The Fifth Ceremony

Woman with act now or pay later shutterstock_78635185You’re the ScrumMaster of a development team in the middle of a two-week sprint when it becomes obvious the team is stuck on a story.   During your standup you discover the team can’t move forward because they need access to a backend system. Until access is granted they are stuck – and declare this an impediment.  As a good ScrumMaster you do your due diligence and follow up on the impediment (as you should).  So you set up a meeting with the administrator of that system and discover he needs you to get management approval to access the backend system. Ok – how do I get approval?  You need to fill out form X.  Gotcha.  So you fill out form X, and submit it to the manager for approval.  The next day – the story is still blocked pending approval.  This scenario drags on for 3 days; your demo is 2 days away.  Then – bingo, your access is approved, now for the gotcha.  The team explains that they no longer have sufficient time to complete the story in time for the demo, so it must be deferred to the next sprint.  Face palm – Argh!

What Just happened?

The sprint is over and you failed to complete the work that the team had committed to. During your sprint review, it is clear what happened, the team could not complete the story because they didn’t have access to the correct environment. Not their fault right?  It’s time to pause and take look back at how you got into this mess to begin with.  To get to the root cause, I like to start with the Five Why’s. It’s an effective way to quickly get to the bottom of what the heck just happened

  1. Why did we fail to complete the story?
    Because we did not have access to the right environment.
  2. Why did we not have access to the right environment?
    Because it took 3 days to get the access rights approved.
  3. Why was the access right not approved in time to complete the story?
    Because we did not submit the form until the middle of the sprint
  4. Why did we not submit the form until the middle of the sprint?
    Because we did not anticipate the need to request access in advance.
  5. Why did we not anticipate the need in advance?
    Because we did not fully understand the story before we started it!

The Scrum Continues

According to the Scrum Guide by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland there are 4 standing ceremonies in Scrum.

      1. Sprint Planning
      2. Daily Scrum
      3. Demo
      4. Retrospective

Each of these ceremonies is critical to the successful implementation of Scrum and are well explained in the Scrum Guide.  Anyone on an experienced Scrum team should be familiar with these ceremonies. Further along in the Scrum Guide, Schwaber and Sutherland explain the concept of “Product Backlog Refinement.”

The Scrum Guide prescribes:

“Product Backlog refinement is the act of adding detail, estimates, and order to items in the Product Backlog. This is an ongoing process in which the Product Owner and the Development Team collaborate on the details of Product Backlog items. During Product Backlog refinement, items are reviewed and revised.  The Scrum Team decides how and when refinement is done. Refinement usually consumes no more than 10% of the capacity of the Development Team. However, Product Backlog items can be updated at any time by the Product Owner or at the Product Owner’s discretion.”

As an Agile Coach – this is the part that deserves more attention.

The Fifth Ceremony

The Product Backlog is where everything starts.   If your backlog is a wreck, guess what?  Your project is likely a candidate for hard times.  So what is the magic bullet to avoid a failed sprint?  Great question!  The answer is simple – Product Backlog Refinement.  In this Coach’s humble opinion – including Product Backlog Refinement, as a regularly scheduled Scrum ceremony is so important to a smooth running project, I would nominate it to be The Fifth Ceremony.

There are a number of hidden dynamics and benefits that happen when you regularly review and refine your product backlog:

      1. The team gains insight into the work coming up.
      2. The team gets to ask key questions they have about the story.
      3. The team can determine in advance if there are any hidden issues that require lead-time to complete, i.e special access permissions to key systems or environments, lead time required by external teams still using waterfall.
      4. It  buys the Product Owner and Scrum Master time to get questions answered.


Now that we have established the importance of Backlog Refinement, how far out should we be looking and how much time should we devote to this fifth ceremony?

The Scrum Guide suggests no more than 10% of the team’s capacity.  That is really up to the team to decide.  Figure 1 below illustrates a suggested continuum for how far out you should be looking.   Set aside at least one hour of your work week, preferably mid week when you can realize max participation to do your backlog review and refinement.

UntitledSprint +3 – 4 – This is the time when the PO is working with the business to clarify their understanding of the story.  The PO needs to have a clear understanding as possible in order to clearly communicate the specifics to the team and define the acceptance criteria.

Sprint +2 – Story Refinement is where the team gains a better understanding of the work moving closer to the execution horizon.  The team needs to start analyzing the story with an understanding of how it fits into the architecture and determining if there are any dependencies on external teams.  This is the time to make sure you clear any anticipated impediments, such as approvals for access to systems, compliance with any regulatory requirements, etc…

Check out Definition of Ready – Revisited by Leslie Morse.

Sprint +1 – Story Review is the teams opportunity to confirm with the PO that they have a solid understanding of the story and have all questions answered.   By the time you get to Sprint planning, the only thing the team needs to do is to break down and assign the tasks. This is the appropriate time to leverage a Definition of Ready. Not sure what that is?

Final Thoughts

In summary, by getting ahead in your review of stories, the team can ask the key questions, anticipate requirements, and buy time for the PO and SM to clear impediments BEFORE they happen.   Getting your team in these good habits is like preventive maintenance on your car.  It will keep things running smoothly.  If you don’t want to blow your engine, change your oil.  If you don’t want to blow up your sprints up, plan your work regularly.   Action is the key to success.  Good ideas add zero value until someone takes action on them.  So leverage the 5th ceremony, dig into your backlog, and start planning your work not reacting to your work!