sunrise_over_marara_beach_and_motu_bora_bora_french_polynesia_3_july_2012Time boxes: Why Are They So Important?

Bucket Lists. We see them all the time.

Engaging images posted all over our favorite social media sites of beautiful, scenic beach pictures of Bora Bora or our sister’s free-fall picture of her death defying sky diving act. These pictures are usually captioned with, “Bucket list! Check.”

A bucket list is a list of things that someone wants to do before they die or better known as, before they “kick the bucket”. This is reality. Our lives are finite unless you are a vampire or have found the Fountain of Youth.

For us mortals, this is a drastic, morbid analogy and death is not something we want to accept, but if you were told you had one more day to live, how would you spend your last 24 hours?

Think about it.

You would probably spend a few moments prioritizing your list based on what you value the most, what must be done and any other important factors that would justify your choices.

And then you would act.

Now imagine you have 1 hour and only 1 hour to get through your agenda items for this afternoon’s meeting with the CEO. The time box will start on-time and will end on-time, no exceptions.

You would probably spend time prioritizing topics of value so that if the hour ends and there are still empty boxes next to your check list items, it won’t be the end of the world (or your life).

A time box is a fixed increment amount of time that is usually agreed upon in advance of setting the time box length.

This practice is used in Scrum and is used to motivate people in ensuring that activities are prioritized according to value. The key is to create a short enough time box to instill a sense of urgency and to help eliminate the act of procrastinating, but without minimizing the value of your ceremony.

As a general guideline:

Scrum ceremonies and their recommended maximum  time boxed lengths are:

  • Daily Stand-Up – 15 minutes
  • Sprint – 1 to 4 weeks
  • Sprint Planning
    • 1 – week Sprint: 2 hours
    • 2 – week Sprint: 4 hours
    • 3 – week Sprint: 6 hours
    • 4 – week Sprint: 8 hours
  • Sprint Review – 1 hour
  • Retrospective – 1 hour

These lengths serve as a guideline and can be adjusted according to the behaviors of your team.

Which Time Box to Choose?

Choosing an ideal time box length and making adjustments to existing ones are usually a team effort.

It takes a good Scrum Master who observes behaviors among the team members, understands the culture, product complexity and other factors and will take these factors into consideration when making recommendations to the team. But ultimately the team should decide.

For example:

  • What will be the ideal time box length that will put enough pressure on your team to allow creativity and self-organization but will discourage procrastination?
  • Are you in a 3-week Sprint and you see that they are moving stories to DONE closer to the finish line or end of the Sprint? Be aware that stories may need to be broken down further or maybe they are not well-defined, but perhaps the length of the Sprint can be shortened to a 2-week time box.
  • During the Sprint Review, is there enough time to collaborate and collect feedback from stakeholders? Are you getting more discussion then recommendations? Are you getting too much feedback? Wait, what? How could you have too much feedback?????Remember, that the Sprint Review happens on the last day of the Sprint. If there is too much feedback in your Sprint Review, perhaps decreasing the Sprint and increasing the length of the Sprint Review ceremony will help maximize the delivery of the feedback.
  • What is the maturity level of the team? For a brand new team or a team still in early phases of applying Scrum, you may start with the recommended lengths and then adjust after you have completed a few cycles of retrospection.

And once the time box length is agreed upon, rarely make adjustments. Once you have a time box established for your Scrum ceremonies, it’s important to stick to them. Consider what would happen if you were constantly informed that you had 24 hours left to live but that has changed to 2 days.

The 2 days is now a month then suddenly to only 2 hours left of your life. Not only would this wreak havoc on you mentally, but sooner or later you would no longer believe in the messenger of this drab news. You would stop making and acting on your Bucket List.

And gone would be those beautiful pictures of Bora Bora.