What is Scrum? Introduction to Scrum, its Roles, and Ceremonies

Introduction to Scrum, its Roles, and Ceremonies

‘Scrum’ The Name Background

Scrum takes its name from a play in rugby where the players bind together in teams and try to take back possession of the ball. Injuries are common.

‘Scrum’ as in Software Development

The description above is an apt metaphor for Scrum development. It is a lightweight team-based Agile framework that is focused on getting the ball down the field in the fastest, most efficient way possible. Scrum is used for developing complex products and services with a focus on developing incremental units of business value within short iterations. It requires honesty, communication & adaptability. Just like the Rugby scrum it can be painful, but incredibly effective.

Now, let’s breakdown the components of Scrum. It is comprised of roles, ceremonies, and artifacts.


Product Owner

The Product Owner (PO) is the individual who makes the decisions on anything related to the “product”. The PO’s key responsibility is to make sure the team is developing products and features that deliver business value. The PO represents the voice of the customer and other business stakeholders. They drive the vision of the product and its features; create and prioritize the product backlog; define acceptance criteria and ultimately accepts the output from the development team. The PO is essentially an implant from the business world into the scrum team, as they are considered the product champion with the complete product know-how.

Scrum Master

The Scrum Master (SM) is the servant leader for the development team. The SM makes sure that the team is on track to deliver the product in increments and within the time-boxed sprint schedule (more on sprints in a bit). They facilitate through devotion to the scrum process, and by swiftly eliminating scrum team’s impediments. They uphold the structure of scrum, and inculcates the principles of agile within the scrum team. The SM is a facilitator for the scrum team, and makes sure that the development team is aware of what needs to be accomplished and when, and that they have the ability to self-organize to accomplish the development tasks.

Team Members / Development Team

The Team Members / Development Team (DT) are those responsible for the implementation of the product or features. These are the set of people who are actually doing the what that has been proposed and conceived through the product backlog and grooming sessions. The DT is usually a cross-disciplinary group of individuals including engineers, UI developers, Analysts and Quality Assurance. The DT self organizes and decides the best way to accomplish tasks they pick up during planning. They provide estimates on stories within the product backlog as well as provide feedback on the acceptance criteria to the PO to help keep development on the right track.


Product Backlog

The Product Backlog is a prioritized list of epics and stories created and managed by the Product Owner (PO). An epic is a large story and there may be smaller stories contained within. The story describes the feature in a way that makes the business value and use for the customer clear to all stakeholders so everyone can understand what is being delivered. A story is an increment of work that can be delivered by the team within the sprint cycle. Priority is set by the Product Owner, and the PO dictates the order in which stories are delivered by the team.

Sprint Backlog

The Sprint Backlog are those stories that have been committed to by the team for the upcoming or current sprint. In order to qualify to be a sprint backlog candidate stories must have enough detail (meeting the Definition of Ready – DoR) that the team is comfortable estimating the size of the story (story points) and stakeholder input/approvals have been included. The number of stories in the Sprint Backlog are determined by teams capacity built over sprint over sprint, what is also known as their velocity.

Burn Down Chart

The Burn Down Chart is the means by which the Scrum Master, team and other stakeholders keep track of progress throughout the sprint. The ideal chart would have the team incrementally completing stories throughout the sprint and thus “burning down” the Sprint Backlog to land at 0 story points left at the end of the sprint.

Sample Burn Down Chart (source: wikipedia)

Sample Burn Down Chart above – Blue line represents ideal progress, red line represents actual progress


Product Backlog Refinement (PBR)

Backlog Grooming is the process by which the Product Owner gets their stories Sprint Ready. It involves setting the vision, proving the business case, meeting with customers and other stakeholders, conferring with the team, working with UX & visual designers. Care should be taken to get enough detail into stories that the team is clear on what needs to be delivered and why, but not so much detail that analysis paralysis occurs. Grooming sessions with the team should be time-boxed to make sure their time is spent optimally and mostly devoted to getting actual work done delivering items for the current sprint. A typical grooming session lasts for about 2-4 hrs depending on the length of the sprint, and the development team has to make sure that each story meets their DoR as an input to the Sprint, and the acceptance criteria and assumptions meet Definition of Done (DoD) for the final approval of the story.

