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The Agile Snowplow Trap

I am one of those Scrum Masters who likes to talk in the abstract and with analogy. I find that it helps my teams to understand the concepts that I am attempting to coach. If I start throwing around a lot of Project Management terms, you know, ‘Risk’ ‘Contingency Planning’, ’Failure’, ‘Release Planning’, the team starts to shut down. I suspect they think, ‘There he goes again on another one of his PM things’, eyes glaze over, cell phones come out, people start daydreaming about their last golf outing. I have learned to avoid these types of coaching opportunities and instead try and put the concepts in terms that everyone can relate to.

Several months ago, I noticed that my High Performing team had started the bad habit. They were taking the stories that the Product Owner had provided, building the release plan and executing. With full knowledge that the Stories had not been broken down into sizable chunks that could be executed in a given sprint. Also, without helping the Product Owner to understand any additional Stories which may have been missed (I call these ‘Hidden Stories’).

The odd thing that continued to happen was that the team would even point the stories during Release Planning, as if they could be completed. From a Scrum Master and Product Owner perspective we thought we always had a fully formed Release Plan and Product Backlog, when in fact we had glaring holes.

In order to help the team understand the dysfunction that we had become trapped in, I developed the analogy of snowplowing (it came to me one day in the middle of one of our blistering Nebraska winter storms). I am not sure how snowplowing works in most neighborhoods, but in my neighborhood the snowplows blow the snow to the side of street (usually covering all the cars). However during times of extra heavy snow the snowplows actually start to push the snow forward and the trucks needs to work even harder to get the snow removed.

This was very similar to what was happening on our Product Backlog. When we would first start a release, the team would slide stories to ‘Done’ easily. However, when the ‘Hidden Stories’ started to surface, the existing stories got pushed into future Iterations to allow room for the ‘Hidden Stories’. Thus begins the effect of Snowplowing, or continuously pushing stories into future Iterations to make room for the hidden work.

During a Retrospective, I brought this observation up to the team. After much debate, the team determined the best approach to stop the Snowplowing. We took the time to redo Release Planning, write the ‘Hidden Stories’, repoint correctly. It was a great exercise and learning experience for the team.

Since that day, I have noticed that when these situations come up, and sometimes they can come up unknowingly during Sprint Planning, I hear the team say ‘That is Snowplowing’, and they retrace their steps to make sure they are not falling into the old traps.

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