In his post “The Goal in Scrum“, Ron Jeffries makes the case for having a proper, higher-level-than-stories, Sprint Goal. As he says:

This is better, because it allows the wisdom and knowledge of the team to be fully exercised, and because it keeps focus on “what” is needed more than on just how it is to be done.

The point is well made, and true. Many Scrum teams would be much better off when adopting this practice. If you haven’t read the article yet, please do so now. It’s short and to the point, I’ll wait right here.

I think there are further steps beyond the point that Ron describes, that a good Agile organisation should aspire to. And that help get closer to the XP idea of an on-site customer.

For an example, let’s take the same team that Ron is talking about, working on some web-shop like domain. I’ll take a point in time a little further out than Ron did. They already learned his lesson, after all. And having done that they have a nice web shop running, with a working checkout flow, and even a wish-list.

The shop has a reasonable number of visitors, and sells enough to keep everyone employed. But though new functionality is built regularly, growth in terms of revenue is very uneven and not clearly linked to the efforts of the development team. This worries the CEO. He even considers whether changes in the team (bigger/smaller?) are necessary. The PO advises a more considered approach. He goes to the team and tells them about the issue:

“It seems our work sometimes helps us make money, but other times has no effect at all!”

The team has a nice, long, retro discussion about this. They remind the PO that they sometimes have raised questions on the practical use of some of the things they were building. He reminds them that those same things sometimes turned out to work well. And sometimes not. They realise they are missing an important feedback cycle.

Step one: Sprint Goal as a Business Test

The team is a very competent XP team, and knows that the best way to develop is to pull your assumptions forward. Test first. And change direction if the results tell you it’s not working. They agree with the PO to take a similar approach to the Sprint Goal: Describe the Goal as a test. Not a Unit Test. Not an Acceptance Test. Maybe a Business Test? One of the members talks about hypotheses but is voted down because the international team knows they’ll fail pronouncing that.

So for the next sprint, the PO and the rest of the team discuss what the Goal should be. The PO tells them that it seems many people put items in their shopping cart, and even go to checkout, but then stop and never go to payment. They agree that the goal should be to find out how to improve the conversion in that part of their sales funnel.

Step two: Information Radiator for Business Goal

The first story they agree on is to create a dashboard for the team to see this particular funnel. Easily done with their existing analytics software, but the team hasn’t been looking at that until now.

Step three: Generate ideas that could influence Business Goal

Overly simplified dashboard
Overly simplified dashboard

Then they think of all the reasons why they think someone would stop at that point. Could it be that the total amount frightens them? Should that be in the short view of the shopping cart on the main page? Is it the account creation that stops people going forward? Or the selection of the payment method? One of the team thinks the absence of PayPal as an option could be the problem. They decide they don’t know. And decide to find out.

Step four: Verify ideas

The other stories they create are small changes. And as part of those stories they encode decisions. Decisions that will result in more stories. Or will result in quickly deleting the just built functionality.

One example is the amount: they make a change in the shopping cart view on the main page that shows the approximate amount. The amount will be calculated client side, not taking into account tax and such which would require much more work. And they build it so that about 20% of their users get this new version while the rest get the old one. And compare the results. They agree up-front that only when this has more than 1% effect in the conversion they will build a more capable version of the feature in the next sprint.

The team member that likes PayPal gets a go too: let’s just put a ‘Pay with PayPal’ button on there, and see how often its pressed. Again shown to only a small subset of users. And again, only if it results into an increase of 1% or higher, they will build the PayPal integration.

Step five: Build feature

Based on the results of their experiments, which were very easy and quick to build, they create further stories for the backlog. Depending on how much time they had to spent, some of those stories could even be added to the current sprint. They’re proven to be supportive of the Goal. But if that doesn’t happen, it could also be fine to plan them in the next sprint, or later. At least the business value of those stories are very well defined.

Report

The PO is exited, but also worried a little. They’ll be building partial solutions. He is used to reporting on completed features to management. He works with the Scrum Master and one of the developers on the type of data they’ll be deciding on and creating a good report on them. Then he goes to discuss those reports with management. Management likes the figures, but would like to add a few forecasts on how these figures influence the revenue figures. That is quite easy to do, using the conversion figures along with average order size, and pretty soon they have a report that everyone is happy with.

The PO now reports on which parts of the sales funnel they’ve worked on, what ideas they testes, which worked and which didn’t, and how they are influencing revenue. Because they employ small experiments, they don’t spend much on the ideas that don’t work. And the report makes very clear that the increases in revenue that occur are significantly less than the stable costs of the team, even if the difference isn’t constant.

TL:DR

Defining your Sprint Goal in measurable business terms (such as Pirate Metrics for a web shop) gives more transparency and closer integration between development teams and their stakeholders.

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