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Sprints are not the only timebox

If we played a word association game and I said "agile"... one of the words that's likely to come back is "sprints". A core idea in the process framework, Scrum, the term has been ubiquitous for years. It's been re-appropriated again by the design community thanks to Google Ventures and its Design Sprints process.

Underneath all methodologies and frameworks are fundamental building blocks - concepts and forces that are balanced and adjusted in different ways depending on the intent of that methodology. I sometimes refer to this idea of underpinning concepts and forces as the "physics of work".

For sprints the underlying concept is the 'timebox'. Simply put, a timebox is a fixed period of time allocated to something. We take this approach in our everyday lives without giving it any special label, e.g. "If I can't find my car keys in the next 20 minutes then I'll just get the train instead".

If we have options to consider, especially time-sensitive ones, and we don't have certainty about what we can get done, the timebox is a great go-to tool.

Scrum adds a lot of scaffolding to this core idea - with velocity, story points, sprint goals and so on. I'm not here to critique Scrum but I do want to show that we can use the core idea of timeboxing in a simple and useful way within any business or team without having to learn to use Scrum.

So here are a few guidelines and tips for using timeboxes effectively:

Remember, it's a budget not an estimate

In creating a 2-day long timebox we are in effect saying, "We will only spend 2 days trying to do this", and not, "It will take us 2 days to do this." This is a subtle difference but an important one in business settings. I'll come back to the topic of estimating in a future post but for now, let's establish that a timebox is a way of saying we will use some of our remaining budget of time with no guarantee of success.

This is a great approach to use in situations where we have uncertainty, unpredictability, novelty and different options on how to succeed.

Ask yourself, how much time can we afford to lose on this?

As Clint Eastwood's character says in the 1990 film, Rookie:

If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.

The more complex, novel and uncertain the work we are doing, the higher the probability is that we won't get it done in a particular timeframe. Your timebox might fail to achieve its intended result. Consequently, when setting the duration of your timebox you need to make it long enough that something can be meaningfully done but not so long that you run out of options at the end of it. Err towards shorter rather than longer.

Take the time to articulate why you are doing this work?

What is the outcome you want? What question do you want an answer to? What problem are you trying to solve? What need are you trying to meet?

For convenience I will use "solving the problem" as a shortcut for any of these types of outcome.

When the timebox starts, it will be very easy to get distracted and side-tracked, to work on things that are not critical to the real problem being solved. Having a single statement of that problem gives you a prioritisation tool; any planned or suggested activity must pass the test:

"Does it help us solve the problem?"

Have a goal and a stretch goal

There are usually many different ways to solve a problem; from quick and dirty all the way to slick and polished. Rather than focusing on one big solution and running the risk of getting to the end of the timebox with nothing to show, try to frame solution options at the start e.g. "If we have to we can go with the workaround idea but ideally it'd be great to have the automated version".

In this approach we are trying to keep our options open as long as possible, with a bias towards banking better and better solutions as we go. This isn't always possible, of course, but it's a good habit to get into.

Bring decision making into the room

Before you start the timeboxed activity, consider what approvals and decisions you will need in place to succeed; in particular, the ones that will be made by people not dedicated to the timeboxed activity. Go to those people and ask them to either delegate that decision-making to you and the other people working in the timebox or ask them to make themselves available when needed.

Sean Blezard

It's your job to make your organisation awesome, it's my job to ensure you have all the support you need to get there.