Great Scrum Masters Don’t Ignore the Data

“In God we trust; all others must bring data.”

– W. Edwards Deming

Let me set the scene. Picture a dedicated scrum master, working with a talented group of developers. Let’s call the scrum master Steve. Steve is enthusiastic, dedicated, and a great communicator, but like too many in his position, he’s developed a distaste for the number-heavy side of the job. Yeah, you guessed it: data. 

Instead of focusing on the cold, hard numbers, our well-meaning Steve throws himself into ensuring excellent communication within the team and with stakeholders. He trusts that his team knows their abilities best and can accurately predict their sprint capabilities. Sounds good in theory, right? Well… 

SprintCommitmentDelivery
1HighLow
2HighLow
3HighLow

Over each sprint, the same pattern emerges. High commitment, low delivery. Steve’s team continues to overcommit and underdeliver. Steve’s mantra of ‘communication over calculation’ starts wearing thin. And the impact? 

Stakeholders start losing faith in the team. Soon, tighter controls are installed. The developers are spending as much time reporting why they are failing as they are trying to succeed. It’s a classic tale: a scrum master leaving the data out of the equation, and a team spiralling down into a pit of unfulfilled commitments. Ah, the drama! 

Ignoring your data in Scrum is like navigating without a compass. You’ll end up lost at sea while your stakeholders are expecting you to land.

Can you imagine the effectiveness if Steve began working with data, instead of ignoring it? Let’s save that for another tale. The moral of this story is simple: Ignoring data may seem like a shortcut, but it will just lead you down the wrong path. And in the end, trust me, it’s a really long way back. 

Unmasking Patterns and Collecting Insights With Data

You’re a scrum master. And a mighty good one at that!  You read all the right books, attended the top seminars, and have your Scrum certification laminated on your office desk. Yet, sometimes, it may feel a bit like navigating through choppy waters without a compass, right?  That’s where our trusty sidekick, data, enters the scene. 

Data is the North Star in your Agile odyssey. It’s not just numbers on a screen, but the GPS guiding you towards becoming a more effective leader and team.  It can help you and your team unveil the patterns that are hidden in plain sight and gather the insights that can make you more effective. And who doesn’t want that? 

Identify Patterns

The use of a good old data analysis can reveal trends or patterns that might be invisible to the naked eye. This can include anything from team member performance, to task completion rates, and even product quality issues! When you spot these patterns, you can effectively address and overcome them. 

Let’s set the stage, shall we? Imagine you’re the scrum master of a super cool, agile team. You’re meeting your sprint targets, but the team is burning out. “Surely, something is amiss”, you muse, as you sip your lukewarm office coffee after another late-nighter because Susan just can’t seem to complete her tasks in time. But what could it be? 😧 

Enter data.

Being the savvy scrum master you are (you really are a genius, aren’t you?), you decide not to rely on hearsay or gut feelings, but instead, you turn to your trusty friend: cold, hard, unemotional (but extremely compelling) data. 

Data is like a torch in the dark, except it’s more like a laser beam because it’s focused and precise.

So, you start collecting data on everything:   

    • The time taken to complete tasks.   
    • Team member performance metrics.   
    • The number of bugs each week.   
    • Hours worked…and the list goes on.    

After some time looking at the data, a pattern starts to emerge.  

The Power of Data Visualisation 

You decide to present this pattern to your team using a clear, easy-to-understand table. 

WeeksHours per task (Susan)Hours per task (Team Average)Hours worked (Susan)Hours worked (Team Average)
1325040
2425540
3526040

The table is a visual representation of the data, and it’s quite revealing. Susan is consistently taking longer to complete tasks and is working more hours than the team average. This is causing a detrimental effect on the overall productivity and morale of the team. By identifying this trend, you can now take necessary steps to address and overcome it.

Generate Insights

Once you’ve successfully identified those pesky patterns, data allows you to dig deeper. Ask yourself, why is the completion rate higher on Tuesdays? Why is a specific team member falling behind? It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about understanding the ‘why’ behind the patterns. Then, you can make the necessary adjustments to enhance productivity.

Pay heed to those delightful digits dancing across your dashboards! They’re not just pretty lights; they’re the lighthouse guiding your Agile journey towards seamless workflow and heightened productivity.  

