What Is: The Sprint Goal

Sprint Goal?  Isn’t that just to complete everything we committed to in Sprint Planning?

NO!  A thousand times, NO!  And I don’t ever want to hear anyone say that again!!!

The next time I ask a class what their team’s last Sprint Goal was, I guarantee they’ll say something to that effect – “Well, to get all the stories to Done before the end of the Sprint.”  But they missed the point.  The words are pretty simple to understand, right?  Sprint, and Goal.  We know what the Sprint is – a fixed timebox that a Scrum Team uses to create a Done and usable Increment.  We know what a Goal is – something to strive for in order to win a game.

So, if the Increment is the collection of Done Stories that a Scrum Team elected to do during Sprint Planning, and the Goal is achieved by getting the Increment to Done by the end of the Sprint, why isn’t the Sprint Goal always just to get the stories to Done?

Not only am I always tempted to vomit on my own shoes when people present that argument, because they are equating Stories to PBI’s, and they’re not enlightened enough (yet?) to know the difference, and they are misunderstanding what an Increment is, but I get a little miffed when people don’t see how close they are to the answer they seek when they throw up emotional barriers during a knowledge seeking session.  They are so close to the answer, that I can almost taste it.  Yet they stand (or sit) there oblivious.

The first place I worked where we practiced Scrum was Nokia (NAVTEQ, Nokia, Here.com – it went through a succession of names).  I must have driven my boss nuts with this whole Sprint Goal thing.  He asked me to display our Sprint Goal outside our team room.  I’d never heard the term before, so I did what all the students in my classes do, I assumed I knew what it meant.  I printed out the Sprint Backlog, along with the estimations, on a huge poster sized piece of paper and tacked it to the outside of our team room.

I thought he would be proud, but a few weeks later he calmly asked me to do it again.  He asked it in a way that made me believe he hadn’t seen the last one.  He asked me as if I hadn’t even done it for the last Sprint.  So, this time I printed it out just the same, but I posted it on a portion of the wall that was mostly visible from his office door.  Maybe he’d see it as he walked out of his office.

A day or two later my boss asked why I’d printed out the Sprint Backlog and posted it so the world could see.  If they wanted to see the backlog, they could just visit the team room.  I told him I’d done it for him.  He wanted me to post the Sprint Goal, I’d done it.

My boss had his moments.  He chose his words well.  He definitely listened more than he talked.  But, he wasn’t always great at relating to his audience, and explaining things so they could understand his point.  So, when he kept repeating “Sprint Goal”, “Sprint Goal”, “Sprint Goal”, I kept hearing “list of stuff you are doing this Sprint.”  His heart was in the right place, and he had the patience of a Saint.  We just weren’t connecting intellectually.

Without proper explanation, I would go on misunderstanding Sprint Goal for years.

Let’s see if I can do a better job explaining it than my old boss…

Imagine: You are in the kitchen and you are going to bake a birthday cake.  If I had asked you earlier in the day what you were going to do, you’d probably never think of answering like this…  “I’m going to mix a bunch of stuff together, pour it into a cake tin, heat it, cool it, spread icing on it.”  You’d probably say something like… “I’m going to bake a cake.”

It’s no different here.  Don’t tell me all the things you are going to do to bake the cake.  Tell me you are baking a cake.  Don’t tell me all the things you have to do to create the custom address book.  Tell me you are creating a custom address book.

A common problem that prevents teams from being able to formulate Sprint Goals, is that the PBI’s they select for the next Sprint are not related to creating a thin slice of the overall product.  In keeping with the cake baking example, these teams without proper focus and poor Sprint Goals, they’re coming up with stuff like…  “Mix all the cake ingredients in the white bowl.  Pour the blue bowl contents into the oven.  Start the dishwasher.  Put the icing on the cake.”  So when you ask what the goal is, they MUST repeat all of that.  There’s no other way to describe what they are doing, other than describing the steps.  Their disparate steps do not coalesce into a sound product, they’re just tasks (some don’t even make sense).