“We don’t expect a perfect Sprint. We expect a perfect effort.” – i.e. Commitment

As I train and coach Scrum across the country, I’m often struck with the power how certain words can create a sense of fear in people. In my experience, no word creates as much fear as ‘commitment’. Yet commitment is one of the five Scrum Values per the Scrum Guide! IMHO, that’s a problem.

I too was once afraid of the word ‘commitment’; although, I’m going to claim with good reason. Back in my enterprise days, (I worked in large corporations for the first 30 years of my working life) we once engaged the services of a consultant who said that people should make very clear commitments. So far so good.

However, this consultant demanded that commitments were to be delivered REGARDLESS; no excuses, no reasons why not…simply make them come true. And to add a bit of spice we were told we had to have ‘stretch commitments’ which by definition were things you didn’t know how to deliver. The expectation. You had to make at least 50% of those stretch commitments come true as well.

Talk about fear. Make a commitment and not deliver…well that was simply not tolerated. People responded in all sorts of crazy ways (low ball commitments, hide, lie, cry, scream into the wind…etc.), none of which were healthy behaviors. The result was nearly the ruination of the organization.  I therefore claim a healthy reason to have feared the word ‘commitment’. BTW, that consultant later wrote a book on how commitment and stretch commitments don’t work!

I do know that consultant didn’t work at all the companies I’ve visited. What is the source of others fears? Better question, what’s an answer to thinking about commitment in a healthy way?

The Scrum Guide used to refer to making commitments.  My colleague Jake Calabrese wrote a blog on this topic when the guide change ‘commit’ to ‘forecast’ in 2011 (see http://agileforall.com/scrum-commitment-or-forecast/). Jake postulates some reasons for the change, and bottom lines that he likes the word ‘commit’ over ‘forecast’.  I’m in that same camp.

I frankly don’t like to word ‘forecast’. (It makes me think of weather predictions.) I think it takes away from the intent of the Scrum Value of Commitment in which the 2016 guide says, “People personally commit to achieving the goals of the Scrum Team”.  I’ve also way to often seen teams not take their Sprint Plan to heart.  I hear, “So what if we didn’t deliver to plan.  We’ll catch up in the next Sprint!”  That’s usually when things get very hard to ‘inspect’ which is a cornerstone of the empirical process control aspect of Scrum.  So we don’t get better over time.

The only written potential reason for the change in the guide that I could find is a post on Scrum.org. Ken Schwaber is the Chairman & Founder of Scrum.org, and on that site is a post about the change from ‘commit’ to ‘forecast’. (see https://www.scrum.org/resources/commitment-vs-forecast-subtle-important-change-scrum).  In this post it is said that the product owner and stakeholders might consider the team’s commitment as an “…obligation to actually deliver all of them at the end of the Sprint”. A definition of obligation from Oxford Living Dictionaries includes, “An act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment”.  Ouch!

I’d like to offer an alternative perspective on making a commitment. One based on real world experience, and powerfully based in a principle way of leading.

There’s a great movie called “When the Game Stands Tall”.  It is about the De La Salle High School Spartan football team, who at one time held the longest winning streak in high school football history, some 151 wins.  That’s literally over a decade of winning! In the movie they lose ‘The Streak’.  We learn that the coach, Bob Ladouceur, however was never interested in ‘The Streak’, nor actually focused on winning. He was much more interested in a principle based approach to teaching young men to become high functioning members of society. (This movie, btw, is full of Scrum quotes and behaviors, particularly as it relates to teams. Let’s focus on commitment.)

Coach Ladouceur is quoted in the movie, and later in his personal writings, as well as the ‘color commentary’ offered with the DVD, that he had a different way of approaching a game.

“We’re not asking you to be perfect on every play. What we’re asking of you and what you should be asking of each other is to give a perfect effort from snap to whistle.” – Coach Ladouceur

 When I teach Scrum, I take the liberty to shorten that a bit. If you consider a football play to roughly be equivalent to a Sprint, then relative to a sprint commitment/forecast:

“We don’t expect a perfect Sprint. We expect a perfect effort.”

It’s not the ‘score’ at the end of the Sprint, or for that matter at the end of a release. Instead it’s the behavior of the team relative to the commitment/forecast. Healthy, common sense, and rational. Add a few other principles, and you get magic!

Now I’m not fooled that simply thinking this way takes away the issues that lead to commitment engendering fear in people. There are many reasons, like mine, that have created that fear reaction.  Some external, and some internally created btw.  However, if a high school football team can behave, think and act using this definition, then surely mature adults can as well!

Forecast by planning the Sprint Backlog. Commit to the Sprint Backlog. Make a perfect effort to delivering that Sprint Backlog.

And for goodness sake, enjoy the game!

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  1. Nice article. During my coaching, I often see problems with the word commitment, too. Normally caused because of different understanding of the term.

    Btw there is a typo at the end “Spring” instead of “Sprint”.

Henry Dittmer

Henry has 35 years of experience nearly all business models. He has passion for balancing the human experience with practical needs, through solution-oriented systems thinking. His experience is augmented with skills including in MBTI, NeuroLeadership Brain Based Coaching, & The Leadership Circle Profile, among others. He is a firm advocate that high-performance lies in people understanding themselves, each other which is garnered through learning skills & methods to collaborate with trust based conflict.

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