Business Success With Sprints

Business Success With Sprints

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Speeding Up Success

Business success is about innovating and reducing problems as quickly as possible.   Traditionally, this has just been a journey with no clear end and no intermediate points where you check progress and reconfirm the direction is still correct.

The software industry found this approach led to frequent delays and over-budget problems.  They developed an new approach that reduced these problems.  It was named “Sprints” but is also closely related to the similar techniques named Agile or Scrum.  We use the term Sprints generically.

Instead of planning out a long sequence of events, from start to finish, the Sprint concept takes comparatively small periods of time of  from 1 to 4 weeks. The Sprint looks ahead to what can be done in that time and which can be brought to a complete and sensible conclusion.

In this way, it is the opposite to the project planning that you do to (eg) build a house. With this type of project, there are many stages and a lot of sequencing required. Therefore, it makes sense to plan the whole thing in advance in order to co-ordinate a timetable.

Sprints, on the other hand, tend to be shorter, more intense bursts of work followed by a period to pause and reflect before the next sprint.

This article is a mix of Yellow and Blue Belt introductory material.   See the Wrap-up Section at the bottom for more Belt-coded resources

Table of Contents

Why Should You Sprint?

Sprints are very helpful when there are a lot of distractions around. It causes you to focus on the vital few activities in priority while you “sprint” to complete that activity.

Each sprint ends in achieving worthwhile improvement. Therefore, you get business success results faster than you get with a formal project. There are several benefits to this;

  1. The frequent successes you get with sprints of 1 to 4 weeks is good for morale. Particularly when business success circumstances are not very good. People can see an improvement with the business much faster than they would if it was a longer term (say) quarterly, 6 monthly or annual.
  2. With a Sprint’s short time frame, the frequent successes add up more quickly than single long term successes. For example, the laws of Compound Interest say that if you improve your business by 10% each week, it will double its performance in just 7.2 weeks.
  3. There is a concept known as the “homework” problem. Read about this under the heading, Tracking Systems, in our article: How the Profit Flywheel Accelerates Your Business. Strangely, even if someone has weeks to finish their homework assignment, it is often completed in the last 10 minutes. And it is the same in business. Therefore, if someone knows they have 3 months to finish a task, there is a very high probability that they will only commence toward the end of that 3 month period. They will overshoot the time available and/or spend a lot more money to get back on track by hiring extra resources.
  4. When there are numerous unknowns about what will work and what the outcomes will be, doing something for a comparatively short period allows you to explore the outcome of that activity. And then adjust the work program to reflect whatever the outcome was. So, if something is successful, you would continue down that route with additional Sprints. On the other hand, if it turns out not to work, you can change the sprint activity. That way, even when you make mistakes in your choice of activity, you can recover far faster than you can with a longer term project.
  5. Forcing people to focus on a Sprint also makes them less likely to use multi-tasking. This is a major time waster and means that successful outcomes will be delayed due to the frequent switching of tasks. Go to the article: Why Multitasking is Not Your Friend

Business Success: How Long Are Sprints

There is no hard rule for this. Sprints typically range from 1 week to 1 month. The most common is 2 weeks. However, you can vary this according to your industry, your workload or other factors.

Our recommendation is to keep the sprints shorter (as short as 1 week) in the early stages of any project. This makes sense while you are learning about what makes it work and what avenues are less likely to be successful. 

This way, you can make frequent small changes rather than infrequent large failures. The short time period keeps everyone engaged and managing momentum and their interest. Even if they are doing a task that they do not particularly like, the fact that it only takes a week or two is something that they can live with.

When the outcome of a sprint is successful, it builds morale. It is also follows that new evidence, coming out in the course of the sprint, can cause the business to change direction and priority. Therefore, you don’t waste the time on dead ends that you might in a longer time period.

Once the urgency of running sprints is reduced, they can revert to a longer period.

However, do not take too long or the advantage of the sprints will be lost. It is better to have several shorter duration sprints, with several tangible outcomes, than to have one longer period with just one tangible outcome on your path to being a successful business.

Planning Your Sprints

Destination: Business Success

When you start planning a series of sprints, you need to have a clear destination in mind. This is so that all sprints lead to reaching that destination; even if they end up going down different routes to get to the destination.

