If you are working in Scrum you know that having a Definition of Ready helps determine when a piece of work is ‘actionable’. Namely, the Team understands what needs to be done to deliver an increment. But what if, even when you reach that point of understanding the work, there is still a certain amount of uncertainty or risk that makes at least someone in the Team a bit nervous?

Aliens landing – it could happen!

As a Scrum Master, I can find myself observing what I call ‘aliens landing’ discussions from time to time. Teams fiercely discussing how to handle each possible, and even the very worst of outcomes. Sometimes these discussions might get a little silly because me simply asking ‘how realistic is it REALLY that that will happen?’ will put an end to the discussion. But there also might be merit to having a good talk about the risks involved. Better to go in with both eyes open right. But how do you decide what level of uncertainty is acceptable for ‘actionable’ work?

“Every user story has uncertainty and risk; that is the nature of Agile development. The team discovers the right solution through discussion, collaboration, experimentation, and negotiation.”

I love how everything in Agile is a metaphor for life itself. There are some steps in life that when they present themselves to you seem filled with uncertainty and risks. The crossroads in your life. How to figure out the right path? You call your mom/ wife/ best friend for discussion, collaboration, experimentation, and negotiation and then you decide how or when to move forward. (Just kidding on the ‘mom’ part, of course you always call your wife first.) Life is Agile development people!

Anyway back to Agile software development.

What to do when there are uncertainties

So when a business problem is being presented and you do not have sufficient certainty about the right solution there are a few things you can do:

  • Create a Spike, this enables the Team to take some time to investigate and explore the problem without directly committing to delivering a solution with said risk. But be critical; a Spike should also have a clearly defined outcome. What should the result of your exploration be?
  • You could spend (more) time in Refinement discussing the problem. Perhaps there is knowledge or new insight within the group that can be shared to reduce uncertainty. Let’s at least agree that we only work on work that the Team agrees is ‘Ready’.
  • Or you could (further) slice and dice the user story. Try and make the issue presented as small as possible and pick it up in steps. See what steps have the least risk and just start working on those. You will learn while working on the problem and each iteration will give you opportunity to improve and reduce uncertainty.

Overthinking is not a productive quality

[To think too much about (something) : to put too much time into thinking about or analyzing (something) in a way that is more harmful than helpful.]

There is no absolute right way to go when uncertainty is involved. How much is too much uncertainty? That depends on personality, team dynamics, knowledge, attitude and so on. But what’s always true for everyone is that standing still never got you closer anywhere.

I work in IT so without insulting anyone I can say that most people in the Teams I’ve worked with were inclined to avoid risk at sometimes considerable cost. So easily there would be discussion, collaboration, experimentation, and negotiation in excess. Aliens are not landing guys, please stop overthinking!

Yes tech people tend to overthink. A lot. Although some managers in my experience are also quite good at seeing risk everywhere.

How the Scrum Master can help

As Scrum Master, or Agile Coach, it’s my job to slowly help Team members out of their comfort zone just a little. To help them accept that a certain amount of uncertainty and risk is a part of life, and to help them discover what amount of uncertainty and/or risk is acceptable to them and productive for actually delivering work of course.

  • I’ll monitor if Spikes are the exception, and not the rule. Sometimes there is just need for some action. Plan-DO-check-act right.
  • I’ll provide honest feedback on overthinking and when the discussion has come to a deadlock to help you move forward.
  • And lastly during Sprint, when executing work I’ll help you take action or clear impediments when risks turn out to be fact.

Seriously, where would you be without me? 😉