Sprint reviews can be incredibly valuable opportunities to inspect and adapt but, if not done well, they can be viewed as an invasive blame-game, or a waste of time. At their best, reviews are an open and honest conversation about what changes have been completed, whether those changes deliver the business value that was hoped for and what changes need to be made next. It can be difficult to build the organizational relationships required to approach these reviews with the necessary trust and candor. Without these relationships it can be hard to dig out the underlying causes for disappointing business value delivery, as people will spend more time defending their mistakes, rather than learning from them. The focus needs to be on whether the customer’s needs have been met, not on who gets the blame if they’re not met.
Organizations that I have seen develop highly valuable sprint reviews usually go through an evolution that helps to build these relationships. This evolution has 3 levels, each of which I have described below.
Level 1: Inspector
Attendance: The Development Team and the Product Owner
This is usually where teams begin, and as far as things go it’s a good place to start. The team and the Product Owner meet at the end of every sprint to inspect the product increment and decide which items to call Done. This level of sprint review can help build a relationship between the team and Product Owner as they learn to trust either other. The Product Owner learns how to communicate what they want to the team and the team learns how to deliver it. They can develop their Definition of Done to a foundational level without too much distraction from the broader organization.
Usually this level ends with conflict when a Product Owner rejects a story at the review. The development team feels hard done by and starts looking for a way to avoid a similar situation in the future. (Or if they don’t, the Scrum Master may nudge them in this direction). The solution that is often proposed is for the Product Owner to verify done stories as they are done, rather than waiting for the end of the sprint. Basically, retiring risk early. With this change, the sprint reviews become less stressful and less exciting, so the next obvious improvement is to add more stakeholders from the organization to the review.
Level 2: Adapter
Attendance: The Scrum Team and the Internal Stakeholders
No Scrum Team is an island. Their work feeds into other parts of the organization, which in turn feeds back into the team. For Scrum to transform an organization, it needs to be working at all levels of that organization so at this level internal stakeholders are introduced to the review to increase transparency. Who are internal stakeholders? Anyone who is involved in the product and/or the team – management, customer support, other scrum teams, sales, marketing. The more people who attend, the more they can see how their work effects the team’s ability to deliver business value. Level 2 reviews help to keep the organization aligned and working towards the same goal, savvy Product Owners, CEOs and other Upper Management will take advantage of this opportunity.
At this level an environment of openness and honesty becomes even more important, yet also more difficult due to the complexities of having so many different personalities involved. That’s why having some experience at Level 1 reviews can help the team to hold together and can provide a solid foundation for a relationship of trust with which to infect the rest of the organization. When things go wrong, the question should never be “Who is to blame?”, but rather, “What can we, as an organization, do to improve the situation or avoid the situation in the future?” If this focus can be maintained then reviews can be the catalyst for huge, beneficial changes.
Level 3: Agile Ninja
Attendance: The Organization and the External Stakeholders
Once the organization becomes adept at adapting, the logical next step is to include the external stakeholders in the review. External stakeholders may be partners or customers. Partners are usually easier to integrate, since we tend to be more open with our partners. Either way this can be a difficult step which requires a leap of faith, trusting that both parties will get more out of the relationship with trust, openness and honesty. It is possible that sensitive issues could be covered in an internal-only pre- or post-review, but in such a case I would always question why the organization feels this is necessary.
It is quite common for organizations to jump to this level too early. Everyone wants to be a ninja, but you need to train first. If the organization isn’t yet able to be open and honest within themselves, then it is highly unlikely they will be able to be open and honest with customers. Reviews that are pure customer demos can still deliver value but won’t breed the common understanding that fully transparent level 3 reviews can deliver.
Each level is an important step towards fully realizing the benefits of a quality sprint review. Skipping a level can cause an organization or a team to falter because their relationships aren’t strong enough to open up to the next level. Like all process improvements, developing your sprint reviews requires patience and hard work but if you build the right relationships, you will get there eventually.