Article

On a scale of 1 to "on fire"

September 5th, 2014

In an attempt to become more effective in doing our jobs, we are adopting some of the agile methods. About eight months ago, we started doing standups. With varying success, I might add. One of the things we added to the regular standup questions* is "how confident are you about the current sprint?".

* Idea taken from The scrum field guide

When to ask the question

We run two-week sprints, and only add the fourth question in the second week - when the sprint should be halfway done. This is because we would expect a team to be most confident right after planning. Why would you commit to a plan you are unsure about, right? So confidence starts high, and either stays there or becomes less as the sprint unfolds.

If you start asking the confidence question right away, it creates pressure to answer the question with "confident" on day two, and perhaps days three and four as well. It also makes this a question that the brain isn't doing any work for - at least half the time.

So we made the decision not to answer it for the first part of the sprint, and to truly think about our answer when we do.

The wrong way of answering the question

We quickly agreed to use a scale of one to ten to answer the confidence question. It wasn't given much thought, our lives are full of 1-10 scales starting very early in school. But we discovered that it was somehow impossible to answer a sprint confidence question with "10". And that was confusing.

A little digging revealed that we all considered a 10 somewhat of an impossible target. You don't give a 10 unless you're 100% absolutely sure you're going to hit the target. And when are we ever 100% sure of anything??

I believe the source of our problem was with the 1-10 scale, with it's roots in the school system. You see, that system is a grading system. It describes the past, and it can do so with certainty. But our question is a confidence question, asked of something in the future. It cannot have that same certainty.

Our way of answering the question

Instead of trying to erase the existing meaning of the 1-10 scale, we decided to use a different scale. We briefly flirted with a 1-5 scale, assuming it would have less implied meaning but numbers just didn't seem to cut it. So we came up with a few words, and that's how we answer the question now.

So, how confident are you about the current sprint?

> On fire

Being on fire means that not only will you finish the planned work in the sprint, but there will be time left. If your team is on fire a lot, perhaps you're under-planning?

> Confident

If you're confident, there are no surprises and the planning was accurate. This should be where you start off and stay during sprints.

> Meh

The Urban Dictionary states that meh means "Indifference; to be used when one simply does not care." We use it as a measure of mediocre confidence. It still looks somewhat good, but there's currently an unsolved blocking issue or some work-in-progress that's creating insecurity.

> Unsure

At the unsure mark, we're probably already falling in the trap that we're late - but we will be able to fix it by some brilliant work. I would advise at this stage to keep a real close watch on the schedule and possible interruptions, because anything that goes wrong here pushes you straight into the lowest confidence level…

> Doomed

We have not had the actual doomed state yet, but when we do I'm sure I'll be questioning why we haven't contacted the customer before it got this out of hand. We're not exactly going by the rules when it comes to scrum so "Terminating a sprint" or terms like that don't apply, we feel fine discussing things with the client and moving work around. In any case this confidence level means immediate action is required to prevent the imminent doom.

Don't use this!

Well… do use this of course, if it makes sense. But these words where the product of what our team felt was needed. The meaning of the words was discussed, as well as the number of words (you might want to go with six, for example, to avoid having a "safe middle" as an answer).

So make this your own, and let us know how you're getting along!

Ramon de la Fuente

Pointy haired boss