As an example, if you decide to drive to a town 500 kilometres away, there would be many different routes that you could take to get there. However, the fact that you have a destination in mind, means it does not really matter which route you take; you will always get there. In fact, you will even get there if you are driving at night and can only see 200 metres ahead of you.

Visualise The List of Sprints

Don't Over Plan

You don’t need to over-plan. The number of sprints to reach your project destination, and what they might be, will be determined over time.

As you experience each sprint, circumstances change and you will find that firmly made plans collapse quite quickly.

There is a rule of thumb for military planners.  They plan as best they can, but the whole plan collapses the moment the battle begins. Working on how to be a successful business can be much the same.

Things that can change in your plan include;

  • Your priorities change as progress unfolds and gives you a better understanding or introduces new issues and problems. Any advance planning effort that you have put in will be wasted at this point.
  • Some sprints can take longer than expected so planning too rigidly gets everything out of the time frame. 

Planning Tools

There are many ways of producing a framework of the tasks that need to be undertaken in your various sprints. As suggested, you do not want to plan too rigorously in advance. For that reason, you can draw the steps up in a spreadsheet as it is easily modified as circumstances change.

In our case, we use mindmap programmes, like Mindomo. It allows you to easily move things around in a mind map, on any device that happens to be around, when you have a brainwave.

There is specialised project management software available. These come in various degrees of complexity and price. The simplest to use are the Kanban tools. These let you drag tasks to do from columns as you move them up the list of priorities. A useful and free piece of software to do this is Trello.

There are also much more formal planning tools that have things like Gantt Charts. These are unnecessarily complex for sprints. They are the sort of tool that you would use for a longer term project, like building a house.

Prioritisation

If you have a clear cut sequence of activities that need to be done to get you from start to destination then events have necessary pre-requisite event. For example, you would not start working on a computer program until you have a computer to run the program on. For these types of activity, there are clear cut pre-requisites and successes to each sprint and the sprints will need to be run in that sequence.

If there isn’t a natural sequence, your common sense will assist planning what sprints to do next. If you make a mistake, the short duration of sprint means that you do not lose much time.

There are more systematic ways of doing this. One we have used is to score each activity on a scale of 1-10 for:

  • is it important?
  • how quickly can you do it? 
  • how easy it is to do?

It then follows that an important, fast and easy task would have a score of 1,000. That is 10 multiplied by 10 multiplied by 10. Score other activities in the same way. Then make the next sprint activity the one with the next highest score. This way, you are always doing the things that are important, fast and easy to do before you do any unimportant, slow and difficult jobs. This is an efficient lesson in how to be a successful business.

We write up more about answering the question “What’s Next” in our separate articles on that topic. (read about What’s Next planning)

Workload Estimation

Workload estimation refers to how much you can get done in the selected sprint period.

 NOTE that you set the work that can be done within the fixed sprint period. Do not adjust the length of the sprint to complete the activity. Activities should normally be kept to what can be managed in the fixed sprint time unless a slight modification is necessary to reach a satisfactory stopping point.

It is entirely acceptable to add stretch goals on what can be achieved within the fixed sprint period. It is not a bad thing if the stretch goals are not achieved. The principal goal will have been achieved within the sprint period. The stretch goal is icing on the cake.

Putting in this sort of stretch time acts as a bit of a buffer if the activity comes to an unexpected halt for some reason during the sprint period. For example, work that was deemed necessary in the sprint period gets delayed or turns out to be unnecessary. The work associated with the stretch goal can be used to fill in and use the remaining sprint time productively.

Apply The 80/20 Principle

The 80/20 Principle talks about focusing on the 20% of things that are important rather than the 80% of things that are less important. Read more about how 80/20 increases your productivity by up to 16 times. Go to the article: SM2.0 80/20 Sales Growth; Double Sales, Triple Profits.

Without doubt, when you follow the 80/20 Principle, you are going to have bits and pieces of fine-tuning and cosmetic work leftover. This is because you choose to focus on things that are vitally necessary. Add these low importance things to a list of clean-up tasks to be completed later; the business equivalent of “rainy day” tasks.

Also, by the time you get to these less important tasks, many of them will turn out to be unnecessary.

By following the 80/20 Principle, you are getting to business success as quickly as possible. And, with the least amount of time possible wasted on unimportant cosmetic tasks.