Sprint Planning

The Sprint is time-boxed cycle that is 1 – 4 weeks in duration. At the end of the Sprint an increment of the product should be completed and ideally delivered to the customer. Sprint Planning is the session run by the Scrum Master where the team decides how many stories they can take into the upcoming sprint. The team selects stories in priority order set by the Product Owner. A team that has been working together for several sprints or more will have a historic record of how many story points they can take into a sprint. This is referred to as their velocity. Ideally their velocity will increase over time as the team builds. The objective of the sprint planning is to commit stories for the upcoming sprint to the PO, and identify all activities required for the development of the story to meet the DoD.

Daily Standup (Scrum)

The Daily Standup or Scrum is facilitated by the Scrum Master on a daily basis at the same time everyday without fail for the development team. It is time-boxed to only 15 minutes. Each member of the development team comes on time, and answers three questions – what did they work on yesterday, what are they focused on working today and if there are any impediments in their way. Impediments are noted by the Scrum Master and taken to be discussed offline, and are addressed following the standup.


The Retrospective is a crucial ceremony in Scrum that invites Development Team Members to give an honest assessment of their team’s performance in recent sprint. It is facilitated by the Scrum Master, and may or may not include the Product Owner. Some teams may need the Retrospective as a place to discuss issues with the Product Owner and in that case may need them to be excluded to allow for open communication. Team Members each provide a list of the following categories: “Start Doing”; “Stop Doing”; & “Continue Doing”. These may be framed in different ways but basically the conversation should be open and constructive in identifying room for improvement; issues; as well as celebrating successes.


These are the basic components of Scrum. The best way to learn is to practice and each team will grow and modify the techniques to meet their unique group dynamics & development environment. Other good sources are –

Scrum Master, an Agile Role That Is Not a Project Manager

Agile and non-agile product management require two core components – team members, who are knowledgeable about the technical components of a given project, and a leader to guide the team members through the project.  The leadership role in agile product management differs from that in non-agile product management, though, for there is the introduction of a Scrum Master, who is neither a development team member, nor a direct leader.

Non-Scrum Leadership Role

Project Manager Role Defined

In product management, the leading role is that of Project Manager, the person who is responsible for seeing the project through to success.  Essentially, this person establishes the project goals, plans the necessary steps for achieving those goals, monitors progress, and makes decisions regarding various aspects of the project.  The Project Manager is the key decision maker and commander.  In controlling the outcome of the entire project, the Project Manager must also maintain responsibility for the team’s work, making sure that they are on-track to successfully completing the project.  He sets the framework, essentially, for the team in any given project, by establishing their goals and timetable.

Scrum Leadership Roles

Product Owner

In agile product management, particularly Scrum, however, the role of Project Manager is non-existent.  The responsibilities of that role are instead divided into two leading positions – the roles of Product Owner and Scrum Master.  Of the two roles in agile product management, the Product Owner role is the closer one to that of Project Manager in non-agile methods.

Scrum Master

The Scrum Master, on the other hand, serves as an intermediary between the development team members — those working on completing sprint goals and deliverables – and the Product Owner.  The Scrum Master role differs from a Project Manager role in that the Scrum Master is more hands-on with the development team.  When a technical malfunction occurs and hinders a team member from completing their task, it falls upon the Scrum Master – not the Product Owner – to handle the issue and ensure that the team member is able to complete their work.  In non-scrum project management situations, the Project Manager would not be the one to handle such details.  The Scrum Master is responsible for eliminating any impediments that hinder the development team’s accomplishment of sprint goals, ranging from a development team member’s computer malfunction to handling an uncomfortable temperature in the work environment.  As such, part of the Scrum Master role is to work on behalf of the development team, including facilitating the team’s meetings and coaching the team towards successful self-management and completion of sprint goals; the Scrum Master is there for the team’s benefit.

