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Rationale for Short Sprints: 10 Hidden Benefits

By Miranda Dulin
Published in Inspect & Adapt
October 04, 2022
6 min read
Rationale for Short Sprints: 10 Hidden Benefits

Sprints are like loan terms; the shorter, the better. Extending the duration will increase the costs but not the benefits.





What Is the Rationale for Scrum Teams Implementing Short Sprints

The Scrum Guide defines “Sprint” in the following way:

“They are fixed length events of one month or less to create consistency.”

The third principle from the Agile Manifesto takes a similar stance:

“Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.”

Though both establish a maximum, neither is overly prescriptive in the exact length you should choose. The Agile Manifesto does obscurely state that the shorter period is preferred but doesn’t elaborate on why.

This article will demystify the Scrum Guide omittance by elaborating on the benefits of shorter Sprint lengths.

More Opportunities to Course Correct

When I was a kid, my family used to go on vacation every year. We didn’t do anything too grand, mostly sightseeing in neighboring states, but it was something I think the whole family looked forward to.

Back in those days, smartphones and GPS systems weren’t commonplace. We had to rely on the handy dandy atlas, or if we were in a pinch, we’d pick up a map from a local gas station.

man in car thoughtfully examining an atlas
As you can imagine, it's easier to get off course without being aware of it when you're GPS isn't announcing that she's "recalculating..."

One year, my dad took a wrong turn. My atlas-holding brother tried to correct the mistake, but Dad wasn’t willing to listen. When we finally stopped to ask for directions, we’d driven 200 miles in the wrong direction.

If we’d attempted to verify our course sooner, we could have saved some time - not to mention gas money. Frequency check-ins can determine if course corrections are needed sooner and reduce back-tracking.

The end of each Sprint is a perfect opportunity to stop for air and have a logical discussion about our current trajectory. Are we heading in the right direction, and do we want to keep going? Shorter Sprints mean more opportunities to align to our course or change our destination if it no longer makes sense.

Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Animated elephant silhouette disappearing and reappearing in bit sized shapes

Larger features almost always benefit from being broken into smaller chunks. Smaller pieces are easier to handle and push through a process. Smaller scopes mean that each step between starting something and finishing it has less to do. For example, think of QA. Verifying changes to three lines of code is more manageable than verifying hundreds of lines.

Minor improvements are also easier to remember than larger ones. We started the Sprint by discussing everything in Sprint planning. Three big, complicated changes are more challenging to juggle than ten smaller, simpler ones.

Improves Focus

Another positive side-effect of limiting scope is that it improves focus.

An agile team will be able to get less work done in a one-week Sprint than in a two-week Sprint. Thus, the development team brings in fewer Product Backlog Items from the beginning when working in shorter iterations. With fewer items in the queue, the team will naturally focus on getting things done vs. starting more work.

In essence, short-duration Sprints act as a natural WIP limit.

Easier Planning Horizon

There is a reason why most weather apps only forecast two weeks at a time. The further out they look, the less accurate the predictions become.

Pitcher frozen post pitch in a baseball field at night
It's more accurate to predict what will happen next week than it is what will happen next month. Between now and next week, there are only seven days when something can go wrong. But between now and next month, there are thirty opportunities for fate to throw us a curveball.

It’s common for someone to give a two-week notice when they leave a company. If a team member announces their resignation at the beginning of a one-month Sprint, your whole four-week plan will be shot. But, if you’re doing shorter Sprints, you have an opportunity to replan right as their leave takes effect.

Shorter Meetings

With Shorter Sprints, your ceremonial meetings also become shorter as they should be proportional to your Sprint duration.

If Sprint Planning is four hours for two weeks, it should only be two hours for one week.





Some teams prefer the frequent coordination of shorter, focused meetings vs. longer meetings covering more scope.

More Feedback

For some inexplicable reason, my husband and mother-in-law insist on cooking via the feedback cycle method. They put something in the oven and then just on it intermittently until it’s done.

My mother-in-law will put biscuits in the oven and anxiously hover by the door, checking every couple of minutes to see if they’re “golden brown.”

My heartmate’s assertion that she used the smoke alarm as an oven timer when he was a kid might intensify her overly cautious nature.

