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5 Tips for Helping Agile Teams Avoid “Squirrel Moments”


{#/pub/images/5TipsforHelpingAgileTeamsAvoidSquirrelMoments.jpg}The “squirrel moment” arrives unexpectedly.  The instant message pops up with a question about functionality in a recently deployed release.  A new production support ticket arrives from the customer service team.  The product owner stops by for an ad hoc brainstorming session about a new feature that might be added to the backlog.   And the entire team stops what they are doing in order to meet the squirrel.  The squirrel provides welcome relief from the drudgery of the current work in progress, but if it hangs around too long it will cause the team to miss commitments already made.  


Squirrels are everywhere and they thrive in the open workspaces that are otherwise so beneficial in agile organizations.  But squirrels must be dealt with – humanely, of course.  So how do you keep the team focused when the squirrels abound?  I recently discussed this with Martin Olson, a Kansas City-based agile coach, who provided the following suggestions.


5 Tips for Helping Agile Teams Avoid “Squirrel Moments”


1) Identify and publish the sprint theme

During sprint planning, work with the team to define what is to be accomplished in the sprint. This is more than just a simple recitation of all the stories that will be worked on during the sprint.  It should be an over-arching goal for the sprint and the team should commit themselves to that goal and display it prominently in the work space.  When a squirrel arrives, the team will be able to quickly decide whether or not it contributes to the sprint.  If it doesn’t, they can dispatch it and avoid spending time on it.


2) Make the work visible

Keep a task board in the team’s work area to show all of the work in progress as well as the work that is waiting.  You can use a large white board or even a wall in the work space.  Any new items should be placed in the “waiting” queue until it is ready to be worked on. The board makes it more difficult for squirrels to morph into un-committed work.  The board can also make it easier to identify the source and the frequency of squirrel visits, and take appropriate action to limit the visits.


3) Make sure the daily stand up meetings are effective

It’s easy for teams to become undisciplined at daily stand up meetings and these meetings can devolve into chat sessions rather than answering the questions, “What have I done since the last meeting? What am I going to get done today? What is in my way?”   When executed properly, daily scrum meetings allow team members to become accountable for the work that they are supposed to be doing, thus limiting the temptation for them to be distracted by the latest squirrel.


4) Keep priorities up to date

Make sure the business provides proper prioritization and direction to the team via the Product Owner.  The Product Owner must assign the relative business value of all the work in queue and in progress so that the team is focused on producing value rather than just doing work.  It is possible that, instead of rabies, a certain squirrel may carry important business value.  If so, the business owner should give it the proper priority so it can be included in the next sprint rather than allowing it to upset the current sprint. 


5) Build in some slack in the schedule

The suggestions above are based on the assumption that the current work in progress is more important than the new item that comes along.  But that is not always the case.  The newest squirrel may be a critical defect that must be addressed.  Therefore, you should avoid scheduling the team to 100% of capacity.  Instead, build in some slack in the schedule in to address legitimate distractions.  As a rule of thumb, the amount of slack time may be from 10-25% of the available time in the sprint.  You will need to monitor your team’s recent experience and adjust the slack time as needed.



As you review these suggestions, you might think that all of these are simply best practices for agile teams.  And you would be correct.  Teams that understand the principles of agile and successfully apply scrum/agile practices will be able to maintain their focus and resist the onslaught of the squirrels.  Those who are less disciplined will be like the station wagon in the Geico commercial that crashes while swerving to avoid a squirrel.






Written by Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC Ron is certified as a Project Management Professional, Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified ScrumMaster with over 35 years of hands-on experience in business planning, software development, process improvement & deployment of software solutions.  By partnering with clients to drive business value from technology projects, Ron assists clients with business planning, IT strategy, project and program management, vendor selection and team training/mentoring.


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