The other part of the Scrum Master role is to work on behalf of the PO.  In this sense, the Scrum Master can be regarded as the “servant leader,” for he does not make large, product goal decisions as the PO would, but the Scrum Master may make decisions on how to improve the development team’s work environment in order to enhance their productivity.  The Scrum Master ensures that the team meets the PO’s project goals, namely by removing impediments to the team’s success and communicating information about the team’s progress to the PO.  He helps the PO to lead the team by holding them accountable for the project commitments that they make in each sprint, and by doing what is necessary to enhance the team’s productivity.

Essentially, the Scrum Master facilitates the work of both the development team and the Product Owner.  Though the Scrum Master does not make main project decisions as a Project Manager does, the Scrum Master is nonetheless a vital role in scrum product management.  The Scrum Master interprets and solves team issues, and works to help them maximize their productivity, which benefits the Product Owner, as well, by bringing the project closer to successful completion.

Product Owner Basics: Prioritization

For scrum product owners, there are multiple important considerations to have in mind, and high amongst them is product backlog prioritization.  Product prioritization is vital to achieving a scrum product’s objectives, and there are a number of scrum backlog prioritization techniques that product owners can embrace.  However, it is not a process that product owners can dive into; the process’ basics — including the reasons for it, how to approach it, and the results that can be expected — should be thoroughly understood in order to achieve the full potential of prioritization.

Reasons for Prioritization

One of the top, if not the top, reasons for product prioritization is to maintain clear focus on the items to be delivered.  Of the product backlog items in any given sprint, some are not immediate and may not add significant value to the final product, nor are they necessary for the other tasks that will lead to the product end-goal; prioritization is ideal for targeting and weeding out such backlog items.  Prioritization would push these items to another sprint or eliminate them altogether, leaving the most pressing and valuable backlog items to be attended to in the sprint. Another core reason for conducting prioritization which relates to maintaining focus on the ultimate product, is that the process assists in keeping on-track, in terms of the schedule.  By having a clear list of tasks to tackle — as achieved by the completion of a product prioritization session — the team will know exactly what to attend to, minimizing the risk of some members focusing on non-immediate tasks, thereby resulting in not having sufficient time to complete the vital tasks at the end of the sprint.

Another reason for conducting product prioritization is that it helps to reduce the risk of not meeting the requirements necessitated by the product’s business stakeholders.  Without product prioritization, tasks that address product risks and difficult product components may not be analyzed, leading to less time for the team to address those risks.

How To Approach It

The significance of product prioritization makes it such that Product Owners seeking to optimize the results of their project cannot forego the process.  It should be noted that prioritization is not a one-time occurrence.  Each sprint should have its own product prioritization session.  New requirements and backlog tasks, which inevitably emerge with each new sprint, require a re-ranking of priorities.  Each prioritization session should be approached in the same manner.

In prioritizing product backlog items, customer satisfaction, business value, complexity, safety, and effort for implementation are aspects of each item that should be considered.  In general, when approaching the list of backlog tasks, the Product Owner and teams should consider which tasks will result in features that will generate the highest business stakeholder and customer satisfaction.  Backlog items that will allow customers to realize a high return on investment  should be at the top of the sprint’s list of tasks to complete.  In ranking the items, it is also important to consider each backlog item’s business value.  Does the item provide a long-term business benefit, or does it provide an immediate edge over the product’s competitors?  In either case, how the item ranks according to its business value depends on whether the product’s business stakeholders are aiming for long-term or more immediate results.  Product prioritization cannot be effective unless the Product Owner and teams also rank items according to how complex they will be to implement, how much effort must be invested in completing the item, and whether or not the backlog item relates to a product feature critical for the product’s function.

Once the backlog items have been analyzed from multiple angles, as discussed above, they can be ranked.  Teams can then self-organize in order to complete the tasks for that sprint.  Note that the prioritized list is not to be set in stone — it alters as new, relevant customer information is gleaned or business stakeholders’ requirements change.

