Sprint Goals are the beating heart of Scrum

Sprint Goal Jun 25, 2020

The common thread that binds all Scrum events together

What do Star Wars, Jaws, Batman, The Godfather, James Bond, Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park all have in common?

The Godfather Poster

You are probably thinking: these movies are all massive blockbusters. You’d be right, but that’s not what I am getting at.

Try to remember the aerial scene where the helicopter arrives at Isla Nublar to visit Jurassic Park. Visualize Darth Vader walking down the corridors of a Star Destroyer with Storm Troopers on his side. Picture the Batman light shining brightly in the sky for all in Gotham to see.

Did anything get triggered in the auditory part of your brain? If you are familiar with these movies, probably a melody surfaced and started playing in your head.

What all these famous motion pictures have in common is a catchy tune that keeps reappearing and ties the whole movie together. The melody provides a common musical thread that runs in the background to connect the story and evoke strong emotions.

In musical composition, such a catchy, recurring tune is called a 'Leitmotif’. 'Leit' stands for ‘Leading’ and 'Motif' for ‘Motive’. Leitmotif literally means leading motive. Musicians started using the term in the late 19th century to refer to recurring themes present in German operas. Der Ring Des Nibelungen by Wagner is an example of an opera containing many Leitmotifs.

Sprint Goals are the ‘Leitmotif’ of Scrum

In the movie Jaws two notes are constantly played to remind the audience of the shark that is lurking around. Even though the shark only appears two-thirds into the movie, at the 1 hour and 21 minutes mark, those two notes are a recurring reminder of the danger the shark represents. Even with no shark in sight for most of the movie, the Jaws leitmotif acts as a common thread connecting all the different scenes by instantly evoking a visceral response.

Roger Kastel — Public Domain

Like the Jaws tune, The Sprint Goal is the common thread running through all Scrum events. The Sprint Goal is the Leitmotif of Scrum. In every Scrum event, the Sprint Goal resurfaces to play a pivotal role. Without the Sprint Goal, the Scrum events are a mere shadow of what they can be.

I’ll recap the five Scrum events to show how the Sprint Goal is the common denominator between all of them.

Sprint — Time-box during which the Development Team attempts to build a Product Increment to achieve the Sprint Goal

Sprint Planning — Selecting the Product Backlog Items and creating a plan to meet the Sprint Goal crafted during this meeting

Daily Scrum — Optimizing the probability of reaching the Sprint Goal

Sprint Review — Gaining feedback on the Product Increment that was built to meet the Sprint Goal

Sprint Retrospective — Inspect how the last Sprint went with regard to people, relationships, process, and tools. Because in all other events, the Sprint Goal plays a pivotal role, and the purpose of this event is to reflect on the overall process, it definitely includes the Sprint Goal. The Sprint Retrospective covers how well the Sprint Goals were set and understood, and how the team adjusted their plans to make meeting the Sprint Goal possible.

To top it off: you are only allowed to make changes during the Sprint as long as the Sprint Goal is not at risk. The only reason for canceling a Sprint is when the Sprint Goal becomes obsolete.

The Sprint Goal dictates which changes are allowed and whether the Sprint still matters. That’s how vital the Sprint Goal is when you use Scrum.

Scrum loses its purpose without Sprint Goals

I recently read an article from a Professional Scrum Trainer (PST) published on the Scrum.org blog, where the author claims the Sprint Goal is optional. He reasons that the Sprint Goal is a nice-to-have, and it isn’t crucial to apply when you use Scrum. The Sprint Goal is only to be used when it suits your specific situation.

The main argument of the author is that the Sprint Goal isn’t an artifact. If it is that important, why isn’t it an artifact? And if it were made to be an artifact, then teams would start to apply it just to follow the Scrum Guide by the letter. Below the relevant part of the article that stresses this point:

“Not making it mandatory also allows teams to be flexible and decide whether it makes sense for them to have a Sprint Goal or not. What if, the Sprint Goal is made mandatory as an artifact and the teams start defining the scope of the sprint as a goal (I have seen many teams doing that) to be achieved to be in adherence to Scrum; what purpose would it solve? “— Piyush Rahate, Scrum.org blog

The ‘Sprint Goal is not an artifact’ argument is weak for three reasons:

  1. Even though the Sprint Goal is not an artifact, the Sprint Backlog is, and the Sprint Goal determines which changes to the Sprint Backlog are permitted and whether the Sprint Backlog still matters.
  2. Without a Sprint Goal, following the plan becomes more important than meeting the objective of the plan. In a complex environment, where more is unknown than known, not being able to change your plans with a north star to guide you as more information becomes available is a massive problem.
  3. The Sprint Goal guides the building of the Product Increment and is part of the core of the Sprint and all Scrum events. Once you take the Sprint Goal away, all Scrum events become hollow and pointless.

Sprint Goals are part of the core of Scrum

I’m going to take the opposite stance, Sprint Goals are mandatory and crucial when you use Scrum. By taking the Sprint Goal away, you’re undermining and disempowering the core of the Scrum framework.

When you reduce Scrum to its essence, the point is to build a Product Increment that meets the Sprint Goal at the end of the Sprint. The team commits to meeting the Sprint Goal during the Sprint. Without a Sprint Goal, there is nothing for the team to commit to. Without having any commitment, what is the point of having a Sprint at all, together with all the events that are part of it? And without a clear Sprint Goal, how can a team focus on what really matters? Without Sprint Goals everything in the Sprint Backlog becomes equally important.

If you follow everything in Scrum, but you are unable to produce a Product Increment that meets the Sprint Goal, then you miss the point. Delivering a Product Increment that meets the Sprint Goal at the end of the Sprint is the essence of Scrum. All other parts in Scrum are there to support and optimize the probability of building a valuable Product Increment that meets the Sprint Goal.

A valid, relevant Sprint Goal is necessary for the Sprint to keep going. Not having a Sprint Goal, means your Sprint lacks the purpose to keep it going. This is also why, when the Sprint Goal becomes obsolete, it means you should cancel the Sprint.

As written in the Scrum Guide, Nov 2017 version:

The heart of Scrum is a Sprint

The heart of Scrum is a Sprint, and without a Sprint Goal, that heart stops beating.

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