[This was my second contribution to the 50 Shades of Scrum book project. It was also written back in late 2013.]
One of the great things about being a parent is having time to go back and read some of the old parables again; this time to my children. Recently I had the pleasure of re-visiting that old classic about a race involving a tortoise and a hare. In the original story the tortoise wins, but surely in our modern age we'd never make the same kinds of mistakes as the hare, would we?
In the all-too-familiar gold rush that springs up in an attempt to monetize any new, successful idea a fresh brand of snake oil goes on sale. The particular brand on sale now suggests that this time the tortoise doesn't have to win. Finally we have found a sure-fire way for the hare to conquer — by sprinting continuously to the finish line we will out-pace the tortoise and raise the trophy!
The problem is it's simply not possible in the physical or software development worlds to continue to sprint for long periods of time. Take Usain Bolt, the current 100m and 200m Olympic champion. He can cover the 100m distance in just 9.63 secs and the 200m in 19.32 secs. Assuming a continuous pace of 9.63 secs per 100m the marathon should have been won in ~4063 secs, or 1:07:43. But it wasn't. It was won by Stephen Kiprotich in almost double that — 2:08:01. Usain Bolt couldn't maintain his sprinting pace even if he wanted to over a short to medium distance, let alone a longer one.
The term "sprint" comes loaded with expectations, the most damaging of which is that there is a finish line at the end of the course. Rarely in software development does a project start and end in such a short period of time. The more likely scenario is that it will go on in cycles, where we build, reflect and release small chunks of functionality over a long period. This cyclic nature is more akin to running laps on a track where we pass the eventual finishing line many times (releasing) before the ultimate conclusion is reached (decommissioning).
In my youth my chosen sport was swimming; in particular the longer distances, such as 1500m. At the start of a race the thought of 16 minutes of hard swimming used to fill me with dread. So I chose to break it down into smaller chunks of 400m, which felt far less daunting. As I approached the end of each 400m leg I would pay more attention to where I was with respect to the pace I had set, but I wouldn't suddenly sprint to the end of the leg just to make up a few seconds of lost time. If I did this I’d start the next one partially exhausted which really upsets the rhythm, so instead I’d have to change my stroke or breathing to steadily claw back any time. Of course when you know the end really is in sight a genuine burst of pace is so much easier to endure.
I suspect that one of the reasons management like the term "sprint" is for motivation. In a more traditional development process you may be working on a project for many months, perhaps years before what you produce ever sees the light of day. It’s hard to remain focused with such a long stretch ahead and so breaking the delivery down also aids in keeping morale up.
That said, what does not help matters is when the workers are forced to make a choice about how to meet what is an entirely arbitrary deadline – work longer hours or skimp on quality. And a one, two or three week deadline is almost certainly exactly that — arbitrary. There are just too many daily distractions to expect progress to run smoothly, even in a short time-span. This week alone my laptop died, internet connectivity has been variable, the build machine has been playing up, a permissions change refuses to have the desired effect and a messaging API isn't doing what the documentation suggests it should. And this is on a run-of-the-mill in-house project only using supposedly mature, stable technologies!
Deadlines like the turn of the millennium are real and immovable and sometimes have to be met, but allowing a piece of work to roll over from one sprint to the next when there is no obvious impediment should be perfectly acceptable. The checks and balances should already be in place to ensure that any task is not allowed to mushroom uncontrollably, or that any one individual does not become bogged down or "go dark". The team should self-regulate to ensure just the right balance is struck between doing quality work to minimise waste whilst also ensuring the solution solves the problem without unnecessary complexity.
As for the motivational factors of "sprinting" I posit that what motivates software developers most is seeing their hard work escape the confines of the development environment and flourish out in production. Making it easy for developers to continually succeed by delivering value to users is a far better carrot-and-stick than "because it's Friday and that's when the sprint ends".
In contrast, the term "iteration" comes with far less baggage. In fact it speaks the developer's own language – iteration is one of the fundamental constructs used within virtually any program. It accentuates the cyclic nature of long term software development rather than masking it. The use of feature toggles as an enabling mechanism allows partially finished features to remain safely integrated whilst hiding them from users as the remaining wrinkles are ironed out. Even knowing that your refactorings have gone live without the main feature is often a small personal victory.
That doesn't meant the term sprint should never be used. I think it can be used when it better reflects the phase of the project, e.g. during a genuine milestone iteration that will lead to a formal rather than internal release. The change in language at this point might aid in conveying the change in mentality required to see the release out the door, if such a distinction is genuinely required. However the idea of an iteration "goal" is already in common use as an alternative approach to providing a point of focus.
If continuous delivery is to be the way forward then we should be planning for the long game and that compels us to favour a sustainable pace where localized variations in scope and priority will allow us to ride the ebbs and flows of the ever changing landscape.