The Results

It can be expected that product prioritization will lead to teams completing more of the pressing tasks and remaining on-track towards the product’s final goals.  Teams’ efforts and time will be spent valuably in each sprint, attending to the most urgent tasks — those that will ensure the most success for the product.

Understanding the Team Culture and Requirements

As a coach, it is very complex sometimes how the team who’s been coached takes into consideration the minute facts of coaching dynamics and delicacy of human emotions. The turf, as I call it becomes very slippery for the coach to walk on if that’s the case. Agility comes from the fact that everyone should be on the same page about changes that are coming, and discipline that is required to execute that change and gain that acceleration which the organization is looking for.

There’s however a reality check that the coach could only take you to a certain point, hand hold you to a point with whatever your needs are for the objectives defined, but for the lifelong learning of the team things need to be placed in an order and in such a way where from the beginning the team is setup for success and not to fail.

And you might ask what is that thing which enables self-propelled interest of everyone as part of the agile team? In a bit. But first let’s look at this. The organizations who want to get to terms with the basic getting and going with agile, they come with a pre-notion to learn something, and learn something valuable, and their teams have mixed feelings. Some are experienced and expecting to new learning, some have been there for a long time and now being pushed into learning something new, some are new and excited to learn and some have higher expectations from the outcome after what they learn and earn in return. It is however not the place and the position of the coach to make those assessments, but those scenarios create a lot of varied team dynamics and sometimes result in a state where agile efforts become ineffective or seem to be halted. Any political maze could be a nightmare for the coach, and being transparent, open and honest sometimes is a big burden which the coach must carry on his or her shoulder. Though you cannot simply be quite about it, but there are few ways you can tackle them.

How to make sure that we have the right skill-set within the identified team?

You cannot. That’s the short answer. Coaching agile teams doesn’t mean eliminating people whom we think are not going to be valuable or show some sort of reluctance in learning something new. Unlike other trades, where the skills are hard learned and hard earned without at the expense of the outcome; things work differently under the agile coaching world and not at the expense of the outcome as well. You learn from failures and mistakes, and continue to improvise till you get it. If they didn’t get the first time around, you need to tell the individual that they should never give up, and yes, the fruits of labor will work out within the release cycle or by the time things look to come together from an integration perspective. And that’s the flexibility and ability we have in the structure for such a learning system.

Agile Retrospectives: Do they add any business value?

Once a scrum master shared a concern that the retrospectives have become boring and neither she nor her team members feel any value out of it. We all have faced this challenge in the past and would like to share few pointers than can be considered as good guiding principles for retrospectives and why they are the strongest tool in the agile toolbox to make any team better, and it does deliver business value.

Sharing outcomes of previous meetings

People tend to abstain if they find that nothing from previous retrospection has improved. The difference I have observed when sharing the outcomes with the team is that they do realize that few items under ‘areas of improvement; in the past has become ‘things that went well’ in the sprint. Also when discussing on thing to changes, ask team’s opinion on action plan and come to an agreement. Caution: Do not force yourself to prove everything has improved; be honest in admitting that some things have not changed.

Pat on the back

When team members do something exceptional, we should try to appreciate them in person and give them a pat on their back. The retrospectives are a good occasion to reiterate and call out those performances. Wait for your other team members to do it and if they miss, make sure you as scrum master call them out. Nothing motivates a team member than a co-member’s appreciation. Also encourage your Product Owners and Business Leaders to send formal appreciations and it works well when you have distributed teams.

Coach them to be prepared

Coach them to be prepared for the meeting. When you a see a ‘mistake in the past’ tend to repeat, gently remind the team, before it occurs. Any new issue you see impacting the team, remind them that we can discuss in retro. During meeting encourage them to speak more based on data points than being generic, focus more on things that are controllable within the team. Make sure everyone get a chance to speak.

Change the meeting pattern

The same meeting pattern sometimes makes retrospectives boring. Mapping your sprint to something from real life can add real fun and would help fresh ideas. Compare your sprint to a baseball / cricket/soccer game. Questions using game terminologies like- Did the team had enough preparations to get in to game, which half did they play well , what should they try different in next game would give different perspective to the thought process.

