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Synchronize the Team

26 Aug, 2014

How can you, as a scrum master, improve the chances that the scrum team has a common vision and understanding of both the user story and the solution, from the start until the end of the sprint?   

The problem
The planning session is where the team should synchronize on understanding the user story and agree on how to build the solution. But there is no real validation that all the team members are on the same page. The team tends to dive into the technical details quite fast in order to identify and size the tasks. The technical details are often discussed by only a few team members and with little or no functional or business context. Once the team leaves the session, there is no guarantee that they remain synchronized when the sprint progresses. 
The only other team synchronization ritual, prescribed by the scrum process, is the daily scrum or stand-up. In most teams the daily scrum is as short as possible, avoiding semantic discussions. I also prefer the stand-ups to be short and sweet. So how can you or the team determine that the team is (still) synchronized?

Specify the story
In the planning session, after a story is considered ready enough be to pulled into the sprint, we start analyzing the story. This is the specification part, using a technique called ‘Specification by Example’. The idea is to write testable functional specifications with actual examples. We decompose the story into specifications and define the conditions of failure and success with examples, so they can be tested. Thinking of examples makes the specification more concrete and the interpretation of the requirements more specific.
Having the whole team work out the specifications and examples, helps the team to stay focussed on the functional part of the story longer and in more detail, before shifting mindsets to the development tasks.  Writing the specifications will also help to determine wether a story is ready enough. While the sprint progresses and all the tests are green, the story should be done for the part of building the functionality.
You can use a tool like Fitnesse  or Cucumber to write testable specifications. The tests are run against the actual code, so they provide an accurate view on the progress. When all the tests pass, the team has successfully created the functionality. In addition to the scrum board and burn down charts, the functional tests provide a good and accurate view on the sprint progress.
Design the solution
Once the story has been decomposed into clear and testable specifications we start creating a design on a whiteboard. The main goal is to create a shared visible understanding of the solution, so avoid (technical) details to prevent big up-front designs and loosing the involvement of the less technical members on the team. You can use whatever format works for your team (e.g. UML), but be sure it is comprehensible by everybody on the team.
The creation of the design, as an effort by the whole team, tends to sparks discussion. In stead of relying on the consistency of non-visible mental images in the heads of team members, there is a tangible image shared with everyone.
The whiteboard design will be a good starting point for refinement as the team gains insight during the sprint. The whiteboard should always be visible and within reach of the team during the sprint. Using a whiteboard makes it easy to adapt or complement the design. You’ll notice the team standing around the whiteboard or pointing to it in discussions quite often.
The design can be easily turned into a digital artefact by creating a photo copy of it. A digital copy can be valuable to anyone wanting to learn the system in the future. The design could also be used in the sprint demo, should the audience be interested in a technical overview.
Conclusion
The team now leaves the sprint planning with a set of functional tests and a whiteboard design. The tests are useful to validate and synchronize on the functional goals. The whiteboard designs are useful to validate and synchronize on the technical goals. The shared understanding of the team is more visible and can be validated, throughout the sprint. The team has become more transparent.
It might be a good practice to have the developers write the specification, and the testers or analysts draw the designs on the board. This is to provoke more communication, by getting the people out of their comfort zone and forcing them to ask more questions.
There are more compelling reasons to implement (or not) something like specification by design or to have the team make design overviews. But it also helps the team to stay on the same page, when there are visible and testable artefacts to rely on during the sprint.

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