How to be a successful business starts with reducing problems. This starts with “Sprints“. The term was coined in the software industry to help overcome frequent delays and over-budget problems. These are problems that plagued the industries. Sprints are also referred to as Agile or Scrum. Here, Sprints are used to achieve your business success.
Instead of planning out a long sequence of events, from start to finish, the Sprint concept takes comparatively small periods of time. This is from 1 to 4 weeks. It looks ahead to what can be done in that time and what 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, and then a period to pause and reflect before the next sprint.
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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:
- That the frequent successes you get with a sprint 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.
- With sprints 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.
- There is a concept known as the “homework” problem. Read about this under the heading, Tracking Systems, in the 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 over shoot the time available and/or spend a lot more money to get back on track by hiring extra resources.
- 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.
- 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.
Then 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 is something that they can live with.
On the other hand, 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 do not want to waste the time that you will 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 shorter duration sprints, with several tangible outcomes, than to have a 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
Do Not Over Plan
You do not need to over plan. How many sprints you are going to have in order to reach your destination of a successful business, 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, that 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 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.
There are many ways of producing a frame work 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, 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 brain wave.
There are specialised project management softwares 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.
Do you have a clear cut sequence of activities that need to be done to get you from start to destination? Here, things clearly have pre-requisites. 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, then 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 10,000. That is 10 multiplied by 10 multiplied by 10. Score other activities in the same way. Then take on the next sprint activity 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.
Workload estimation is 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 be kept to what can be managed in the fixed sprint time. A slight modification to this: a slightly longer or shorter sprint if it 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. You will find that work that was deemed necessary in the sprint period gets delayed. Or alternatively turns out not to be necessary. 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 cleanup tasks to be completed later. The business equivalent of “rainy day” tasks.
It then follows, that 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.
Business Success: Managing Team Sprints
Do you have a number of staff engaging in either a single team sprint or sprints of their own? Then there is an accepted practice for coordinating those activities and keeping people up to date.
There are many ways of achieving this, but here, steps are outlined that experience has shown to 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 and all topics are covered while people are standing. The thought process 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 weeks sprint. Then we do a post-mortem on where we got to and what we learned. Additionally, in the same meeting we discuss the next sprint. 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 this 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. 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 Until You Achieve 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.
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.
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.