Press the SOS button – Escalation

While captaining your ship, if you see issues disturbing the team recurrently, do not hesitate to escalate. Environmental issues, build failures, domains not resolving dependencies etc. cause disruptions, especially if you have short sprint durations. Escalate to senior management.

Show them the trends based on Metrics

Sharing sprint metrics like team average velocity, bugs logged in the sprint; team commitment accuracy etc. during retrospection helps the team to understand the trends on how they are performing. I have seen that it has enabled them to make their own decisions in terms of how much stories they can commit to, come up with ideas to reduce defects etc.

Say Thank you!!

Ending the meeting with a Thank you, appreciating their active participation does matter a lot. It creates a feeling of being important and listened and this instills a sense of belonging. Also when they see their suggestions are put in to actions, they will actively involve in future retrospections.

The role of a Scrum Master in a Distributed Agile Team

The roles and responsibilities of the Scrum Master may vary based on the distribution environment and team structure, but there is always a component that seems to be common for all cases, and this is ensuring that the team is following Agile practices. It becomes imperative in the distributed environment since most of those practices were initially designed for the collocated teams. As a Scrum Master, she/he is responsible for coaching the team and helping them overcome those challenges.

Distributed teams can adopt not all Agile practices; some have to be significantly modified, and some will require specific tools, which means that the team will have to invest in some learning time to adopt them. One of the classic examples of those modifications is pair programming. In distributed Agile environments, pair programming is replaced with code reviews. (Personally, I have found code reviews more efficient that pair programming even within the collocated teams).

Another practice that is critical in a distributed environment is continuous integration which will ensure that everybody is working on the same code. The implementation of this practice can be challenging from the technical point of view but is well worth the investment. It also requires that all team members understand the importance of daily code check in, even though the particular feature they are working on may not be finished. If the code is throwing exceptions or prohibiting any previous functionality from testing, it should be commented out, but still checked in. The Scrum master is responsible for communicating the importance of Agile practices to all team members.

One of the other Scrum master responsibilities usually includes tracking iteration progress. In collocated environments. Iteration tracking is visualized by sticky notes on a wall so that every team member can see the current status of the particular issue, and update the status on items assigned to him during the daily standup meeting. In distributed environment, you need to use something more advanced to visualize the progress. There are fairly large numbers of tools available today in the market which do an excellent job of visualizing iteration tasks, keeping track of backlog items, and generating burn down charts.

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Art of Being Agile.

Understanding the feedback in ‘The Feedback Loop’

What is Feedback?

Feedback occurs when the return of information concerning the results of a process or activity takes place (http://www.thefreedictionary.com.). This event is part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a loop onto itself. Feedback comes in two forms: good feedback and bad feedback. Without feedback, the Agile process of inspection and adaption could not occur. An Agile process thrives in an environment with constant change. Because of this variability, adaptation and adjustment points are made on a regular basis. If we can shorten the amount of time elapsed between these calibration points, then we can more quickly adapt to these changing realities. In short, this is the feedback loop in our process and environment.

Types of Feedback

There are, however, different forms of feedback, which are listed here for the reader’s reference and throughout:

  1. Communication feedback (e.g., onsite customer, open team workspace, ubiquitous language)
  2. Technology feedback (tools we use to give us quick feedback, like Cruise Control, mocking, BigVisibleCruise, CCtray, Resharper, TFS real time compilation/warnings, and confirming that we use the right technology)
  3. Requirement feedback (when a customer need realizes in a demo or the production environment)
  4. Market feedback (to see how the market reacts to a new story/feature/module, frequent and numerous deployments)
  5. Analysis, design and coding feedback (e.g., pair programming, whiteboard mockups, code reviews)
  6. Defect and testing feedback (the quicker we find out about bugs, the quicker we can fix them, deploying often and always, test driven development)
  7. Operational feedback (process, methodologies, practices and how to improve them)

The quicker we can get these forms of feedback from the source, the faster we can validate our progress and adapt to the information received.

