SMART Sprint Goals Are Stupid

Sprint Goal Sep 17, 2020

Making your Sprint Goals fun is underrated

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Decrease page load time on the Product Detail Page by 300 ms

Increase conversion by 1% by reducing friction in the checkout

Migrate our customers to a new CRM system

Did you start yawning already? I did.

These Sprint Goals tick all the boxes of the SMART acronym: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Oriented. Though SMART makes your Sprint Goals factually accurate, nothing prevents them from boring your team to death. Would you wake up excited to come into work when thinking about the Sprint Goals I presented above?

Hell no! If you would read these Sprint Goals before bedtime, you’d probably fall asleep.

Yet this is what passes as an acceptable Sprint Goal for most teams. We go down the wrong path of focusing first and foremost on making Sprint Goals factually clear and carefully spelled out. It is almost if we believe a team of robots should be able to take over and finish the job. Excitement and emotion don’t enter the equation. Phrasing Sprint Goals similar to the Acceptance Criteria of a Backlog Item guarantees to evaporate all enthusiasm.

Is there a better way of phrasing Sprint Goals instead of aiming for an accounting-level precision that bludgeons all excitement?

Let’s remind ourselves of the historical speech John F. Kennedy gave in 1961 that inspired the world for many years to come:

“This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” — John F. Kennedy

The goal Kennedy proposed in this address before Congress had the rare quality of being both concrete and inspiring at the same time. That’s not an easy feat, but hey, we’re talking about space travel here! Everybody got excited after hearing this speech and gave everything to meet the goal.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could harness the same kind of motivation and anticipation with your Sprint Goals?

Let’s compare the boring Sprint Goals I mentioned before to examples my Scrum Teams came up with:

Lights, Camera, Action!

Donny says ‘Yes’ to the Dress

You’ve got mail

Sounds way more exciting, right? Probably not ‘Going to the moon-level excitement’, but good enough for a Scrum Team. When you hear these goals, you’d be curious to learn more and understand what they represent.

Now, of course, you’ll counter by saying these Sprint Goals sound like a jolly lot of fun, but they make no sense at all. What do these Sprint Goals actually mean?

Well, you are both right and wrong. To the reader, these Sprint Goals are vague. To the team, these objectives were crystal clear, just like Apollo 11, Got Milk? or the Manhattan Project. Allow me to elaborate on what these aforementioned Sprint Goals meant.

Lights, Camera, Action! meant that we should do whatever it takes to go-live with our newly built platform. Let’s get that camera rolling!

Donny says ‘Yes’ to the Dress, reflected a promise of one of our team members. Donny would wear a dress if we could successfully ship and return our first item before the end of the Sprint. And yes, Donny did wear that magnificent red dress we ordered for him!

You’ve got mail the goal was to implement all the different e-mails we needed at different stages of the shopping journey.

Did we write down somewhere what these Sprint Goals meant exactly? No. We created the Sprint Goals together. As a result, it was clear to the whole team what the Sprint Goal represented. We had a common understanding and trust. If necessary, you can still formulate the outcome you expect in a SMART way and tie it to the Sprint Goal title. By abstracting the Sprint Goal away and referring to it with a short and inspiring title, you energize and inspire the team way more than force feeding the facts. Being factual is accurate, but not necessarily inspiring.

Let’s circle back to the Sprint Goals at the beginning of the article and give them a title with a nice ring to it:

Instant PDP

Decrease page load time on the Product Detail Page by 300 ms

Show me the money!

Increase conversion by 1% by reducing friction in the checkout

Beam me up Scotty

Migrate our customers to a new CRM system

These titles sound much more inspiring than the original, and I can guarantee you they will be dropped casually in conversation more frequently than before. Nobody will remember the original factually accurate Sprint Goals. But with a catchy name to remind them, you can bet they will be able to tell you the SMART representation as well.

By formulating a memorable title you conjure a motivating mental picture in the minds of your team members. A stirring image that sticks in their brain beats any fallible contract you can come up with together. But you do need to place sufficient trust in your team that they are capable of being more than a group of drones that execute a plan.

Give your Scrum Teams the freedom to formulate an exciting goal together and trust them to get it done. Putting the exact details at the forefront is less important than harnessing their energy by making them care. We humans are emotional creatures. If they understand the goal and it motivates them, then the details that matter will emerge even if you don’t prescribe them with painstaking accuracy.