Dictating Scrum Alignment and the Meeting Room Problem

Banner image for the article

I’ve worked at a few organisations that have tried to coordinate their sprint length and the start and end days of each sprint. Although there are some benefits for the business, there are some significant issues this creates for the teams.

Many businesses push their development teams to align Sprints in terms of length and the start and end days. This is often coupled with comments like “it helps with planning,” “it reduces unknowns as everyone knows the cycles,” “it should align with payroll” and other similar reasons. I could focus on how most of these reasons are Agile anti-patterns, but if a business is not already able to see the anti-patterns a single article like this won’t make much difference. Instead, I will propose why businesses shouldn’t do this simply because of the challenges it creates in running Scrum ceremonies.

For the purpose of this article I’ll take a fictitious organisation which has adopted Scrum throughout their development department, but not elsewhere in the organisation. Indirect pressure has been put on teams to run with 2 week sprints with management suggesting shorter sprints have too much overhead and don’t allow enough time for delivery, and longer sprints don’t allow the team to achieve goals quickly enough (not really valid reasons, but that’s not the point of this article); the sprints have also been aligned across all 5 development teams. This company has the typical SaaS employee ratio of around 1/3rd developers, 1/3rd business ops, and 1/3rd sales; and totals around 100 employees. Like many businesses, this company has a relatively open plan office with 5 or 6 meeting rooms of varying sizes.

Throughout most of the week the majority of meeting rooms are under utilised. Sales staff will use the smaller meeting rooms on an ad hoc basis for some calls; the boardroom is used for larger meetings, but isn’t big enough for an all-hands meeting. The mid-sized meeting rooms are often unused or are used for 2 and 3 person discussions and whiteboarding sessions.

Every second Friday the meetings rooms become hot property. The 5 development teams are trying to get access to the 3 mid-sized meeting rooms. Each development team is trying to find a block of one to two hours for their Sprint Review, then they need another one or two hour block for their Retrospective. According to the Scrum Guide these should be done at the end of the Sprint, so the teams want their meetings as late in the day as possible. It’s Friday and everyone wants to attend the company “after-work drinks” that start at 4pm, because everyone’s in the office none of the teams want to work across the normal lunch time. We’ve now got 5 teams looking for up to 20 hours of meeting room time and 18 hours of meeting room availability.

The first two teams were really well organised and booked a meeting room each from 10am to midday and from 2pm to 4pm. The third team booked from 10am to midday and from 1pm to 3pm. The fourth team comes along and can’t find any times to book a meeting room without overlapping lunch or the company drinks; they decide the Scrum ceremonies are more important than specific break times and book a meeting room from midday until 2pm and then one from 3pm until 5pm. Finally, the 5th team tries to book their times and finds that nothing is available; they can’t use the small meetings rooms as they’re too small, they can’t use the boardroom as they will get bumped from it too regularly when larger meetings take place.

A similar problem occurs on the following Monday. All 5 teams what to start the Sprint first thing in the morning. There’s a rush as five teams compete for 3 meeting rooms, ultimately 2 of them will be unproductive for a couple of hours at the start of the sprint as they haven’t been able to do their Sprint Planning.

Now there are a couple of possible solutions for this. I’ve seen both of them used by organisations, and both can be effective, but even better is implementing both.

The first solution is true to Agile. Stop dictating Sprint length and remove the alignment requirement. Let the teams choose their own cycles, they know what works best for them.

The second solution is to ensure that each team has their own space and ditch the open-plan office. I’ve seen organisations that provide each team with a room that is big enough for the team to have desks and a quiet space/meeting room.

The ultimate solution is to do both of these. Give your teams a dedicated space, sound-proofed from the rest of the world. The team can set it up as they wish; they can work together as they see fit; they always have space available to be louder or softer than usual. Then give the team the freedom to adopt the ways of working that best suit them. If they want to do a 2 week and 3 day Sprint cycle, that’s their call.

Maybe one day I will write more about why dictating sprint length and alignment is an Agile anti-pattern, why it doesn’t provide any of the perceived “business benefits”, why it reduces productivity and disempowers, but for now I hope that just the simple meeting room problem will be enough to help managers see that it isn’t possible to align sprint length and starts without incurring a significant expense to the business in terms of required space.