A company’s ability to deal with change and adapt accordingly to changing conditions will improve its competitiveness in the marketplace. Companies that struggle with a slow feedback loop will find themselves caught up in trying to solve problems that have already changed or are not important anymore.

Effects of a fast feedback loop

Having a fast feedback loop allows dominance of a company during market changes. For example, one of our clients using our health and safety management system had a deadline for submission of reports. Approximately 800 companies assigned to each performed various tasks and submitted reports showing the work completed. There were some features and latency problems that the client wanted to be fixed, and the deadline was one week away. We were able to get quickly the high-priority features added, and latency issues resolved three days into the week using our engineering practices, automated testing, and automated deployments. We went live before the deadline to get much-needed feedback on our changes in a real production environment. If we had waited until after the deadline, we wouldn’t have obtained the actual feedback from the end users re the added features, nor the feedback from an environment production perspective, since the client wouldn’t be using the system until the next deadline, which was months away. Using this feedback from deployed features in a production environment allowed us to make more improvements so that the next period time would go even more smoothly.


Being able to perform a full cycle of development from client request to production deployment in a few days helps ensure the company can quickly adapt to changing market conditions.

(This is an excerpt from the mini book series “Agile from the Trenches: The Feedback Loop”)

Transforming Agile Nay-Sayers Into Enthusiasts

Agile is increasingly mentioned as the go-to method for product development, and given the coverage on agile, it appears that there is a consensus that agile is at least viewed in a neutral light, if not favorably. Despite this, there are adamant nay-sayers against agile. For those who are attempting to transition their teams into embracing agile, it can be difficult if a team member is resistant towards agile. This post serves to provide insight into the criticism that some may have towards agile, in order to assist those seeking to convert agile nay-sayers into enthusiasts. For those who hold an unfavorable view of agile, this post will detail the potential of using agile with customer insights to transform products, along with the top agile practices to adopt in order to maximize a product’s reception.Main Criticism Against AgileLack of Structure

A common criticism against agile is the lack of structure, especially in comparison to traditional methods such as waterfall. Indeed, agile is more open-ended and it embraces changes. That is not to be mistaken with chaos, though. Critics may misinterpret the lack of structure to lead to team members working on any number of tasks that may be irrelevant, and that progress cannot be achieved efficiently. Agile, in its lack of linearity and openness to quick changes, induces the opposite effect. It enables more progress to be attained during development, as multiple rounds of testing enable product features’ issues to emerge quickly and to be addressed immediately, resulting in a more complete product.

Rushes Into Development

Some may view the multiple cycles involved in agile to be a “rush” and that it undermines thorough and successful product development. Agile cycles consist of the stages of more traditional methods, but less time is spent on each stage within each sprint. This “rush” into the next stage is precisely what enables agile product development to incorporate so much user feedback into the process – and this incorporation of feedback results in a better product.

“Agile Fever”

Another main criticism against agile is the apparent “agile fever” that is sweeping across businesses and industries in the attempt to benefit from this method. This criticism is not unwarranted, for as is true with anything, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. With agile, it is important not to rush into implementing it merely because everyone else appears to be doing so; it is vital to thoroughly understand agile before adopting it, and even upon adoption it, the process should be tailored to each business individually.

Using Agile With Customer Insights to Transform Products

Agile, contrary to the main criticisms that exist, is an efficient method to transform products into ones that are well-received by the targeted customers. Each sprint in agile product development provides the opportunity to glean and incorporate user feedback into the next sprint. Not only is user feedback allowed to be a major factor in the product’s development, but agile also provides ample opportunity for product issues to emerge and to be addressed on the spot, before the final product is released. Under agile, the product is completed multiple times and assessed as such, allowing for it to be enhanced a number of times more than if another method were used.

Each sprint in agile product development can be viewed as a trial run, wherein user assessment is gleaned and addressed accordingly. Had the product been developed under a method other than agile, user assessment would not be obtained until the final product was released – by which time it would be more costly to fix the issues and to incorporate what users want and need from the product; the product’s reception and success would suffer accordingly.