Managing Team Sprints

If you have a number of staff engaging in either a single team sprint or sprints of their own, there are several accepted practices for coordinating those activities and keeping people up to date.  The following steps work for us.

We, and many other successful businesses, have introduced the idea of daily “stand-up” meetings. A Stand-up is of short duration (say 5-15 minutes)  and all topics are covered while people are standing. The thinking is that, if you sit down, you are likely to drag out activities to a greater extent than if you are standing.

When we use sprints, we use the Monday morning stand up to focus on the outcome of the previous week’s sprint. Then we do a post-mortem on where we got to and what we learned. Then, in the same meeting, we discuss the next sprint happening in this week. The details of that sprint will have been communicated to the group in advance. Therefore, the stand-up is used to clarify issues.

The daily sprints, for the rest of the week, cover 3 principal topics:

  • What am I doing right now?
  • How is my progress going?
  • What has stalled me; if anything? The advantage of declaring what is stalling you in the meeting is that others can jump in with suggestions and offers to help get you out of the stalled state.

The stand-ups are best done face to face or via video sessions but that can be difficult at times. Especially if you are working with remote groups in different time zones. There is software available that allows each person to record their stand-up. The stand-ups are then available to be played back at a time that is convenient. Although this works, it does lose the spontaneity and instantaneous questioning of a face to face (or video) stand-up session.

Stand-ups require a team leader. That person works on what the next set of sprints are and ensures that they all come together. Obviously, that individual consults with other people in the team when developing the list of the following sprints. If you are using software, like a shared mindmap, everybody can see the real time version of the outline of all sprints. They can type in comments associated with the various steps. Use of these mindmap tools, like Mindomo, allows everyone to keep fully informed and contribute without the need to necessarily do it in time wasting sessions.

Post Sprint Activity

We previously spoke about the need to focus on the 20% of important things.

This means there will be cleanup tasks, of low importance, that will need to be done post a sprint and post a series of sprints.

As previously commented, many of these will go away or turn out not to be as important as was previously thought.

Rinse and Repeat for Ongoing Business Success

Having achieved your first destination, through a series of sprints, you can then agree on the next destination towards your ultimate goal of business success. Then pencil in a set of sprints to reach that destination based on what you know in advance.

The great advantage of sprints is that you can change the route of the sprints as often as necessary. You can even change each individual destination, if they turn out to be unachievable or less important than was originally thought.

Integrating Sprints into 12Faces GamePlans.

The 12Faces GamePlans are our approach to choosing a goal for, typically, a financial quarter (called a quarterly GamePlan) then racing quickly and efficiently towards that goal using a series of Sprints.  You can read more about this planning technique that replaces the often cumbersome, inflexible and invariably outdated “3 Year Plan” approach in our “Work Smarter Not Harder” article.

Introducing Kanbans

Kanban is a Japanese word describing an effective way to ‘drag’ the elements of a Sprint though various stages of preparation, execution and review. Read more in this Kanban article

Also see the Trello resources below.

Wrap Up

For further reading about sprints, go to the many publications that cover the topic. One suggestion, when you are first beginning with a concept, is to buy the Dummies book that covers the subject.

You can also drill down through our Diagnostic System for more related articles in the sections that deal with getting work done to find the full list of our articles on this topic.

In addition, you can use the Search function at the top of every webpage and find material by typing in words like Sprint, Agile or Scrum.

Yellow Belt

An excellent introduction is Scrum: a Breathtakingly Brief and Agile Introduction, Chris Simms and Hillary Louise Johnson.  It is short and to the point.

A resource we have not yet read but which are generally good Yellow Belt introductions might be “Scrum for Dummies”, Mark Layton and David Morrow 2018

Blue Belt

The following book is quick to read and talks about Scum for Marketing whereas most references talk about is use in It where it first got started.

Scrum Marketing: Applying Agile Methodologies to Marketing“, James Wright 2014

The following book was written by one of the early developers of Scrum.  It is seen as one of the definitive books on how to do Scum well.  As well as the main part of the book, there is a summary of just 5 pages about how to get started at the end.

“Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time”, Jeff Sutherland 2014

Wikipedia:  (these are fairly dry, Blue Belt introductions)

Trello

Trello Software is free tool for managing Agile / Scrum / Kanban tasks.

It should be Yellow Belt for most people.

It is available on desktop and mobile devices.

It is very popular and we recommend it as a starter app.

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