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Sprint Zero: is it the secret to Agile success?

First, let's clarify what Sprint Zero is. For those unfamiliar with the term, Sprint Zero refers to an initial sprint undertaken by a newly-formed team to create the foundational artifacts and kick off their work. A typical Sprint Zero might follow this sequence:
Day 1 - Team kick-off, introductions, and establishing team norms
Day 2 - Developing customer personas and mapping out customer journeys
Day 3 - Defining product vision and setting up OKRs (Objectives and Key Results)
Day 4 - Mapping out team processes, defining the Definition of Ready and Definition of Done
Day 5 - Creating and refining the initial set of backlog items
Keep in mind that the specific flow can vary depending on the team and product requirements. For example, you may choose to map out your MVP (Minimum Viable Product) during this period or agree upon a user story template. Ultimately, the goal of Sprint Zero is to prepare the backlog for the first work iteration (note that you don't necessarily have to use sprints afterward, but planning is still essential).
So, is Sprint Zero a good or bad idea? As with many aspects of Agile, the answer depends on the specific situation. Let's begin by discussing the pros.

Pro #1: Bringing team together

Sprint Zero provides an opportunity for team members to break the ice and get to know each other before diving into their work. Establishing rapport and trust early on can contribute to smoother collaboration. This initial phase also allows the team to set up norms and expectations, expediting the "norming" stage of Bruce Tuckman's forming-storming-norming-performing model. In this model, a team progresses through four stages of development as they learn to work together effectively. By addressing norms proactively during Sprint Zero, the team can accelerate their transition to the "performing" stage, where they are most productive and cohesive.

Pro #2: Focused time

Sprint Zero provides the team with dedicated time to focus on establishing their working processes before diving into product development. Often, once work begins on the product, teams can become overwhelmed and find it difficult to allocate time to refining their processes. By setting aside a Sprint Zero, the team can conduct a dry run of their proposed processes, identify any issues, and find what works best for them without impacting the progress of product development. This concentrated effort can lead to smoother and more efficient workflows once the actual product work commences.

Pro #3: Seeing the big picture

Sprint Zero is an excellent opportunity for the team to concentrate on the larger context of their work, such as laying out the product vision and understanding the customer. This focus on the big picture is especially crucial for brand-new teams and products, as it helps establish a solid foundation for future development. Additionally, during a "team relaunch," Sprint Zero allows team members to take a step back, reassess their priorities, and refocus on what is truly important. By dedicating time to understanding the overall goals and objectives, the team can ensure they are aligned and working towards a common purpose.

Pro #4: Dedicated time for training

Sprint Zero provides an uninterrupted period for the team to focus on training and learning without the distractions of ongoing product development. This phase is often filled with workshops, allowing team members to learn Agile through hands-on experiences. For example, the team might receive training on customer research, then proceed to build personas and customer journeys. Following that, they could participate in a workshop on user stories, define their first set of user stories, and then receive training on prioritization before finally prioritizing their backlog. This dedicated time for training equips the team with valuable skills and knowledge, preparing them for the challenges ahead.

Pro #5: Clear cut-off line

During an Agile transformation, determining the exact moment when a team should modify their working style and adopt Agile can be a challenge. Sprint Zero provides a clear solution to this dilemma by setting a definitive timeline. Once Sprint Zero is completed, the team commences operating in a new way. This clear demarcation is not just symbolic, but also provides a sense of closure to the old ways of working and a fresh start towards adopting Agile methodologies. This clear-cut transition can greatly facilitate the transformation process, reducing ambiguities and confusion.
Now let's talk about the cons of conducting a Sprint Zero.

Con #1: No work gets done

A common knock against Sprint Zero is that it seems like "no work gets done." Of course, this isn't quite true. It's just that the work done during Sprint Zero isn't product development, it's groundwork for successful teamwork. But the critics have a point. During Sprint Zero, there's a pause in the usual customer-facing tasks. That means less responsiveness to customer requests and slower troubleshooting. This kind of break may not be possible for every team or every organization. Sometimes, the need to keep the product wheels turning outweighs the benefits of a Sprint Zero. It's all about balancing the pros and cons.

Con #2: Hands-On Support is Required

Sprint Zero can be a marathon, not a sprint (excuse the pun). It's usually a whirlwind of trainings, workshops, and team-building activities. This intensity requires the hands-on support of an Agile coach who can guide the team, facilitate activities, and answer any questions that arise. However, due to resource constraints, running multiple Sprint Zeros concurrently can be a tough feat. If your organization lacks sufficient Agile coaching resources or if multiple teams are transitioning to Agile at the same time, scheduling and coordinating Sprint Zeros can become a logistical challenge.

Con #3: Risk of Waterfall Regression

Sprint Zero can sometimes inadvertently set a dangerous precedent. Given the need to schedule a multitude of workshops and trainings in advance, there's a risk of inadvertently creating the false impression that all future work will be planned in the same way. This can lead to a sort of Agile paradox where teams, without proper supervision from an Agile coach, might revert to creating detailed work plans and Gantt charts. This is a step back towards a waterfall approach, rather than moving forward into the realm of Agile, where the focus should be on developing a backlog and learning how to continuously prioritize it. It's crucial to communicate that the structure of Sprint Zero is an exception, not the rule, in an Agile environment.

So, what's the alternative to Sprint Zero?

From what we've discussed, Sprint Zero clearly has numerous advantages, and most of the potential drawbacks can be circumvented or mitigated. Therefore, if it's feasible, I would strongly advocate for implementing a Sprint Zero. However, if for any reason you can't, there are still ways to set your team up for Agile success.
One alternative approach is to invest time in coaching and training Agile coaches and Scrum Masters within your organization. These individuals can then guide teams through the transformation at their own pace, providing a more customized experience.
Importantly, even without a Sprint Zero, you should ensure that learning is an active process. Rather than teams simply listening to training sessions, encourage 'learning by doing' through workshops instead of lectures. This keeps team members engaged and ensures they internalize the concepts effectively.
Finally, regardless of your approach, it's essential that each team starts by defining their vision and goals. Following a standard process flow is crucial - any skipped steps could potentially undermine the team's future success. Remember, Agile is about iterative progress, but that progress needs a clear direction.
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