When a Contract Puts a Ceiling on Sustainable Pace

I recently received the following question from one of my students:

“I manage a project using Scrum but the team is limited to 40 hours/week, not a minute more, due to contractual obligations. According to Ken Schwaber, Scrum relies on personal commitment – folks
will do what it takes to succeed. How do I best use Scrum in this environment?”

Situations like this are less than optimal, but not really rare, either. Contract programmers love to do what it takes to finish the job, but they will rarely do so without filling out that time-sheet with all the extra hours, either. That works OK if you’re in a situation where more revenue is generated the earlier the work is finished. However, if the revenue is fixed and the time frames are variable, the additional expense is no one’s friend.

Ken Schwaber does in fact say that Scrum teams excel because they operate on personal commitment (as opposed to enforced compliance). However, let’s not confuse personal commitment with working overtime. While personal commitment frequently leads to developers working overtime to “make it happen,” overtime is not a requirement of personal commitment. What I mean by this is that I can be VERY committed to something, yet still have to clearly enforce my time-boxes.

For example, I truly enjoy my job (and, in times like these, I feel quite fortunate to have one). I get to teach, coach, and answer questions that help people do their jobs better and, hopefully, have a better time doing their jobs. That’s what I do and I really enjoy it. However, at 3pm, everyday (unless I’m teaching), I stop what I’m doing, get in the car, and go pick up my children from school. Following that comes homework, dinner, dance classes (for them, not me), cleaning up after dinner, and (finally) bed (there might be some time for extra work, but that’s unusual). I don’t get to go back to work until the following morning when the cycle repeats.

Your Scrum team works the same way. Your team members’ ability to commit to work during Sprint Planning is, as always, affected by the amount of time that they can dedicate to the Sprint. Their personal commitment is to focus and be as productive as they can during the time allotted to the Scrum team. Each day, when that limit is reached, they must put it all away and go home. Their personal commitment to the work can remain high and unaffected by the need to constrain their focus due to their contract with you.

As with any Scrum team, when the team monitors how many product backlog items they completed during the past couple Sprints (usually known as “velocity”), they can use that information to help determine the how much work they will commit to doing during the next Sprint. Thus, the overall team commitment is self-adjusting.

Because of the contractual limitation, I would recommend one addition to the Scrum team’s ground rules. The team and the organization must, together, agree upon the proper usage of 40 hours per week. Is that five days of eight hours? Four days of ten hours? Three days of twelve followed by a half-day? Everyone needs to agree on what is the working standard and much in the way of deviation from that standard will be allowed. Keep in mind, in some cases, these contractors may come from far away to work in your office. Letting them finish their weeks in four days instead of five might create a substantial savings for your organization. Check the terms of your agreement with the contractor in order to determine what would be allowed.

Bottom line — contractual commitments don’t define personal commitment. Adjust your team’s ground rules appropriately and keep sprinting.

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