February 2, 2022

Sprint Review: Being A Good Stakeholder

Currently, I am an “active” stakeholder for 4 Scrum Teams. And, when I say active I mean I actually care deeply about the outcomes, will invest time and effort preparing for the reviews, and when I attend I do not do email, Slack or even look at my phone during the event. But I have an admission, I am also the person paying for these Scrum Teams as CEO of Scrum.org. Sometimes I feel like Yoda walking into a Jedi training session, or more likely Gordon Ramsey coming into your kitchen at home! My presence changes the dynamic of the Sprint Review and sometimes not in a good way. I have observed some things which are a bit worrying:

  • The Scrum Team treats my comments differently from other people's comments.
  • Other Stakeholders seem less willing to talk.
  • I sometimes find myself saying things like “I would not pay for that!”, or “Is this a good investment of your time?”

And, after the Sprint Review, my ears are often burning because I am sure that the Scrum Team is debating how to handle me in the next Sprint Review or even if I need my own special Sprint Review.

This got me thinking about how I should attend Sprint Reviews, so I asked a few other executive sponsors and senior leaders about how they handled it. The results got me even more worried as many of them have separate meetings with investors, and have given up getting any senior people to their Sprint Reviews. The following quote from a leader sums it up. 

“I love the idea of getting level 6 stakeholders (very senior people) to the Sprint Reviews. However, I have given up. Not only did it take too much time to prepare them, so they would show up with the right attitude, but the teams changed how they showed up. They just wanted to demo and show all the great work they had done. Now we have a separate meeting with fewer people focused on feedback from those people.”

So can you invite investors and very senior people to a Sprint Review and get success? Or should you accept that senior people need not only their own bathrooms, corner offices, and dining room, but also their own Sprint Reviews? 

First, let's go back to the basics. The intent of the Sprint Review is to (time for some Scrum Guide action)

The purpose of the Sprint Review is to inspect the outcome of the Sprint and determine future adaptations. The Scrum Team presents the results of their work to key stakeholders and progress toward the Product Goal is discussed.

There are some important words in those two sentences. 

  • Inspect the outcome of the Sprint - The outcomes and results of the Sprint are reviewed. Basically, this is where we say “this is what we did, and this is what we learned”. The best Sprint Reviews find things that are a surprise and uncover things that might disappoint or excite the Stakeholders. 
  • Determine future adaptions - Once we have all learned some “stuff” they can look at what it means. A good Sprint Review requires something to flow from it and is not a “prove that the team is working” event. If you want to prove the team is working put a webcam on the wall :-) Sometimes this can be a difficult conversation as assumptions are dispelled and direction is changed. Yes the Product Goal can be challenged and if the right people are in the room changed.
  • Progress towards Product Goal - At the end of the day, the objective of every Sprint is to make progress towards the Goal. It should be possible for everyone to leave the Sprint Review with the feeling that progress has been made towards the ultimate goal. This can be hard because work can provide an illusion of progress. Sometimes the explicit question “how does this move us towards our Product Goal?” can provide clarity as to progress versus work.  

The people that need to attend the Sprint Review need to be the best people to provide feedback. And that feedback can be obtained throughout the Sprint, and not just left to Sprint Review. At a minimum, the feedback is encouraged once a Sprint, but there is NO RULE that says you can not meet with Stakeholders more frequently. There are however some benefits of getting everyone to one review including:

  • It is easier for Stakeholders to have a regular meeting on their schedule. Like the Daily Scrum, it reduces complexity and does not require emails or phones asking when and where the meeting will be. 
  • A diverse invested group can provide feedback that is greater than each can individually. The synergies of groups are well known, and if used correctly can provide fantastic feedback that you will not find elsewhere.
  • Provides an amazing forcing function for the team to deliver the Increment in a state that enables a review. Just like homework when we were at school having a clear end date provides focus and avoids the temptation of getting sidetracked. Preparing for the Sprint Reviews provides a great opportunity for the team to review work, formulate learning and plan the inspection. Knowing the right audience is going to attend the Sprint Review provides added clarity and focus.  And, the great thing about having regular Sprints is that you get to practice these skills at least every 30 days! 
  • It creates a feeling of belonging. I know that sounds a bit wishy-washy, but the events with the same people can create a feeling of belonging and being part of something. The Scrum Team shares the experience of hosting the Sprint Review. The Stakeholders feel part of the process and the outcomes. As a human being I value any opportunity to be part of something and Scrum provides that opportunity. 

Ok, back to me and the ultimate question. Should I attend the Sprint Reviews, or the more general question, should senior people attend your Sprint Review? The honest answer is it depends on your situation. But in my case, I am going to attend the review and follow these rules.

  • I will remind everyone that I am attending as a Stakeholder and my opinion has no more weight than anyone else’s opinion.
  • I will wait to provide feedback allowing some space to exist prior to me speaking.
  • I will try and ask questions more. Ok, this is something I should do better in every meeting I attend, but that is always the case :-) 
  • If I do not have time for ALL my feedback I will find a way to share it with the Scrum Team and sometimes attendees afterward. Again I will include the reminder that this is feedback and not a mandate from the boss.

And perhaps the most important rule is:

  • I will separate funding decisions from the Scrum process. 

The last rule is a key one. Ultimately every time I attend a Sprint Review I am sure, in the back of everyone’s mind is “will Dave kill the project?”, or “Does Dave think he is getting value for money?”. And, I am guilty of thinking that myself, but Scrum only works if the team has the safety to work. Yes, it can never be a never-ending story of funding, but good funding approaches provide a safe space for the team to work. In the case of my Scrum Teams, each one has a funded horizon based on the risk and value the business case provided. That time frame needs to be front and center with an associated process to review and extend based on evidence and experience. 

At the end of the day, each Stakeholder will have an effect on the Sprint Review and come with their own baggage. The key is to ensure that the Review delivers as much value as possible. That will mean that everyone must be self-aware and Stakeholders, like Scrum Team members, need to step back and evaluate how the review is functioning. Everyone is responsible for the success of the Sprint Review and that means everyone needs to be aware of their position and how their actions have an impact.