On My Phobia Of Sprint Planning

Yes. You heard it here first. Sprint Planning sessions fill me with fear.

Like most Scrum Masters, I’ve attended many Sprint Planning sessions – for many different projects, for many different teams. The ones in which there’s a distinct client (rather than for a product owned by the business) strike a particularly strong sense of foreboding into my soul. What if I don’t understand the requirements? What if the client gives me a hard time and I have to think on my feet? What if I can’t contain the developers’ enthusiasm to underestimate everything to keep the client happy? What if I can’t contain the developers’ enthusiasm to wildly overestimate in order to protect themselves? What if I go over time and we’re not finished? What if, what if, what if???

And then I take a deep breath, turn the door handle and step, once more, unto the breach..

The fear

Of course, if all Sprint Planning sessions turned out to be as bad as I feared, then I would have quit Scrum Mastery a while ago. Maybe I would’ve taken up something like shark painting or oil rig wrestling.

The first mistake I make is to be fearful for myself. Two things then come to mind, and provide immediate comfort:

  1. if I’m scared, how do I think the team must feel?
  2. it’s a team effort and the developers know more than I do; draw upon them for support and give them yours

By now, my heart rate has dropped a little. Then more lifelines get thrown down to me by my reasoning:

  1. being brave is about being honest. The outcomes are better following an honest appraisal of a problem than from following one given under duress
  2. the last iteration is behind us, we’re closer to the finish, and there are new discoveries ahead. Rejoice!

Facing it

As with checking in during retrospectives, I combat my fears by trying to be the first person to speak when the meeting kicks off. I state the intended outcomes of the session, the duration and all that administrative stuff, and I make it clear that the meeting is about discovering work and focusing on creative ways of addressing the Product Owner’s goals. By making this first stab, I’m quickly able to bury my nerves and get on with it.


Image courtesy of Frederick Homes for Sale, Flickr (CC)

But some Sprint Planning meets can be…. difficult. So what happens when my nightmares start to come true?

I’ve been on the brink of an argument with a client during one memorable session. But rather than let emotions get involved, I reminded myself that lives were not at stake here; just assumptions – some valid, some not. I assured the client that I was only labouring a point because I felt I had evidence to back up my claims (about estimation, now you ask) but that we, as a Scrum team, were there to not only validate his assumptions, but to challenge them and present hopefully better alternatives. After all, we’re paid to think, not just do.

Keeping your head and your cool is key.

Sometimes the problems are closer to home. Like the time the team I was serving never finished any stories, and each planning session was a repeat of the previous; always choosing the same not-yet-Done stories. In those cases, your skills as a Scrum Master are tested quite hard. You have to come up with a way of breaking the deadlock, lifting spirits and ensuring all parties, stakeholders and Product Owner included, know the facts, no matter how painful they are to admit. You need to extract valid points of learning from failures such as these. And, of course, you need to establish a way of not going down that alley again in the future.

So, with all this going on, it’s no wonder I get a little shaky! But, that all said and done, a little adrenalin can certainly add gusto to your mastery.

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