On the other hand, my husband once put a pizza in the oven and returned to playing a video game while he waited for it to cook. Distracted by the game, the unchecked lunch completely slipped his mind.

burnt pizza
Apparently, some pizzas, when left unchecked in the oven for long periods of time, petrify like charcoal.

By the time he remembered and ran to the kitchen, the only thing that remained of the pizza was a charred husk. It was rather odd; the color had drained from it, leaving it to resemble a piece of charcoal.

I question why neither of them chooses to use a timer. Still, that obvious inquiry aside, I must admit my mother-in-law’s golden brown biscuits win over my husband’s charcoal pizza.

In his book Scrum Field Guide, Mitch Lacey perfectly describes the benefits that short iterations have on the feedback loop:

[T]he whole purpose behind the one-month-or-less sprint length is the feedback loop—validating that the path the team is on is the correct one. Another way to put it is that in the beginning of the Sprint, the team heard what the product owner (and the stakeholders) asked for. At the end of the Sprint, the team presents what it thinks it heard—essentially trying to prevent what I call the “what I meant syndrome,” when customers and stakeholders say after a sprint or release, “You built what I asked for but not what I meant.” This situation plagues so many teams, why would they not want shorter feedback loops?”

Measuring Progress

The Scrum Guide defines the Sprint in the following way:

“Sprints are the heartbeat of Scrum, where ideas are turned into value.”

At the end of a Sprint, a Scrum Team should have a potentially shippable increment. The team typically demos the product Increment to stakeholders.

One of the benefits of the activity is that the customers see progress each Sprint. If your Sprints are one month each, they’ll see progress twelve times a year. If your Sprints are two weeks each, they’ll see progress twenty-six times a year.

A variety of arms holding up a variety of presents
If you're waiting for something you want, would you rather get functional parts of it every 14 days, or would you rather wait 365 days to get the whole thing? Average credit card debt numbers indicate that most people aren't great at delaying gratification.

If you assume that the development team would adhere to the same Product Vision at the end of the year regardless of sprint duration, then getting the product releases sooner rather than later is the better option. We have an opportunity to reap the rewards of each increment as it is released.

Reduced Chance of Interruptions

A common complaint of Scrum is that the team locks scope during the Sprint. This fixed scope allows them to focus on the Sprint Backlog, which they determined in Sprint Planning, and the team strictly avoids unplanned work.

This short freeze can be hard to swallow in cultures that are weak in planning or have a high rate of change.

Tongue swallowing a large pill

It gets easier the shorter the iteration. Few things can’t wait a week, but asking someone to wait four weeks is a harder sell.

Memory

The Sprint Retrospective is an integral part of any agile approach. Unfortunately, it may be harder for teams with longer iterations to remember the relevant things that happened near the beginning.

The same is true of Sprint Planning. Given that it happens at the beginning of the iterations, the further we get from it, the less we will remember what we decided or discussed in the meeting.

Thus shorter Sprints help us remember all we need to amplify the value of our ceremonies.

Continuous Improvement

Some inefficient processes can fly under the radar when there is enough buffer time to reduce their burden. When a team shortens its Sprint, these inefficiencies become increasingly apparent, and eventually, the team will be unable to ignore them.

Sponge Bob trying to blow our a raging fire

With shorter Sprints, you’ll be more protective with your time and less likely to let even the smallest of wastes continue unchecked.

Works Consulted

  • Agile Estimating and Planning
  • Scrum Field Guide, The: Agile Advice for Your First Year and Beyond
  • Top Benefits of Having Shorter Sprints in Agile




TLDR

Shortening your Sprint to two weeks or less can have significant benefits, whereas lengthening your Sprint can have hidden costs.

Shorter sprints offer better opportunities for improvement, increase focus and transparency, reduce scope, increase plan adherence, and provide more opportunities to replan.

Like a loan, if you keep your term short, you’ll avoid paying extra costs at the end.


Previous Article
Business Value in Agile: The Why is Valuable
Miranda Dulin

Miranda Dulin

Scrum Master

Table Of Contents

1

What Is the Rationale for Scrum Teams Implementing Short Sprints

2

More Opportunities to Course Correct

3

Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

4

Improves Focus

5

Easier Planning Horizon

6

Shorter Meetings

7

More Feedback

8

Measuring Progress

9

Reduced Chance of Interruptions

10

Memory

11

Continuous Improvement

12

Works Consulted

13

TLDR

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