Using data from completed items on the backlog to shape estimates for future work can build more reliable roadmaps. A bit of past can pave the way for the future, can it not?

Let’s face it, we’re all taking shots in the dark when it comes to the future, but with the right data keeping past experiences in view, we can at least make sure our blindfolds are a little less opaque. Isn’t that downright scrumptious?

Data Speaks Louder Than Words (Especially Tedious Ones) 

Let’s look beyond the funny little adages and analogies, roll up your sleeves and dive into using data to master your forecasts. A little secret? It’s all in the numbers. 

As an oracle reads the runes, so too must you, as a Scrum Master, interpret the numbers. Just swap the mystical symbols for spreadsheets, and you’re away!

Velocity 

Ever heard of velocity in an agile context? It’s not about how fast you can sprint in your running shoes! Velocity, in the world of Agile, refers to the amount of work a team can tackle during a single Sprint. It’s typically measured in story points, the unit we use to estimate the effort required to implement a user story. It might sound like just another technical term, but don’t be fooled. 

Now, wait up! Here’s the caution. Velocity is not a speedometer for your team’s productivity!  Misinterpreting velocity can lead down a dangerous road, fostering a toxic culture of knee-jerk reactions and high-pressure environments. Anyone fancy a one-way ticket to Burnout City? Didn’t think so! 

“Velocity is not a measure of your team’s worth, but rather a tool to help with future planning.”

So, how can velocity truly be wielded by a Scrum Master’s hand?  Well, when used correctly, velocity allows a team to predict the amount of work they can commit to in future sprints. It’s something that fluctuates and stabilises over time, offering a historical perspective to make more informed decisions. 

Previous SprintsAverage VelocityForecasted Next Sprint
5, 6, 4 Story Points5 Story Points5 Story Points

So, ready to move with the flow of velocity? Remember, it’s all about delivering value incrementally and at a sustainable pace. And most importantly – value your team, not their velocity. Because heck, they’re the ones wearing their thinking caps, not running shoes!

Throughput

Remember when we say that great Scrum Masters don’t ignore the data? 😉 Here’s a prime example – throughput. But what exactly is this metric, and how can a Scrum Master, and indeed the whole team, utilise it for the betterment of their operation? 

Throughput is essentially a measure of productivity; it quantifies how much stuff your team can accomplish within a determined period of time. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity.😉 This straightforward metric can be a super handy tool to beef up your forecasting ability!🔮 

The Hows and Whys of Throughput 

  1. How is it measured? Whack out your old school maths skills (Bet you never thought you’d need those again, huh? ) and simply divide the total number of tasks completed by the total time taken. Voila!
  2. Why is it easy to understand? Because it doesn’t require advanced algebra, it’s the perfect metric to share with your stakeholders as it’s super straightforward to understand. Even for your Cousin Bob from accounting.
  3. Why is it an integral part of forecasting? It depicts how much work your team can crank out in a specific period of time. Like fortune telling, but with spreadsheets instead of a magic crystal ball! 

Remember, the magic of throughput lies not in its complexity, but its simplicity. It is, in essence, a snapshot of your productivity at any given moment, and that’s what makes it so super smashing awesome. 

A word of caution

Despite its apparent awesomeness, it would be a mistake to only lean on the Throughput metric. Don’t put all your forecasting eggs in this single basket!

Lead Time

If you’re hunting for a magic crystal ball to predict when your tasks will reach the finish line, well, we might not have that. But hey, fear not, Scrum Masters!  What we do have is some fantastic nifty data science at your disposal, ironically known as Lead Time

So, what’s this sorcery called lead time?

Lead Time is the total time from the moment a story, bug, or any work item is added to the ‘to-do’ section of a scrum board until it’s joyfully moved to ‘done.’

Now that’s some magic, isn’t it? But how does this magical Lead Time help us, you might wonder. Time for a drum roll please… 

  1. Forecasting: Say, you have a bunch of similar tasks. Let’s assume their average lead time has been five days. Now, here comes a new task, a similar one. How long it’s gonna take? Yes, your guess is as good as five days. Handy, isn’t it? 
  2. Improvement: Notice a sudden spike in lead time? Maybe there was a hidden complexity or an unexpected roadblock. Use this data, ask some probing questions, and there you have it — a chance to improve! 

