What’s In Your Agile Playbook?

What options does a team have to finish all the stuff they’ve committed to when they’re mid-Sprint and realize they’re off track?

Last Tuesday at the  DFW Scrum group meeting (How to support changes during a sprint), a dozen curious souls followed me into the Improving Enterprises break room to explore the above question.

I encouraged everyone to think of Sprints as a game with the goal of getting all the ‘balls’ (User Stories) to the other end of the field before the end of the Sprint.  With that metaphor in mind, we came up with…….a playbook.  A pretty robust set of possible moves a team could make to ‘win the game’.

So…what are the possible moves?

Here are the plays we came up with;

  1. Look at the ‘score board  – (Some people call it a burn down chart) If you don’t know whether you’re on the 30 yard line or the 70, it’s pretty hard to figure out whether you should kick a field goal or throw a pass. Rule 1: Pay attention to the game.
  2. Fix the broken scoreboard  – Sometimes the burn-down looks horrible but the team is doing just fine getting all the balls to the other end of the field.  The scoreboard lies.  There’s no point in scrambling to address a problem that doesn’t exist.  Decide how to fix it.  You can’t be a winning team if you don’t know where you are.
  3. Do Nothing – a popular play many teams have developed considerable proficiency in executing, often to the exclusion of pretty much any other play.  Unfortunately, it’s a strategy most often destined to lose the Sprint game.
  4. Seek Advice – admit that you don’t know which play you should use, ask for a time out, and turn to your team, a trusted coach, manager, or a magic eight ball to help recommend a play.
  5. Ask for help – this is a move executed by a team member who realizes that they’re having trouble with a task and their ‘ball’ probably isn’t going to make it to the other end without help of some kind.
  6. Offer to help – related to ‘Ask for help’, sometimes a team member is struggling to move their ball but’s reluctant to ask for help. Put down your ball for a bit and offer to help a team member in need.
  7. Move to a team room – assuming that the team doesn’t already work in a team room, finding an available meeting room to work in together for a day or so magically causes the balls to move across the field faster – often enough to win the game. No really.. it’s kind of like magic.  As a side benefit, the team moves from selecting plays once a day to ‘as needed’ causing a lot more balls to make it to the end of the field.  (warning!!!; the almost instantaneous improvement in team performance can be pretty hard to miss: Somebody might even get the crazy idea that working in a team room is something the team should do more often… like, maybe even daily?)
  8. Play overtime – increase team capacity temporarily by adding the number of hours the players play per day.  Note: all plays have risk / reward factors to consider. Unfortunately, this is another play that tends to be used in lieu of more effective plays.
  9. Bring in additional players – find somebody not slated to play that sprint who can jump in and help get all the balls to the other end.
  10. Create some reserve capacity – this really isn’t an available play but more of a “wish we’d done that” strategy to consider when planning future sprints (i.e. let’s hold back a little capacity for stuff we didn’t expect… umm, because maybe stuff usually happens?)
  11. Re-prioritize Stories – decide to work the remaining backlog in a different order to win the most points for the sprint (not all balls are created equal).
  12. Take a ball out of the game  – acknowledge that the team just isn’t going to get a ball to the end of the field (ideally one a player hasn’t moved yet) and work with the product owner to select which.
  13. Reduce the number of balls In play – this is one of those plays that seems to rarely occur to many teams (probably because they’re so enamored of the ‘doing nothing’ and ‘play overtime’ plays) but limiting the number of balls the players are kicking around the field at the same time can significantly improve the score. Single pice flow really works; check it out.
  14. Reduce Tasks In Progress – This is kind of like ‘reduce the number of balls in play’ above but focused on tasks.  A team member (or team members) are bouncing around working different tasks kind of like the clown balancing on top of a stack of teetering chairs – trying to keep a half dozen plates spinning on sticks. It’s impressive, you can’t argue that the player isn’t terrifically busy but the balls are crawling across the field.
  15. Turn big balls down into smaller balls – Some stories are still too big so a way to score more points is to decompose them mid-iteration and score more points. Shouldn’t you do this before you start the Sprint?  Sure, but some things are better late than never.
  16. Take on Technical Debt (i.e. the ‘kludge’ play) – Reduce your standards (definition of ‘done’) for the Sprint – take a hit later, and go for the goal.  A dangerous play with some long-term consequences but it’s logically an option.
  17. Switch Players – Shuffle tasks or Stories between members of the team in a way that enables the team to win the game.  Maybe somebody is weak in an area and the team decides to strengthen that player’s skill in a later sprint rather than take the hit now.
  18. Change the task breakdown – develop another way to approach moving the ball down the field (i.e. changing the design, etc.) – possibly a different task breakdown (design approach) will allow more swarming or better distribute the problem complexity.
  19. Swarm on tasks – team up to complete higher value stories before the end of the Sprint.  See ‘change the task breakdown’ to enable this.
  20. Pair on task(s) – rather than working solo.  A cousin to ‘ask for help’, this is counter intuitive to a lot of teams but sometimes pairing not only improves a team’s score the quality of the solution is greatly improved.

We ran out of time to explore this further but the power in the discussion – the act of creating the  playbook was much more than just coming up with the plays because;

  • It prompted members to think about ‘daily planning’ in a new way; as a strategic opportunity to win the game rather than just a boring routine where team members discuss status.
  • By discussing the possible plays and exploring options we increased awareness that more options existed than many had considered.  We only spent about 30 minutes on this list.  Who knows what the number of possible plays are?  Why not spend a little more time and find out?
  • By collaborating together to create the playbook – it becomes a product of the ‘team’ (vs. ideas and a problem for just one member of the team to solve). The list we created above isn’t a bad one – you can keep it handy if you’re facilitating a discussion like this to prompt ideas – but encourage the team to create their own. On a real team, this has the potential to increase the sense of ownership and engage them to…. (gasp) self organize to win.

Creating the playbook together also creates the possibility for the team to consider more deeply these plays and evaluate which ones to use and when; not just in the moment but far in advance before the inevitable challenges to winning the game emerge.


Winning teams don’t just get out there on the field and play.  They pause to consider their strategies.  They work with their coach to develop play books and they learn the plays.  They’re constantly on the lookout for new strategies. They retrospect about specific plays that worked and which didn’t and they decide to decide better.

There are lots of ceremonies in the agile cannon for which teams have no playbook. They repeat the same plays over and over without really learning new ways to plan or win the game.

So consider…

What’s in your playbook?

4 thoughts on “What’s In Your Agile Playbook?

  1. Pingback: DFW Scrum’s July MeetUp | DFW Scrum User Group

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s