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How We Treat Artifact Commitments Impacts Scrum's Benefits

July 3, 2023

The three Scrum artifacts represent the work or value the Scrum Team produces. The Product Backlog, Sprint Backlog, and Increment maximize transparency, making it easier to inspect and adapt our way toward better outcomes. Each artifact contains a commitment, which exists to deepen our shared understanding of progress and reinforce the Scrum values (especially focus). How seriously our team treats these commitments directly impacts the benefits we will get from Scrum. 

They’re called commitments for a reason

When we commit to doing something, we promise or pledge to follow through—even in the face of emerging difficulties. It means we dedicate ourselves to a plan of action and put the resources in place to carry it out.

So, the commitments identified for each artifact are integral because they require focus and energy to move toward the outcomes we want to achieve. They also clarify for everyone on the team (and our stakeholders) what we're working together to accomplish. 

Remember that commitments are not about making guarantees or promises that we will achieve specific outcomes no matter what. That is not possible in complex and unpredictable work. (Read this post to learn more about what commitment does not mean.)

Let’s look at the commitment for each of the three artifacts to uncover their critical role in enabling the business benefits of Scrum.

The Product Backlog (Commitment: Product Goal)

Creating a Product Goal gives the Scrum Team a longer-term target to plan against beyond the horizon of a single Sprint. It provides context to the Product Backlog, which can otherwise seem like a random list of items or requests the team might work on. In other words, what is a bigger important objective we are moving towards as a team? And how does that drive decisions about what we are working on next?

The Product Goal will be more tangible for some teams, while others might set something more aspirational. Some Product Goals are achievable over a few Sprints, while others may span a year or more. 

We might have items in our Product Backlog that don’t directly align with the Product Goal, but it sets the team’s direction and focus. And, if we find ourselves in Sprint Review after Sprint Review asking about our progress toward the Product Goal and realizing we haven’t been focusing on it, that’s a crucial conversation. 

Maybe we have the wrong Product Goal, or perhaps we have achieved enough benefits towards that one, and it’s time to pivot as something new emerges in our market. Maybe we need to make different decisions about what is at the top of the Product Backlog. Or possibly this is just what we needed to focus on for a few Sprints (rather than the Product Goal), and we can get on the same page about that fact and its impact on our Product Goal.

Regardless, the Product Goal ensures we have the right conversations about what the team is working towards and whether we’re progressing. It informs decisions about what to do next.

The Sprint Backlog (Commitment: Sprint Goal)

The Sprint Goal is a short-term team objective compared to the Product Goal but has a similar function. It focuses the team’s Sprint Backlog work on the desired outcome regarding the value we aim to deliver with the Increment. 

This commitment helps avoid working in silos and then getting to the end of the Sprint and realizing we have a bunch of partially done work but no Increment of value. It helps us say “no” or “not now” to new work requests that can overwhelm and interrupt the Scrum Team during a Sprint. It helps us keep that Product Goal in mind, considering a smaller objective we can focus on to move towards the bigger objective.  Without a robust Sprint Goal, it’s easy to become mechanically task-oriented and less solution-focused and collaborative.

A difference between the Product Goal and a Sprint Goal is that the Sprint Goal does not change during a Sprint. We need enough focus and stability for the Scrum Team to deliver something meaningful in the short timebox of a Sprint. While we may fail to meet the Sprint Goal, we still use it to stay focused on an objective.

A clear Sprint Goal also provides a way to evaluate the Sprint, our choices along the way, and how we worked together as a team. It provides a springboard for team discussion about lessons learned and how we responded to changes that emerged during the Sprint. (Read this post to learn more about setting clear Sprint Goals.)

The Increment (Commitment: Definition of Done) 

The Increment offers the ultimate progress transparency.  It is the tangible value the Scrum Team creates for the customer—a usable product. 

The commitment to meet the Definition of Done (DoD) ensures the Increment will meet our quality standards. The DoD also guards against “hidden” work — everyone on the team understands what’s required to produce a Done Increment, and stakeholders are assured no “undone” work remains. In the absence of a clear and robust DoD, we won’t even know if we have created an Increment. To quote the Scrum Guide, “The moment a Product Backlog item meets the Definition of Done, an Increment is born.”

Without a transparent Increment that meets our Scrum Team’s DoD, we’ll miss out on the essential benefits of Scrum, such as achieving an early ROI, limiting investment risks, and the ability to change direction. There is no meaningful transparency to progress nor our team’s ability to deliver value over time. We would be basing any inspection and adaptation on unreliable information. 

Make the commitment

Scrum’s artifact commitments are the framework’s mechanism of creating focus and maximizing progress transparency. They allow us to make better decisions as we deal with complexity and unpredictability by enabling us to incorporate new information and respond to changing needs. Taking these commitments and the time, energy, and resources they require seriously is the path to reaping all of Scrum’s benefits. Scrum may be simple to understand and lightweight, but it requires discipline to use it well.

Go deeper with Agile and Scrum

Private Scrum training can improve team dynamics and increase value delivery. Visit the Agile Socks training page to see the Professional Scrum Training classes available.

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