a focused Sprint Goal.

Use FOCUS to get great Sprint Goals

Setting a clear and overarching Sprint Goal is the most important part of planning a Sprint. But setting good Sprint Goals is challenging and many people struggle with it.

To help with setting good Sprint Goals, I came up with the FOCUS mnemonic to inspect your Sprint Goals.

When you apply FOCUS, your Sprint Goals will be:

  • Fun. Keeping it exciting and uplifting will motivate and inspire your Scrum Team to go the extra mile.
  • Outcome-oriented. Be geared towards a valuable outcome.
  • Collaborative. The result of your whole Scrum Team working together and reaching an agreement.
  • Ultimate. The final explanation, by providing the why behind what you aim to achieve. By understanding why the outcome matters to customers and the business, your Scrum Team will have the best understanding to make the right decisions if circumstances change.
  • Singular. Set a single, unifying, and common goal to improve teamwork and collaboration.

The most important part of a Sprint Goal is applying focus and preventing your team from diluting their efforts. All the other things in FOCUS will make the Sprint Goal even better, but if you achieve only one thing it should be focus.

Make sure to set some time apart during Sprint Planning to come up with a good Sprint Goal. It’s well worth the time and will increase the chances of success of your Sprint.

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