Top Agile Practices to Adopt

To maximize the potential held by agile product development and customer insights, it is important to emphasize the adoption of certain agile practices, namely continuous integration and design review. Continuous integration of feedback results from, and fuels, constant effort to glean feedback on and enhance the developing product. This is vital in creating a more successful final product that matches or surpasses user expectations. Design review, the other top agile practice to adopt in order to maximize integration of customer insights into the final product, enables teams to review design stories with consideration of the latest product feedback; it poses the opportunity to plan further work on the product with the feedback in mind.

There will continue to exist agile nay-sayers who will not embrace agile, despite the lack of evidence for some of the main criticisms against agile. For those who are swayed by the potential held by agile to incorporate user feedback into the creation of successful products, there exists ample information for them to begin their agile journey.

{image courtesy: flickr/JD Hancock }

How Measuring Velocity Helps in Your Agile Journey

Measuring velocity is a useful way of determining how long an agile project will take to complete, by providing a rough estimate of the amount of work the team can complete in a sprint.  It is necessary to keep in mind, however, that as insightful as knowing your team’s velocity is, velocity is not a true measure of your product’s development.

This post will discuss what velocity is and the reason why we measure it, and why management is interested in higher versus lower velocity.

Velocity Defined

Velocity, in terms of agile product management, is a metric that provides insight into approximately how much work a given team can complete in a sprint.  Measuring velocity uses information from a completed sprint, so if your team is approaching its first sprint, you must know how many people will be involved in the project, the maximum amount of work each person can complete, and the total number of workdays in the sprint, in order to calculate the velocity.

Calculating velocity involves units of work that can be defined as hours or story points – a metric capturing the complexity of implementing a story – for example, and tasks.  Velocity is calculated by adding up the difficulty metric of every backlog task, such as stories, completed by the team in a given sprint with the units of work for those tasks.  This provides the velocity in terms of units of work per sprint.

Why Measure Velocity?

Velocity provides an estimate of how much work your team, specifically, can complete in a given sprint.  As velocity is calculated using the work of previous sprints and if everything remains constant – such as the same people are involved and the tasks are relatively of the same nature – then velocity is consistent.  If the team had a velocity of 30 story points per sprint for previous software development projects, then it can be expected that, all else constant, the team will have a velocity of 30 story points per sprint in the next software development project.

Velocity is useful in estimating the approximate length that a project will take, as well.  If the project at hand has 120 story points’ worth of stories, and previous sprints show that the team has a velocity of 30 story points per sprint, then it can be expected that the team will complete the present project in four sprints.

Higher Velocity Versus Lower Velocity

As velocity signifies an agile team’s productivity – the velocity value indicates that either the team completed fewer high-difficulty stories, or they completed many stories of lower difficulty – it is more desirable for a team to have a higher velocity than a lower one.  A higher velocity would indicate that the team is capable of completing more stories or high-difficulty stories, which translate into more progress towards the project.

It is worth noting, though, that when teams are measuring their velocity at the start of a project, the velocity value will not be as accurate as it will be for later sprints.  An underestimation when initially measuring velocity can result in a higher velocity later on in the project.  Similarly, an overestimation in initially measuring the velocity will lead to a lower velocity later on in the project, as the velocity is adjusted with each completed sprint.  As such, the velocity value that is calculated later on in a project may not accurately reflect the team’s productivity; their productivity could have remained constant, yet the change in velocity value may be due to an under or overestimation.

Velocity Is Not a True Measure of Product Development

As useful as measuring velocity is, an agile team should not rely on their velocity to indicate the progress of their product’s development.  The velocity is measured based on each sprint, and with each new sprint, new product features’ information is accumulated and added; this changes the stories and story points associated with the next sprint, so the previous sprint’s velocity is not necessarily indicative of the team’s work in the next sprint.  Many new features may have to be added or changed in the next sprint, so the nearly completed product of the previous sprint may actually be 40% completed, given the previous sprint’s feedback.  Even though the team had a high velocity in the previous sprint, product feedback necessitated even more work before the product can be deemed complete.

{Photo courtesy: Flickr/Jan-Hendrik Palic}