Cycle Time

Knocking on the door of your memory, you might recall the term cycle time from one of those many exhilarating Agile or Scrum training sessions. Well, let’s dust off that cobweb and thrust the spotlight back on it because, trust me, it’s mightier than it appears. 

Cycle time is the total time from when work begins on an identified piece of work, such as a user story, until it’s rosy-cheeked and ready for delivery. It’s your stopwatch ticking from the ‘go’ to the ‘finish line’. Marvelous, isn’t it? 

“Cycle time is to scrum masters what a compass is to a sailor.”

So why do I say that? Let’s delve into how you, as a scrum master, can use cycle time to bolster your team’s productivity and effectiveness. 

  1. Forecasting: Through tracking the average cycle time of your team’s tickets, you can forecast with shocking accuracy how long new tickets might take. It’s like having a crystal ball, except it’s data.
  2. Process Improvements: By understanding your cycle time, you can identify bottlenecks in your process and strategize how to eliminate them. Suddenly, you’re the hero everyone was waiting for. 
  3. Reliability: When you understand your cycle time, you enhance your team’s reliability, delivering when you say you will. Candidates for ‘Team of the Year’, anyone?

Identifying Capacity

Think about it, you’re at sea, captaining a rather quirky vessel known as a ‘Scrum Team‘. Ashore, you’ve got a treasure trove of backlog items waiting to be unearthed in the upcoming sprints. Here’s the catch though, you’ve got no crystal ball, no enchanted parrot or mystical compass to tell you how much your ship can carry. How do you plan your journey? 

Data can serve as your compass, helping you to navigate through the high seas of complex projects. With the right data, you and your scrum team can forecast your team’s capacity in the upcoming sprints. Trust me, it’s a whole lot better than relying on guesswork or instinct. Relying on these can often feel like sailing through rough seas without a map. 

So what are the actual benefits of using data to forecast capacity in your forthcoming sprints? Let’s delve into some key points: 

  • Improved Accuracy: By using historical data, you can make more accurate predictions about your team’s future performance.
  • Better Planning: Once you have an idea of your team’s capacity, you can make informed decisions about how much work your team can take to in the next sprint.
  • Increased Efficiency: Knowing your team’s capacity lets you allocate resources more effectively, thus minimising waste and maximising productivity.

Imagine, with a little help from data, you’re setting your scrum team on a clear course, with fair winds, and a treasure chest full of completed user stories on the horizon. Now, wouldn’t that be something?

Never Underestimate Data 

In recounting our tale of the Scrum Master who stumbled, we mustn’t lose sight of the all-important role of data. You may remember how our hero initially neglected the power of cold, hard facts. Perhaps, he too easily fell victim to the infectious enthusiasm and creative spirit of Scrum. Yet, a truly supercharged Scrum Master knows that data is their Justice League, their Avengers, their secret superpower 🦸‍♂️! 

  • Numbers never lie: The Scrum Master who ignores data is akin to a captain sailing blind. By harnessing the power of data, you’ll navigate your team through treacherous waters and into the safe harbour of a completed project.
  • Reading between the numbers: Data’s not just about pretty pie charts and graphs. It’s the story the numbers tell. By spotting trends and patterns, it presents the opportunity to tweak, improve and perfect.
  • Remember, data is democratic: It exists to facilitate open and transparent dialogue. It’s non-judgemental and objective, helping to keep personal biases and prejudices at bay.

“To use data well is to learn from the lessons it teaches, enabling better, more informed decisions.”

Now, who said there was anything dry or dull about data? It’s not merely a support act but a headliner, deserving of its time in the spotlight. To recap, let’s take a quick look at some data in a way only a chart can. 

Benefits of DataChallenges Overcome
Objective decision makingPersonal bias
Spotting trendsOverlooking patterns
Improved accuracyMistakes & inaccuracies

To sum it up, being a Scrum Master isn’t only about managing sprints, product backlogs, or encouraging team collaboration. It’s really also about respecting data and using it wisely. So, the next time you plan a sprint, remember to rightly place your trust in your team, yet never underestimate the power of data. As you lead, data should not merely inform decisions but steered intelligently 🎯, it can result in triumphs that make even ordinary projects extraordinary. After all, why settle for being a good Scrum Master when you can be a great one! 

author avatar
John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.
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