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How internationally distributed Teams can improve their Sprint Planning 1

Interview with the bor!sgloger expert panel on the subject of internationally distributed Teams (Part 6)

Part 1: Does distance cancel out efficiency of internationally dispersed Teams?
Part 2: Should internationally distributed Teams be avoided?
Part 3: Scrum Spaces of internationally distributed Teams – the Do’s and Don’ts
Part 4: The Pros and Cons of Electronic and/or Physical Taskboards
Part 5: How internationally distributed Teams can improve their Daily Scrum

Stephanie G.: Now that we have already spoken about the Daily, I would say we continue with the first meeting of a Sprint – the Sprint Planning 1. Anything you would recommend to watch out for in this meeting?

Kristina K.: I sometimes find that Teams do not really discuss Stories or ask questions about them prior to Sprint Planning 1. As a ScrumMaster, one should keep an eye out for this. Particularly with distributed Teams, one should try to arrange discussions that would normally emerge in an everyday Team setting i.e. during lunch time after an Estimation Meeting. I  could imagine that the distributed setting makes the use of the Sprint Planning Checklist even more important, as it provides the Team members with a clear structure and can inform them about the Story by way of going through a set of topics. As you can hear, I find the preparation for Sprint Planning 1 – meaning the discussing and clarifying of the upcoming User Stories – to be absolutely vital. Ideally, the Team members should enter the meeting already knowing the upcoming Stories really well, so that they have lots of ideas for i.e. Acceptance Criteria and a list of questions prepared. In the best case, the meeting is shorter than the planned time-box.

Ina K.: Yes, it‘s the Product Owner‘s responsibility to give the required information to the Team in advance and make sure that it has been registered by all of the Team members before going into the Sprint Planning 1. You‘ll laugh – but yes, this also includes the access to where the Product Backlog and any additional information can be found.

Hélène V.: I recommend that – at the very beginning of Sprint Planning 1 – the Product Owner should give an overview of his expectations of what he wants the Dev.Team to have achieved until the end of the Sprint.  It is important that everyone on the Scrum Team has one shared big picture of the product. After that, there‘s always the possibility of dividing up into smaller groups either cross-location or per location and only coming together in Scrum of Scrums.

Kristina K.: And don‘t forget to take more breaks than you normally would, since it‘s much more exhausting to do it over the phone. Also, make sure to involve everyone as much as possible, so that they don‘t fall asleep at the other locations.

Christof B.: Since the Sprint Plannings are the longest meetings in Scrum, it‘s important to be visually connected as well, as it‘s much more difficult to stay focused if you can‘t connect any faces to the voices. In the past, I‘ve actually attended the Sprint Planning of Ina‘s Team and it was always interesting to see how she would use a standard webcam and play film director with it. It‘s not very interesting to see static images – the mind stops noticing them after a while – but if you do it like Ina, who used to walk around the room, film people when yawning or chitchatting, it‘s much more entertaining and more real-life, I would say.

Stephanie G.: Ina, that sounds like you had quite a lot of fun during your meetings. But now I‘m wondering – what happens during the meeting itself?

Bernd K.: We actually came together for every second Sprint change, which was very helpful. For every other Sprint change, we generally used our tool iceScrum and while the PO would present his Stories one after another, each location would follow his talk on its respective screen. Whoever then had a question could use the computer mouse to circle the part in the User Story that needed more detailled explaining. However, we always had to ask explicitly whether the persons in Rumania had any questions, as they mostly had their microphones on mute due to the background noises in their office. Furthermore, the quality of the audio tool was not ideal, which meant that we had to repeat ourselves quite often. But the Sprint Planning 1 really made the progress of the Team quite obvious: in the beginning, the guidelines where more or less dictated, yet after a few months, the Team really began sitting down and typing up Requirements, User Acceptance Tests etc by themselves.

Deborah W.: We always used flip charts. I think that if you use actual paper, it might be easier for people‘s minds to start wandering off, while on the other hand, it‘s also much easier to get them involved again. We used flip charts on both sides and had static cameras streaming the image, and while the one location was writing, the other one saw the scene on their screen. We switched to the other location’s flip chart after every Story. The cameras were excellent, so we could decipher everything. Besides, we were also connected via teleconference. A piece of advice: if you don‘t have the chance to set up flip charts in all locations, then try to involve those watching with some small tasks – for example: get them to write down User Acceptance Tests in advance. Anything to get them mentally involved.

Christof B.: Yes, and don‘t forget to send the pictures of the flip charts to the other locations afterwards, so that they can print them off and hang them up on their own walls, too.

Stephanie G.: Alright – thanks a lot. Anything else to add that we haven‘t covered yet?

Ina K.: One last thing. What I always enjoyed doing as a ScrumMaster was to ask the Dev.Team a few – perhaps simple –  questions, particularly when a Team member looked slightly lost. This way, I make sure that nobody loses face by having to ask a question that should really be clear to all members of the Team. In the past, my questions have often triggered a discussion within the Team, showing that there had still been some slight confusion. Having asked my Team members for feedback, I‘ve also learned that a lot of questions aren‘t asked, as they think that it would be embarrassing and they‘d rather wait for Sprint Planning 2 in the hope that it comes up automatically. With this in mind, I would say that asking questions from an „outside perspective“ almost belongs to the ScrumMaster‘s job description under the aspect of „Protect your Team“.

Stephanie G.: Thank you for all your input. Our readers will surely appreciate that a lot. Summing up the steps, you would recommend:

  1. Make sure  that the Team comes prepared and knows the Product Backlog.
  2. The PO should start the Sprint Planning 1 by presenting the big picture.
  3. If you can use flip charts, do so – but don’t forget to send the images to the other locations.
  4. Ask (some simple) questions to make sure that everyone has the same understanding.

Alright, now what about the next meeting – Sprint Planning 2?!