Sprint 0 “vs” Agile

Members of my teams usually look at me funny when I state at the start of a project that we need to plan. The boldest ones may even venture: “We’re doing Agile, so we don’t need to plan”, implying that planning is synonymous to waterfall, and that planning is certainly incompatible, if not contrary to, Agile.

This is a mis-guided debate. It matters not whether planning is Agile, what really matters is whether it is a good Engineering practice, and, secondarily whether it can be blended with an Agile methodology.

WHEN TO PLAN

The need to plan arises whenever a complex set of features needs to be developed. Typically complexity arises because this new project is dissimilar to anything we have done before, the scope is large and/or we are dealing with “new stuff” (architecture, software framework, tool, people, performance, etc.)

The name Sprint 0

“Sprint 0” designates this planning phase … because the planning takes place before Sprint 1

However, it is partially a misnomer because it is not really a Sprint: it is not structured as a Sprint (the team may not have been formed yet), and its duration is not the typical sprint duration (it takes as long as it takes).

Analogy: Let’s go Hiking

Let’s say we’re going on a 5-day hiking trip in the wilderness. Before the hike, we will look at the map of the area, and profile of our hike (e.g. identify how much elevation we’ll need to climb) so as to distribute our daily efforts evenly across the 5 days [rough scoping]. In particular, we will identify places where to get water, and places to sleep each of the 4 nights, both really important [risk areas]. In addition, I’ll coordinate with my fellow hikers who is bringing the tents, who is buying/carrying what food, etc [roles & responsibilities]. Finally, I’ll copy the schedule of the park shuttle that will bring us back to where we parked the cars [overall schedule].

This is the equivalent of Sprint 0.

Planning is NOT Synonymous to Waterfall

The fundamental difference between a Sprint 0 plan and a Waterfall plan is that Sprint 0 plans JUST ENOUGH to eliminate risk, versus preparing a complete design and exhaustive task schedule.

Sprint 0 wants to eliminate surprises, such as unnecessary refactoring (e.g. because the UI team and the mid-tier teams have a different vision on how to build the API). The fact that both participate in the same daily scrum does not necessarily expose these differences.

The purpose of Sprint 0 is to, almost literally, identify “the lay of the land”: key features, roles, and major risk factors.

This plan leaves plenty of room to be Agile: going back to the hiking analogy: on day 2, we can decide that we’ll walk extra hard on day 3, so that we can stay 2 days at campsite 4 which is on the shores of a beautiful lake.  We could even decide to extend the trip by 1 day … as long as we ration our food accordingly.

The plan does not dictate at what time we get up, who cooks on what day, or what activities we’ll do on our “relax day” fishing, swimming, playing Frisbee, .… But the plan highlights a “relax day”, and thus the need to bring Frisbee, or fishing rods.

In addition, the plan sets yardsticks along the way so that we can measure our progress against our overall objective. For example, we’d better make sure that by day 3, we are past the mid-way point, if we want to finish our trip on day 5.

WHAT TO PLAN

The first activity of Sprint 0 is to review the main deliverables, both external (features) and internal (deploying a new framework, technical debt, performance). We also want to identify risks that could impact the technical solution or the schedule. It could be as trivial as having to finish a set of user stories before the key team member goes on vacation, or as complex as demonstrating that adding a cache does increase performance 10x.

We plan to a level of detail that gives us confidence that our design approach is solid and our schedule is realistic. How realistic depends on the needs of the business. Some companies commit to releases at a given date, others are fully agile.

Sprint 0 Deliverables

  • In InfoQ’s article: What is Sprint Zero? Why was it Introduced?one of the contributors: Mark Woyna, “uses Iteration Zero as a spike”:
  • “The planning team is responsible for producing 3 deliverables by the end of the planning iteration:
  • A list of all prioritized features/stories with estimates
  • A release plan that assigns each feature/story to an iteration/sprint
  • A high-level application architecture, i.e. how the features will likely be implemented”

To which, I add:

  • Design documentation relevant to the project: e.g. Interaction diagrams, Entity/Object definitions, APIs
  • A list of risks to monitor during the project: e.g. dependencies on external factors, critical results (e.g. validation of a new framework, or performance metric)
  • Detailed user stories for Sprint 1 – so that we can start Sprint 1 in earnest at the end of Sprint 0

Plan to a Judicious Level of Details

Contrary to Waterfall practices, we don’t make all the decisions during Sprint 0, we make the minimum number of decisions necessary to “eliminate risk”.

Obviously, risk is only completely eliminated when the project is complete, but in most projects there are some critical decisions that reduce risk significantly. For example, writing out the interaction diagrams for the major use case. This exposes the core assumptions about the main objects in the system and their responsibilities, clarifies whether interactions are synchronous or async, what message broker we use, etc. The whole point is that hashing out disagreements over a diagram is a lot more efficient, and less costly, that doing it once code has already been written.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST SPRINT 0

It’s Waterfallish

Scrum Methodology states “the common dysfunction called “Sprint Zero” is actually a contradiction in terms. Companies (and misinformed consultants and trainers) use this as a way to avoid changing waterfall habits.”

This argument totally misses the point – which is to have sound Engineering practices. Slapping a “Agile vs Waterfall litmus test” does not inform the discussion as to whether this particular practice is sound engineering.

Does Not Deliver Value to the Customer

The article from Scrum Alliance: What is Sprint Zero? presents “Scrum believes that every sprint should deliver potentially usable value (… by the customer)”.

The fact that Sprint 0 does not deliver value to the customer at the end of the Sprint is a myopic argument, which misses the more important benefit of Sprint 0, namely, that it improves the velocity of the team for all the other Sprints. Because we lay out a high-level path to success in Sprint 0, we walk a straighter, and faster line, during the remainder of the Sprints. Equally important, we avoid “critical failures”: where a significant portion of the code needs to be refactored because we incremented our way into a design rather than taking the time to think it through.

Another way of saying this is that Sprint 0 brings value to us, the team, by providing better visibility to the whole project. We “return” this value to the customer, by being more efficient and faster overall.

CONCLUSION

When thinking about Engineering best practices, let us not corner ourselves into debating labels, e.g. Agile vs Waterfall. To me it simply makes sense to take time to reflect, think and plan before embarking on a complex project to:

  • Evaluate key features to be implemented
  • Agree on key design and architecture designs, such as entities, APIs, protocols
  • Identify risk areas: schedule, resources, technology, performance
  • Map out tasks over time (a) to ensure that the project will be completed in a time frame commensurate with needs of the business and (b) set up yardsticks against which to calibrate our progress in the future
  • Lay groundwork for Sprint 1.
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