The Scrum Awakens

The Scrum Awakens

When a big project is hindered by unforeseen complications and you’re about to meet with the client, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the boots of the Imperial commander waiting for Darth Vader to arrive on the incomplete Death Star; indeed, if you watch Return of the Jedi, you can see the doomed commander’s worried <GULP> before Vader even exits his shuttle to put things back on schedule.

Obviously, the key to avoid getting Force Choked to death is to STAY ON TARGET. Big projects are usually made up of many smaller tasks, and managing multiple projects, their large teams, and their myriad of responsibilities can quickly become challenging without a sound workflow. If things get out of hand, big projects can wind up with unprotected thermal exhaust ports, and we all know how that works out.

Typically, our projects are broken down into manageable chunks known as epics, stories, and tasks. If the project is “Create the nine-episode Star Wars saga,” then Star Wars: A New Hope is an epic container for many smaller stories. These stories detail what the end user expects to happen when they click this button, select that menu, or fire that proton torpedo. For example, in the story “Blow up the Death Star,” there are several tasks that serve as smaller pieces that eventually come together to make the story work: Check in with Red Leader; Successfully navigate trench; Evade pursuers; Disable targeting computer; Fire proton torpedoes; Escape colossal explosion.

Broken down this way, large projects are comprised of many epics, even more stories, and enough tasks to make even the most industrious Wookie howl. The list can seem daunting in its enormity, but that’s OK; if you haven’t listed more individual pieces of work than there are Ewoks on Endor, you probably didn’t do it right.

All of these pieces are summarized on Post-It notes or small printouts and physically stuck onto scrum or Kanban boards. For the uninitiated, these boards have a row (or swim lane) assigned to each team member and columns for each phase of the project, and the Post-Its are physically moved through the different columns to track progress.

Boba Fett moves his "Collect frozen Solo pop" task into "Completed" status.

Each item begins in the “Backlog” column, which houses everything that hasn’t been started yet. Next, project team members evaluate the work in the Backlog and create prioritized work packages that they can complete from one sprint to another and place them in their “Sprint Backlog.” Items continue to evolve as they travel through several additional phases, sometimes more than once: Incomplete; Complete; Internal Review; Revision; Client Review; and QA. When an item is ready for public consumption, it moves into the “Release Candidate” column, and barring any complications, it ends its journey in “Done Production.”

We prefer physical boards to software-based tracking solutions for most of our projects because they work well for our typical collocated team size. The board gives the team a quick visual reference for where everyone is in a project and serves as a good way to keep the project and its sprints moving and focused. There are many Agile software options out there, so we considered Firescrum, Daily Scrum, and a few others, but we eventually decided to use JIRA digital tracking where and when it makes sense.

A few years ago, Neo-Pangea started developing our own flavor of the Agile scrum process to improve our internal communication, to keep our clients better apprised of how project changes lead to the dreaded scope creep, and to refine our ability to estimate, allocate, and track resource hours.

After project work has begun, everyone on the project team attends short and precise scrum sprints several times each week. Managers, creatives, techies, and the occasional subcontracted Jawa meet in our scrum room for 15 minute sessions during which each team member must quickly and concisely do three things in turn:

Review what you accomplished since the last sprint: This ensures that everyone is making progress and keeps everyone informed about the status of interdependent tasks. If someone else needs your contributions before they can perform their tasks, they need to know how it’s going. During this step, you’re responsible for physically moving your assigned tasks and stories to their proper place on the board, often from “Incomplete” to “Internal Review.”

Reveal what you plan to work on next and when: Generally, this should be a statement of what you can realistically accomplish before the next scrum sprint. It’s OK to look a little farther ahead, but one of the main goals of the sprint is to keep things moving along in achievable chunks, so overly optimistic speculation may actually be counterproductive. At this point, move your targeted “Sprint Backlog” tasks to the “Incomplete” column and accelerate to attack speed.

Remove any roadblocks standing in the way of your progress: If the presence or absence of something is causing more problems than a dopey Gungan in a prequel, now is the time to make it known. It’s important to be diplomatic when you’re stating the reason(s) you’re roadblocked; if you’re waiting for assets from a team member so you can move forward, remember that they may already be working hard to get you what you need. Keep your comments on the light side of the Force; being disrespectful leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to suffering…

The trickiest part of the scrum sprint is often keeping things moving and precisely on-topic. It’s easy to wander into side conversations with the entire team together in one space, but to become a true scrum Jedi, you must remain focused on the task at hand. With current reports from all team members, project leads have everything they need to make adjustments to ensure a successful delivery.

At Neo-Pangea, we’ve reached a point at which scrum sprints have become indispensable to our workflow, but we realize they may not be for everyone. Just like there are many different variations of light sabers, there are infinite Agile variations. We’re not saying our way is the best, but it works for us. We thought we’d share it in snappy poster form with any project management padawans out there who might be interested in displaying it in their own rebel base.

Scrum, you will!

Download the poster

May the Force be with you, and remember… STAY ON TARGET!

*Slightly off target: if you need to make some money to buy tickets for The Force Awakens, you've got crazy coding skills, and think you've got what it takes to join our rebel alliance in West Reading, PA, check out our latest career opportunity.