Last month, seven software development teams (35+ members) stepped away from their sprint for one day and participated in Sprint Stand-down. The problems the teams were trying to solve during the Stand-down were technical—the teams recognized they had a collective knowledge gap and needed to slow down to speed up.
During the Stand-down retrospective, we discovered the teams increased productivity by over 500% in one day—an unexpected and welcomed event outcome. The retrospective provided us an opportunity to examine the how and why behind the hyper-productivity realized in this unfamiliar, one-day training event.
The lessons we learned were not revolutionary; instead, the lessons reinforced the values and practices found in the Agile Manifesto, Scrum, Extreme Programming, CrossLead, Flawless Execution, Crew Resource Management and Threat and Error Management. In one day, a Sprint Stand-down provided undeniable evidence to developers, product owners, managers, directors, VPs, and the CIO that empowered execution trumps the traditional command-and-control approach to product delivery.
The transferable lessons learned from the Stand-down fall into familiar categories:
- Shared Purpose/Objective
- Workload Management/Limit Work in Progress (WIP)
- Execution Rhythm or Cadence
Before going deeper into the lessons learned, I want to share a little bit about the origins, concept and our approach to a Sprint Stand-down.
You will not find a Sprint Stand-down in the Scrum Guide. A Stand-down is not found the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) vernacular nor is it part of any Agile or current trending management methodology. A Stand-down is a training evolution commonly used by elite military units, commercial aviation, and other high-reliability organizations (HRO) to accelerate team performance.
The purpose of any Stand-down is to promote knowledge-based training along with personal discipline and responsibility as essential elements of professionalism. It is designed to empower and inspire a community of professionals to continuously seek knowledge, integrate new information in everyday practice, and share new findings with others within the company and industry.
The event was a self-organized undertaking where a small team of eight people were accountable for event execution. Planning for the event followed a rapid planning processes inspired by Crew Resource Management (CRM) and Threat and Error Management (TEM). The objectives of this Sprint Stand-down were to inform, inspire, educate, and motivate the teams—admittedly weak objectives as they lacked clarity and measurability.
With a shared understanding of the Stand-down objective(s), the planning team used a liberating structure to capture anticipated threats and the resources needed to overcome those threats, and reviewed lessons learned from previous events that were similar to a Stand-down. A Stand-down plan was formed in less than 35 minutes where each planning team member knew who would have to do what by when to ensure flawless Stand-down execution.
The Stand-down included in-house subject matter experts and one external trainer with 35+ team members in one room for 6.5 hours. Team members treated the Stand-down as an offsite, declining all meetings and turning on their Outlook out-of-office replies. Team members were randomly assigned to one of two Stand-down teams as determined by the type of gift card they received when they entered the Stand-down room. Two additional gift cards were given to all participants for the purpose of regifting —team members were encouraged to give away their gift cards to other team members for any reason. Team members were warned that over lunch (provided by the company) they may be called upon to share with everyone to whom they gave a gift card to and why. The CIO provided an impromptu leadership moment which included the distribution of additional gift cards to team members who were nominated by their peers.
An outcome of the event was an increase in productivity by 200% to 700% depending on the metric used (e.g. story points, stories done, stories in progress and stories done, etc.). However, it is likely, based on stories “done” during the Stand-down, 26, versus average stories completed during a normal sprint day, 5, the increase in productivity was 500%. In one day.
For argument’s sake, let’s just say the productivity outcome for this one day event was 20%, a palatable number for those who have not embraced the power of Scrum or empowered execution. What if we could take the lessons learned from this event and apply them to how we work during our normal workdays to get a productivity increase of 5% in the next two weeks?
Sprint Stand-down Lessons Learned
- A team needs a shared purpose or common objective. Objectives should be clear, measurable, achievable, and aligned to a focus area, strategic line of effort, company vision, etc.
- A shared purpose builds unity of effort. Teams were observed self-organizing throughout the day and reported a reduction in duplication of work and an increase in cross-team knowledge-sharing.
Workload Management/ Limit WIP
- Limit WIP. Individuals reported being happier as they felt part of a team of teams working toward one goal.
- Context Switching is bad. Most team members reported that they did not check their email during the six hours. Team members reported that the internal Stand-down disruptions (we played music during frequent shout-outs) slowed them down and were absolutely disruptive.
- Protect the teams from out-of-band work. Team members reported that they had no out-of band work during the day.
- Empower team members to push back on work that is not aligned to the objective.
- Pairing works. Teams paired all day. Some mobbed.
- Say “Thank You.” Team members should recognize and acknowledge the importance of others in task performance.
- Leaders need to be visible but not intrusive. Checking-in to say “thank you” to individuals carries more weight than email.
- An invisible leader is a visible problem. Team members noticed those leaders who failed to stop by to see how the day was progressing.
- Unscripted leadership is the best kind. The CIO’s visit was received as genuine.
- Recognition from leaders is great, but peer recognition of important contributions is even better.
Execution Rhythm or Cadence
- Stand-down tempo is not sustainable but the practice is sound when a knowledge gap exists.
- Stand-downs should not exceed six hours.
- Schedule Stand-downs as required. No more than once a month.
- Face-to-face communication remains the gold standard.
- Keep work visible. The teams shared one electronic backlog.
- Co-locate teams to maximize the value of osmotic communication.
- Cross-team pollination builds trust.
Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering Naval Aviator and Commander in the U.S Navy Reserve. He is the co-founder of AGLX, LLC, a Seattle-based Agile Leadership Consulting Team, and a ScrumTotal Advisory Board Member.