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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Scrum

By Andrew Sharp on August 31, 2015

I love board games, and one of my favorite things to do is explain the rules of a game to someone who has never played. Especially when the game is complex, like Risk, it can be difficult to cover all of the rules without overwhelming the person, at which point people usually opt to do a “practice round,” or just say “it will make more sense when we start playing.” But this takes up lots of time, or leaves the person at a distinct disadvantage, which is no fun for anyone.

This is why I try to script a well-crafted orientation to a game that is both comprehensive and understandable, that gives the player the rules in a logical order, one by one, until they “get it.” When I finish my an explanation, and the new player makes a few clever moves at the start of the game, I know I’ve done my job.

One time, someone asked me to explain the game Settlers of Catan, and I joked to them “Well, this is Catan, and we are the settlers. Ready to play?” They looked at me with a slightly terrified look, hoping that I really was kidding and we weren’t about to make them “figure it out as we go along.” Who wants to fumble around until they catch up with everyone else?

Settlers of Catan

Luckily, many people have a baseline understanding of how board games work. Even if you’ve only played a few of the classics, like Sorry!, or Monopoly, you get the idea that there is a board with pieces that represent players, and you move around the board trying to accomplish some goal. Everything else is just a variation on that theme.

Which is not at all what it’s like to join a Scrum team, something I did a few months ago here at ILAO.

Unlike a board game, a scrum is completely alien to most people. The terminology, the expectations, and the rhythm all need to be digested and incorporated into your work flow. This is even harder when the actual work that you’re using the scrum process to facilitate is complex in itself. Like, say, tearing down and completely rebuilding a legal information website from scratch.

It would be great if there was a way to orient someone to the scrum process quickly and comprehensively, so that the person could hit the ground running. But I really don’t think that it’s feasible to go about it that way. There are just certain things that you have to learn by doing, and I think scrum is one of them. Still, it was a challenge to step into a process that others had been doing for months.

For example: voting on story points. During the scrum planning meeting, you get together and decide what stories you are going to do, and who on the team will be assigned those stories. But in order to make sure you don’t give someone too much work, or leave someone with not much to do, you have to gauge the amount of time that story will take to complete. That’s what story points are for. As our Scrum Master put it, “Story points are a non-time-based estimate of the difficulty of accomplishing each Sprint item.”

Planning Poker

But you don’t just get to decide how many story points your stories are worth. The entire team gets to vote on how many story points they think the story will take. The way we do this is with “planning poker” cards which have values of 0, .5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, 100, ?, and ∞.

Each person has a deck, and picks the card they think has the right amount of points for the story. Then the scrum master counts down, “3... 2… 1…” and we all reveal our cards at the same time, so that we’re not biased by each others’ answers.

This process might seem straightforward, but my first time voting on story points was an absolute disaster. For the first story we voted on, I voted “20” and the rest of the team voted “8.” On the next story, everyone voted “13” and I voted “5.” I was really struggling with the fact that the story points aren’t really defined (no, I know that they’re NOT hours spent… but what ARE they?), the deck has such weird increments (nothing between 13 and 20? 20 and 40?!), and everyone else seemed to be in consensus (which means that they turn to you when you are an outlier, like a hold-out on a jury).

Thankfully, I have gotten a feel for what amount of story points are appropriate for a given story, and I’m much more in line with the rest of the team when it comes to voting now. But again, I’m not sure there would’ve been any way to attain that familiarity other than trial by fire. This is how much of the scrum process has been for me. It is such a team-based process, that you just have to be a part of the team for a while before you can get the hang of it all.

It can be frustrating for a man who thinks that any set of rules can be distilled into a short exposition. But the reward for taking on this challenge is a process that is unlike any other: it requires consensus, but allows for flexibility; encourages input, but empowers individuals to take ownership. It’s been an exciting experience and I’m looking forward to continuing to get better as member of the team.

After all, just like a game, it’s more fun once you get better at it. Now, back to work – there are story points to complete!

-Andrew

Photos: Seafarers of Catan, By Dmitrij Rodionov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Planning Poker, By Hkniberg at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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