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Scrum Meetings: time wasted or gained?

Scrum identifies four ceremonies, but is it more or less than the usual time spent in meetings?

Nowadays, scrum is the most popular agile framework. It identifies four ceremonies, i.e. meetings: the daily scrum, planning, review & retrospective. On a first glance this might seem a lot of time spent in meetings for a two weeks sprint, and this is one of the common arguments for those against scrum, but is it really so? In this article, an insight on how we can restrict their duration to what required by agile principles.

The scrum frameworks prescribes four different types of meetings for each sprint to address the agile values of communications, inspection and improvement.

It also indicates a maximum length for the time boxed events to limit the Parkinson’s Law, i.e. that an activity will expand ad to fill all the available time for its completion.

Scrum sprint meetings

The daily scrum, possibly the most misinterpreted of all, is supposed to be a quick, e.g. 15 minutes, status update the team has on a daily basis. Contrarily to how it is commonly performed, it should not be an endless description of what each team member has done the day before and what will be doing today, but instead it should help understand where the team stands with respect to the sprint goals, what the immediate objectives for the day are, it should identify any impediments, and coordinate among team members.

The planning meeting occurs once per print and serves the team to better define, understand and detail the upcoming work items. During the planning the team analyzes blockers and impediments, ensures the requirements are complete and understood, and estimates the effort for each user story. The user stories are then prioritized and the scope for the next sprint is determined according to the team capacity and the Product Owner vision. For a two weeks sprint, the designed time for planning should be of maximum four hours.

The sprint review is the one occasion per iteration for the team to showcase the new development and gain feedback. Thanks to this ceremony the team makes sure that the development stays in line with the real needs of the end-user and therefore that the final product provides concrete value. For a two weeks sprint scrum allocates up to two hours for this ceremony at the end of the iteration.

Last but not least, the sprint retrospective takes place once once at the end of the sprint and is designed for inspection and improvement. What made our development smooth and successful? What did not go so well in the last iteration? What can we concretely do to improve things? Who will be taking action in this regard? One hour is the maximum prescribed time for a two weeks sprint.

All in all, in the scrum framework the team spends about 20-25% of its time in meetings. Is it too much? Actually, it is very complex to measure the amount of time spent in meetings without predefined ceremonies. It often occurs that ad hoc, individual meetings are set, irregular group meetings are held, and it easily becomes impossible to have an overview of the actual time spent in meetings. On the other hand, scrum aims at having transparent, time-boxed and fit for purpose meetings, as to reduce to a minimum the amount of extra coordination.

Unfortunately, theory and reality rarely match, and it may happen that even in a scrum set-up meetings overrun and become endless boring discussions. This is usually the result of poor facilitation of the event, and it should be up to the Scrum Master, as the scrum advocate within the team, to make sure this does not occur, that time boxes are respected, and that the meetings lead to decisions and conclusions. Another reason scrum meetings tend to run long is if key members are only partially present, or absent in the meetings. As their presence would be pivotal for decision-making, their absence results in duplicated discussions or in the impossibility of reaching conclusions.

At Mirai, in our experience with scrum, we have come across some good and bad implementations of the framework, and have collected a series of practical tips and suggestions to make sure scrum events run smoothly.

First of all, set the goal ahead of your meeting, communicate it to all participants, and make sure everyone involved is aware of the agenda for the event. This will help people stay focused and to the point, without diverging into ancillary discussions, while, at the same time, ensure the relevant people do take part to the discussion; others may be set as optional participants, as to avoid having bored people just sitting through a discussion they are not interested in, while, on the other hand, giving everyone a chance to participate, and keeping everyone informed.

Getting to the meeting prepared is key to ensure the discussion is efficient and effective. Bring your notes, read any materials in advance, give your-self time to form an opinion prior to the discussion, and come up with relevant questions that will help the team understand the topic and make decisions.

Start the meeting on time: make sure you are ready and prepared at the time the meeting was set and ask others to do the same. Being on time is a sign of respect for others, and it helps keeping the meeting to stay within the allocated time. Appointing a time-keeper can also be a good idea to avoid overlooking the clock. This goes both ways: do not try to fill-in the remaining of the meeting if the discussion is over ahead of time, just appreciate being more efficient and use the gained time for more productive activities — everyone will appreciate! In the end, if this becomes a pattern, you will just have to factor it in and schedule shorter meeting.

During the meeting, the Scrum Master should ensure the team stays focused by engaging for collaboration, e.g. asking questions, giving time to gather thoughts, or visualizing the discussion on a board. Changing the order-of-business, rotating the facilitator role, variating the tools and techniques, modifying visualization approach, are all simple, but effective ways to keep the level of attention high, boost interactivity and avoid being stuck in a boring routine.

To transform meetings into tangible outcome, identifying clear action items and assigning them to a responsible is fundamental. This will keep track of actions and of the resolution process, it will ensure someone will take a concrete step towards a solution, and will make the whole process more transparent.

Finally, as real agile advocates, asking for feedback to improve the processes and how to make the meetings more efficient is a viable option, and may lead to new, creative and innovative solutions.