The Power of The Sprint in Managing Team Performance

During a sprint, many Scrum teams focus on action items, story points, ceremonies, and sprint length. They often overlook the importance of the sprint itself to the team’s potential productivity.

Sprints are relevant to performance because a team’s effectiveness evolves over time, and a sprint is a block of time—each usually 1 to 4 weeks in duration. With each sprint, team members participate in Scrum ceremonies and deliver work together. The ceremonies alone don’t turn a group of strangers into a team, but they can serve as shared experiences that help members feel more and more comfortable with each other.

5 Stages of Team Development

Psychologist Bruce Tuckman defined a 5-stage development process that high-performing teams follow. All types of teams—from Super Bowl champions to a newly-formed Scrum team—advance through these phases of development:

  1. Forming: Members gets acquainted and establishes ground rules. Formalities are preserved and members are unfamiliar with each other.
  2. Storming: Members start to communicate their feelings, but still view themselves as individuals rather than part of the team.
  3. Norming: Members feel part of the team and realize they can work much more productively if they accept others’ viewpoints.
  4. Performing: The team works in an open and trusting atmosphere where flexibility is key, and hierarchy should only come into play when necessary to improve productivity.
  5. Adjourning: The team creates and implements a plan for transitioning roles and recognizing members’ contributions after the project has reached its completion.

Sprints Can Be Mapped to Stage of Development

The phases of team formation are observed in a typical Scrum team’s evolution from a group of strangers to a well-oiled machine. Through each successive sprint, the team bond becomes stronger. Some teams may advance through an early phase in a single sprint, while others will require 3 sprints or more.

Team Performance by Sprint

The actual number of sprints will depend on sprint length, team dynamics, participation, and logistics. If a team meets every day in the same office, it is likely they will achieve top productivity faster than a virtual team. Likewise, it is more common to arrive at the Performing phase faster if all the team members are present for each ceremony and are not constantly getting pulled away into other commitments. In some organizations, full dedication is a rarity.

(Related: The Fallacy of Multi-Project Resource Allocation)

As a rule of thumb, the Scrum Master should plan for each phase to unfold over 1 to 3 sprints:

  • During sprints 1 to 3, the team is in the Forming stage, where formalities are preserved, and everyone is still trying to get to know one another.
  • During sprints 4 to 6 the team moves to the Storming stage. Members become more open and communicate their feelings more freely. The team members continue to get better acquainted, as they pick up on people’s working habits, feel a sense of community, and learn to see other member’s viewpoints. Team effectiveness may indeed decline during this phase, while members learn how to collaborate.
  • In sprints 7 to 9, the team enters the Norming phase. They continue to develop interpersonal relationships and begin to understand differing viewpoints on the team.
  • Around sprint 10, the team enters the Performing phase and becomes an effective, self-mobilizing team. High performance can be sustained for an extended period or until the project is completed, when the team shifts one final time into the Adjourning phase.

The Scrum Master and the team itself will benefit from being aware of how each sprint brings the members closer together. Each team is unique, and team members’ commitments and proximity to each other will affect the timing of each phase.

Accelerating Team Development

The Performing phase is when the team is operating optimally, so how can a Scrum Master accelerate the evolution?

First, don’t assume the early phases can be skipped. Trust can’t be forced or built on an artificial foundation.

Second, establish an open and self-organizing environment.

If a team is not delivering optimal results in the first few sprints, don’t hit the panic button. Instead, ask:

How can the Scrum Master facilitate interactions between members in a way that moves the team from Forming to Performing?

A Scrum Master can move a team from Forming to Performing by facilitating in a way that creates a fun, trusting, and open environment. Tactics may include:

  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage team members to communicate more.
  • Have fun at work: consider instituting Ugly Sweater Fridays or bring snacks to sprint planning sessions.
  • Have fun outside of work: coordinate team dinners, happy hours, or weekend excursions.

Don’t pull the plug on a project if leadership is not happy with a Scrum team’s initial output. In order to get to the Performing phase, it can take in excess of 10 well-facilitated sprints to set the team up for optimal productivity. Use sprint cycles as an indicator to understand where the team is developmentally on its path toward higher and higher performance levels.

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