Let developers do "off the board" work

When sprints are well planned and sustainably paced, it's natural to have developers who have finished all of their committed backlog items with time to spare. In occasions like this, I've seen teams where the Scrum Master—or some other authority figure—reflexively looks for additional items in the backlog to "pull into" the sprint to keep the developers busy. I think this is a mistake, and I'll explain why.

For Agile teams that are organizing their work in sprints, it's traditional to have some sort of visual board or central place that anyone on the team or anyone interested in the team's work can go to see which items are being worked on and the progress of the items. Some people get uncomfortable with the idea of work happening off the board, where it's not officially recognized as work that counts. They want to see each developer with at least one assigned item on the board that is in progress right up until the end of the sprint. That's how we know that we're getting maximum velocity and value from the team, right?

But I think it's important to normalize the idea that people need time to work on things that are "off the board" for a couple of reasons:

  1. People always have work to get done that is not directly related to a team goal.
  2. Continuous sprinting is not sustainable.
Here are a few legitimate things to work on that don't belong on a sprint board:
  • Training
  • Preparing for a presentation
  • Proof of concept / demo of an intriguing tool, framework, technology
  • Updating documentation that's been bugging you
  • Spikes into performance improvements
  • Cleaning out your inbox
  • For companies that do some sort of periodic "goal setting" for each employee, let people work on goals from their list
  • In general…things that don't involve QA

I think that last point is important, because people will often talk about downtime being useful for addressing technical debt. But that only works for these end-of-sprint downtime scenarios as long as you're not adding to the regression testing burden of any QA folks that are still testing development work completed during the current sprint. A big technical-debt-reducing refactor is not something we want to check in casually without QA time reserved for making sure it hasn't blown up anything (unless your codebase has truly superb automated regression tests in place).

It is incumbent on the developers to identify their own priorities that they can pull from when they have extra time. Don't ask for more backlog items if you have work in mind that's off the board. For Scrum Masters, the go-to move should not be to pull in more backlog items without asking if the developer has any off-the-board work that can keep them busy.

Apart from recognizing the reality that developers have work to do that isn't directly related to a product backlog, it's important to reflect on the idea of sustainable pace and what "sprinting" really means anyway.

What does the word sprint mean outside the software world? It's a short, high intensity run. In the real world, you don't finish a sprint and then instantly start sprinting again. You have to catch your breath and take a pause before you can sprint again. Otherwise you'll collapse. It's important that software teams do this too—take a breather before the next sprint begins.

Smooth, predictable iterations necessitate a sustainable pace and regular buffers. It's okay if we have time each sprint that is not maximally stuffed with points.