Jeff Sutherland’s Sprint Emergency Landing Procedure

Last week, I gave a talk on Scaling Agility at Agilis 2008 in Reykjavik, Iceland. Yes, Iceland has an active agile community within their population of some 300,000-400,000. A local consultancy Sprettur, hosted this conference and invited guest speakers including Jeff Sutherland and myself. I was somewhat surprised to see the advanced level of agile adoption in this community and I had the opportunity to meet a number of agile masters who were in the process of implementing and expanding agile and Scrum.

Jeff gave two separate talks on Scrum which I enjoyed immensely. It was a learning experience for me to be able to benefit from the depth and breadth of understanding that this co-inventor of Scrum possesses. In one talk entitled “Your money for nothing and your change for free” he mentioned, almost in passing, that as a former fighter pilot, one always had to know the emergency landing procedures that came into play while attempting to land a jet on an aircraft carrier. He used that analogy to remind teams that they needed instant recall of their Sprint Emergency Landing Procedure of they ever saw this shape to their burn down chart:

Sprint in trouble

Sprint in trouble

When this is the case, the teams should immediately fall back on its four-step emergency procedure:

  1. Innovate/remove impediments – quickly analyze the root cause of the problem (blocked story, resources diverted to emergency, or whatever) and see what ideas the team has to correct the problem. As always, the collective minds of the team are the first and best resource.
  2. Get Help – can help be found outside the team? If so, apply these resources to accelerate the burn down.
  3. Reduce scope – cut lower priority features and re-plan based upon what the team can accomplish. While the team might not be able to deliver all the stories, it may not be too late to fulfill the objectives of the sprint and still end up in an acceptable state at the end.
  4. Abort – if the deck is still pitching and the glide path is still too high, then lastly, it may be necessary to abort the sprint and simply start over. Not every sprint can be a winner (unless the team is too risk averse) so the learnings and completed stories can launch you into a new, more realistic sprint. This is the last resort, but it could still be better than an unfortunate landing.

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