If you know me, you'll know I'm a fan of both Scrum and Kanban, and get irritated by those who see them as opposing forces. So this post is definitely not me having a pop at scrum. However I do have a problem with the term "Sprint". You'll also know I love a good metaphor.
As dev teams we often focus on running at full speed, trying to do more faster. Sounds like a good way to eliminate waste and get things done as quickly as possible, but lets have a proper think about it...
A lot of what we are asked to build are big things, and this is where the problem starts for me.
Lets get to the metaphor. Sprinting comes from athletics, so lets focus on the big one - the 100m sprint. Look at the photo below. The winners of the 100m sprint and the 10,000m at the Olympics this year in London
In the 100m, the athletes don't take a breath, it is anaerobic activity. Ask an athlete to try to run the 10,000m that way, and you have a doomed project. It is possible for a human being to 100m in under 10 seconds, but it doesn't follow that you can run 10,000m in under 1000 seconds. The world record for 10,000m is 1577 seconds, which is about 50% greater. I suspect that Usain Bolt has never run a 10,000m track race, and if he did, I think it is fair to say he would be significantly slower than 1577s but if he did, I think its a good bet that Usain would be unlikely to run the first 100m in 10s. That pace is the definition of unsustainable pace.
If you have a software development team approaching their work as a series of individual 'out and out' sprints where they go as fast as they can to deliver software without thinking about the long game, and the quality and the technical debt they are accruing, then they are trying to run a 10,000m like a series Usain Bolt 10s sprints. Mo Farrah might take longer over the first few 100m, but he will run the whole 1000m distance much faster than Usain could.
All too often we focus on the 'how fast' and forget about the 'how well', but I'm prepared to say that the same people who push us to sprint as fast as we can, would never back Usain over Mo in a 10,000m race.
The risk of using metaphors is that you stumble into someone else's metaphor. In this case the Scrum Sprint metaphor. I've already stated I'm a fan of Scrum, but Scrum is often implemented badly. As a coach I've had to walk into organisations and help pick up the pieces, so I know this to be true. If you treat your Scrum Sprints like a series of 100m races, and go on like that for 100 sprints, you will have accrued so much technical debt and a bug list so long that you will no longer be able to deliver any value work in a reasonable timeframe again.
Most of your delivery capability will be tied up dealing with failure demand. A good scrum implementation will acknowledge this, and therefore ensure quality is front and centre where it should be, and spend time every sprint on keeping the bug list down and use refactoring and 'boy scouting' to keep the technical debt down. This means not going as fast as you can out of the blocks doing only new feature work, but it also means that more value work is delivered over the time you're delivering your MMF, and that the pace is sustainable.
A good Scrum team or Agile team must be able to maintain its pace indefinitely. In my metaphor, athletic runners are either 'Sprinters', 'Middle Distance runners' or 'Long Distance runners'. So the same people often compete in the 3,000m, 5,000m, 10,000m, Half Marathon and Marathon races. They are showing the ability to use their sustainable running pace on varying lengths of race.
The long distance runner seems to be a better metaphor for most of us to follow than the sprinter. There are situations where the 'out and out' sprint is the right approach - I've heard tell of banking apps that are built very quickly for a single niche purpose, used for a day or so, then discarded. That would suit the 'out and out' sprint as the tech debt and bugs are thrown away with the code, then the team starts afresh.
So people - lets make sure we are honest to ourselves and our stakeholders about the kind work we are undertaking, and then approach it with a view to the success of finishing the kind of race we are running.