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Stop Staring at the Spreadsheet

As a scrum master or technical lead do you find yourself frittering away your time staring at the spreadsheet (or other tool) you use to track progress of the team? Do you keep studying the velocity and burndown or keep tweaking the numbers or formulas? I have heard of this becoming a chronic problem for a few scrum masters, and I find myself faced with a constant temptation to do this.

What is it about the spreadsheet that is so alluring? There is some value to studying it - I think of it as uploading the numbers into my subconscious to get an intuitive feel for where there might be obstacles or challenges that the team is facing now or will face shortly in the future. But the value of doing so quickly drops off and yet we keep staring. Part of the temptation I feel is to find ways to bump that daily or weekly burndown just a little higher by finding that task that is actually complete or is over-estimated. This is especially true if progress has not been good.

So what can we do to stop starting at the spreadsheet?

  1. Remember that identifying obstacles is no good unless they are dealt with. Focus on removing or mitigating the obstacles instead.
  2. Ask yourself what activity you can do that will best accelerate the team's progress. This might be helping a developer that is stuck on a technical issue, freeing up the time from a tester who has become a bottleneck, or clarifying requirements for upcoming work. More studying of the spreadsheet is never the answer. This is especially useful when the team's progress has been lower than expected.
  3. Remember that minor errors in the spreadsheet are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Forgetting to burn down a task or two is dwarfed by the innate inaccuracies of the estimates you are using to track progress. If you miss updating a task this week, you will likely catch it next week.
  4. Remind yourself that the spreadsheet is merely a tool, and that you are the master of the tool - not the other way around.
  5. Throw away the spreadsheet and use a simpler approach - perhaps a paper burndown chart on the team wall. Just ensure you do not then start staring at the wall.

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One Comment on “Stop Staring at the Spreadsheet”

  1. James says:

    You’re right of course. The spreadsheet is only a tool to help the team reach the goal. If everyone on the team commits to the goal, then it follows that everyone should commit to doing whatever it takes to reaching it. The spreadsheet helps everyone understand where the team is on that path. Too often however there are not enough members of the team that fully commit to the goal. That leaves the scrum master trying to tweek the spreadsheet so that the sprint isn’t deemed a failure. Losing sucks. The entire team has to buy into the fact that losing sucks. If every member of the team does everything they can to succeed and the team falls short, then we need to go back and tweek the expectations that are communicated via the spreadsheet. Otherwise the sprint should fail and the team should own that failure.

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