Do ScrumMasters Need Agile Checklists?

There’s a constant debate in agile circles about checklists. Should we create them and follow them strictly or shouldn’t we?  They’re recognized as helpful by some and called evil by others.  I’m going to attempt to straddle this debate and live on both sides. Maybe I’ll get hit by both sides too!

Agile Checklists Defined

I shouldn’t assume that you know about agile checklists. Here are the two that I’ve seen referenced and that I myself have referred to in the past. By referring to them here I’m not saying they’re useful to everyone, as you’ll see in my conclusion below, I’m just providing them for context in this discussion.

Flight Checklist Comparison

I have a friend in the Agile community of Phoenix, Arizona that is part owner of a small airplane. One week he invited me for a flight from Chandler to Tucson and back. I took him up on the offer, of course!

He said we could take off around 9:00 AM and I could meet him just before that time. “That way you don’t have to go through the pre-flight checks and so on,” he explained. I expressed a strong desire to see all the pre-flight processes so I met him at 8:00 AM. After checking the contents of a little notebook, we headed for the nearby airport.

Pilots Use Checklists, Should

His notebook had a series of checklists. Even before we rolled the plane out of the hanger, we went through the first checklist, inspecting fuel, wings, control surfaces, and even spark plugs. Then, when we got into the plane, he strapped his notebook to his leg and we went through the next list up to the point of starting the engine. The next list was all about testing the engine with the brakes set, ensuring it was running properly. As we rolled to the end of the runway, he was still going through lists, checking dials, settings, and other things.

We had a great flight with a slightly late take-off just after 9:00 AM. And I even got to take the yoke (not wheel) for a little while!

One can imagine the purpose of a checklist for a pilot. Something going wrong in flight that could have been prevented could prove to be catastrophic! In this situation, checklists can save lives.

Benefits of Agile Checklists

If a team doesn’t follow a sprint planning checklist, will the sprint crash and fail? Well, maybe, but the end result isn’t usually death! So, what’s the purpose of agile checklists? Some possible reasons people might use them include:

  • Learning: When a team is new to agile or Scrum, checklists can be learning tools to help understand the actions of an agile team.
  • Introduction: Related to learning, checklists help people make a connection between new information and actions that the team should take. They can also be an easy way to bring new participants up to functional speed quickly.
  • Comfort: When an agile team or organization does not yet understand the reasons for doing something, they take comfort that the agile checklist will help them get to the benefits.
  • Safety: Something new can be scary, the fear of “doing it wrong” is strong for some agile teams and organizations. Following an agile checklist helps them feel safe and “right.”

Do you see the theme in the above list? I recognize the benefits of checklists for teams and organizations that are new to agile.

Dangers of Agile Checklists

Although checklists have been proven to be helpful in many situations, there are some major dangers with using them, including hindering the performance of teams. These, along with other reasons, are why many agile coaches and practitioners don’t like them. My own general bias against them is showing in the list of purposes above.

A parable may help my point:

The Ends of the Roast

The newlyweds were just back from their honeymoon. The wife had her new husband’s favorite pot roast recipe from her mother-in-law and wanted to make their first dinner at home something special. As she followed the steps she was puzzled by an instruction to cut off both ends of the roast before putting it in the roasting pan.

“Sweetheart,” she asked, “why do I need to cut perfectly good meat off the ends of the roast?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ll call my mom.” His mother explained that she always did that with roasts because that is what her mother did. He called his grandmother, since he was now very curious.

“Well, dear,” said the grandmother, “I cut off the ends of the roast because my roasting pan was too small.”

Checklists Without Thought

If we aren’t careful, checklists quickly become a list of things to do, a list that might not make sense in a different context or as a team matures. The tendency with agile checklists if for agile teams to do things because the checklist says they should, not because it brings any value. Over time, the checklists can become process standards that are propagated through the company and are hard to change. And doing “agile-by-checklist” won’t create the interaction necessary to form a high-performing organization. Worse yet, checklists pull people away from thinking for themselves about what they’re doing. Checklist zombies are not fun to be or work with.

Agile Thoughtlists Are A Better Option

Flight and agile checklists are best used with thought.

I see checklists as a tool for thinking about your process. Sure, they’re a reminder to do things you may not yet have as habit, and yes, they can be helpful to new teams or individuals new to agile processes. However, we need to think about the value each check item brings to the customer and product.

That pilot friend of mine did something I thought interesting while we were going through the flight checklists. As he went from item to item he thought about them and commented out loud. Sometimes he would cross items off, saying they weren’t needed anymore for this or that reason; other times he would write in items to meet the needs of new equipment or another change. When I asked him about it, he explained that some things never come off the list, like checking the fuel, while others change as needed. He said his checklists change almost every flight as he figures out how to make them better.

Even flight checklists are to be used with thought! Agile checklists should be no different. If you use them, include thought, every time, with every step. And don’t be afraid to change them as needed! Heck, even drop them completely if they’re slowing you down.

No matter where you lie on debate over using agile checklists, maybe the solution to the endless battle is to simply refer to them as agile thoughtlists. A reminder in and of itself to always think through whatever it is that you’re tasked with.

To help you construct your own agile thoughtlist, I’ve come up with a PDF of the things I think about, and help ScrumMasters, agile teams, and product owners to notice, during my agile coaching engagements. Use these agile thoughtlists as a starting point for your own agile teams, remembering to be like my pilot friend, and continuously improve them or drop them as they begin to offer little value.

Download the ScrumMaster Thoughtlist PDF