Why always Sprinting is at odds with delivering value

Scrum Apr 5, 2021

The Sprint is less about running and more about walking

Words matter. It’s not only what you say but how you say it.

Here are some everyday examples that show the power of words:

  • Employee vs. Resource
  • Reducing workforce costs vs. Right-sizing
  • You’re fired vs. We’re letting you go
  • Between jobs vs. Unemployed

Every pairing above boils down to the same thing. But it will definitely not be experienced the same way by a listener. You wouldn’t want to be called a resource by your boss in a conversation.

Now let’s circle back to the world of Scrum. Scrum comes with a host of novel terms like Scrum Master, Product Owner, Daily Scrum, and so on. But the most important concept in Scrum arguably is the Sprint.

Let’s examine how Sprints are described in the Scrum guide:

“Sprints are the heartbeat of Scrum, where ideas are turned into value.” — Scrum Guide 2020

Sprints are at the core of Scrum. Let’s ask ourselves the following question: how fitting is the Sprint label for what actually should happen during a Sprint?

To answer that question, let’s revisit a childhood memory that might be familiar to you as well.

On a road trip with my parents

As a kid, my parents had few disagreements. Interactions seldom erupted into an encounter with more frustration than communication. But we could count on one situation where disagreements could get slightly out of hand — family road trips.

We’d be traveling in a car for many hours, all of us exhausted and hungry. My brother and I likely had started punching each other in the backseat. My dad was often the one driving.

As we neared our destination, my mother would pull out the map and take on the role of navigator. As lovely as my mother is, reading maps is not her strong suit (Sorry, mom. You know I love you!).

As a result, my dad would start driving slower to hear from my mom what exit we should take. Despite slowing down, we would often still take the wrong exit and arrive at our destination far later than we wanted. These tense moments would often nearly escalate because everyone was tired and frustrated.

But this is not the main point of the story. When you don’t know where you need to go, you don’t move at full speed. Just like my parents, you will slow down to establish your bearings. You might still take the wrong exit, but you maximize your chances of making the right decision by taking your time.

When you don’t know where you’re precisely heading, and what you sense and see around you impacts the direction you’ll take, to keep moving at full speed doesn’t make sense. You need time to take your environment in, see what’s going on, reflect, and decide what to do next.

In other words: sprinting the whole time doesn’t make sense when you’re stumbling around and figuring out where you need to go.

Complex work is more stumbling than sprinting

Scrum is suited for complex work. When you do complex work, you don’t know exactly what needs to happen and which direction you should go. What you know beforehand isn’t good enough. It is what you learn while doing that matters too.

When you’re moving at full speed, just doing, there is no room for reflection. Also, at top speed, changing direction becomes more challenging. To arrive at your destination quickest you need to adjust your pace, sometimes even stop, and then when you have a clear direction to go in, you can Sprint. But you won’t be able to keep that up for long.

Sprinting sounds cool. It seems like you’re moving fast. We work in Sprints definitely sounds better than we work in Strolls. But in the end, what we do every Sprint has little to do with Sprinting, and has much more in common with walking.

Sustainable pace has (finally) been included in the newest version of the Scrum Guide. A sustainable pace means working at a pace you can keep up indefinitely.

Working in Sprints at a sustainable pace improves the Scrum Team’s focus and consistency. — Scrum Guide 2020

When you think of Sprints, don’t think of Sprinting. You can’t keep up running at full speed indefinitely. You can’t jog permanently either, you’ll collapse. The best you can do if you want to keep on going indefinitely is to walk. Walking is the natural pace of your body.

Remember the tortoise in the race against the hare. Slow and steady wins the race. Worry about moving fast only when you’re certain to be heading in the right direction.

Photo by Magda Ehlers

You only know you’re heading in the right direction if you spend enough time on discovery, increasing confidence what you’re building will be valuable, and validation, checking that what you’ve built changes customer behavior in a way that makes their lives better and delivers value to them.

When you do these things, you will have the appearance of moving slowly like the tortoise, but appearances can be deceiving. You’re actually moving quickest in the direction you need to be heading.

If you want the quickest start, Sprint, but when you want to finish first, work at a sustainable pace. You can’t finish first moving at full speed if you don’t know the exact route you need to follow. Figuring out the best way to arrive at your destination requires reflection, pause, and deliberation. Always Sprinting like a chicken without a head will get you nowhere.