Going for one-week sprints: a good wrong idea

A few weeks ago, our team held a sprint retrospective (which I unfortunately couldn’t attend) during which it was decided to shorten our sprint length from two weeks to one. The team was right in their decision, but probably for the wrong reasons and here’s why I think so.

The main driver behind this decision was Neurobat’s involvement with the Aargau Heizt Schlau project: a canton-wide project to measure the efficiency of our system on 50-100 individual houses in the Aargau canton during the 2015-2016 winter. The goal is to have an independent assessment of the energy-savings potential of our product, a replication of our own peer-reviewed investigation. The project is mostly driven from a team in Brugg, with ample support from our R&D team in Meyrin.

Keeping the project on track and on schedule turned out to be extremely challenging. Very soon, urgent support requests began to come at unpredictable times, and we were having trouble keeping our sprint commitments.

The realisation that urgent, random support requests were going to be the norm for this heating season is the main reason why the team decided to experiment with one-week sprints. They have a 5-year long history of sprint retrospectives and I’m convinced they collectively understand the principles underlying the practice of timeboxed iterations. (A practice always proceeds from a principle, and can be modified only when the principle is fully understood.) A less mature team should not have made this decision and should stick with 2-week sprints; but I believe our team was mature enough to carry out this experiment.

Many teams, when they begin with Scrum, will object to the “overhead” introduced by daily standups, sprintly retrospectives and planning meetings. And since they are likely to miss their sprint commitments during the first few months, they are very likely to ask for longer sprints. Resist this temptation.

Mike Cohn tells the story of a team facing exactly this problem: good quality work but systematic overcommitments. He agreed to let the team change the sprint duration, but went against the team’s request for longer sprints. Instead, they went for shorter ones. His rationale against longer sprints is simple:

The team was already pulling too much work into a four-week sprint.
They were, in fact, probably pulling six weeks of work into each
four-week sprint. But, if they had gone to a six-week sprint, they
probably would have pulled eight or nine weeks of work into those!

So if shorter sprints are generally to be preferred over longer ones, why do I think the decision was a solution to the wrong problem? Because I believe that switching to shorter sprints will only perpetuate the root cause of the situation we are in. We decided to go for shorter sprints because urgent support requests were coming in more frequently than ever. How will switching to shorter sprints solve that problem?

I’m reminded of this quote, which I believe came from Mike Cohn’s Succeeding with Agile:

Few organizations are in industries that change so rapidly that they cannot set priorities at the start of a two-week sprint and then leave them alone. Many organizations may think they exist in that environment; they don’t.

If your organisation has trouble planning for more than a week ahead, then do your development team a favour and try, at all costs, to address the underlying problem. Your team members should not be the ones whose productivity should suffer for the lack of foresight elsewhere in the organisation.

Author: David Lindelöf

David is currently Chief Technology Officer at Neurobat AG where he leads the development of smart, embedded systems for the energy-efficient control of indoor climate. He lives infinitesimally close to Geneva in Switzerland with his family.

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