by Leon Rosenshein


There's a lot of value in short sprints and frequent planning cycles. At any given time there's so much we don't know about the future needs and requirements of whatever piece of software we're working on that to write a detailed 6 month plan, let alone a 2 year plan, doesn't make a lot of sense. Moving away from waterfall development has codified that reality and helped to normalize the level of effort across the development cycle. Instead of the 3 month long crunch times (12+ hour days, 6-7 days/week) at the end of a 2 year development cycle we have a busy day or two every two weeks.

While short sprints might be better for the project, and definitely smooth out the level of effort, I'm not so sure that's good for the developers. We've done away with the crunch period at the end, but we've also done away with the low effort time at the beginning. Back in the day the first milestone was often a planning milestone. The output was a set of documents. Those documents themselves didn't have a lot of value and were often out of date before the virtual ink was dry, but writing them had a lot of value. Ideas were floated, adjusted, readjusted and prototyped. Some things were discarded and some things were discovered. Blind alleys were explored and opened or closed depending on what was found.

And for the developer there was very little pressure. Expectations were low. Time was available for random exploration. I think we've lost some of that now. In a sprint there's not a lot of time, so it all needs to be accounted for and there's pressure to make sure it directly accrues to some higher goal. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing. In fact, it's good to make sure that work done has some connection to the bigger goals. But it makes it harder to experiment. And it makes it harder to do things that take more than two weeks or don't have explicit outcomes. Yes, a Spike is a thing, but officially it shouldn't be longer than a Sprint. And it should have defined acceptance criteria. But it's not the same thing as "Here's a big hairy problem. You two folks go off and noodle on it for a month. Try things out. See what works and what doesn't. Come back with a design."

That's what we've lost. The ability for developers to have the scheduled downtime to decompress from the daily grind, then come up with something new without a ticking clock. Supersprints are good, but they're not providing the kind of freedom I'm talking about, and that's not what they're for. Whether we call it M0, a Planning Period, or something else entirely, I think we're worse off without it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting we go back to waterfall. I much prefer the current model. I just think we need to figure out a way to make our cycle a little more dynamic. I don't want a 3 month crunch, but I do want to figure out how to get the periodic unstructured time back.