Monday, September 13, 2010

Scrum, Crop Rotation and the Fallow Field

Since the dawn of agriculture (well, maybe…certainly some when in the last 10,000 years) farmers have realized that growing the same crop in the same field, year in, year out depletes the nutrients in the soil. Eventually this leads to the field failing to produce as well as it used to, or even becoming unusable.

One might see a parallel here with scrum teams: although the rhythm of short release cycles, time-boxed sprint planning meetings, daily scrums, sprint reviews and retrospectives provide a stability, might they not also eventually lead to burn out and reduced productivity? I venture to say that they might.

So can agricultural techniques offer any further parallels that might inspire us with ideas for how to help keep a scrum team producing? Well, with the employment of a little imaginative (some might say dubious) metaphor, I believe they can.

First, consider the idea of leaving a field fallow: the idea here in farming terms is that one might operate a three field system, with only two fields at a time being planted. The third will be left empty, or fallow so that it might recover. Things shuffle around so that each season a different field is left fallow.

So what would it mean to leave a scrum team fallow? Simple. After a successful release, have a sprint with no formally planned activities. Sound wasteful? Consider that this would allow for the team to celebrate the release, decompress from the work and general renew their energy levels. In addition there could be some planning activities or less rigidly time-boxed investigatory work in anticipation of the next release cycle.

But there’s more. According to Wikipedia, the Romans and several civilizations in Asia and Africa used more sophisticated crop rotation methods to keep their fields productive without having to leave them fallow so often. In these schemes, by carefully selecting the right crops they were able to restore the nutrients depleted in one season with soil enriching crops subsequently.

I think the parallel for a scrum team is the idea of working on something different to the main product they are responsible for during a release cycle. This might be helping out with a different product, pursuing the development of some tool or infrastructure they think would help the team in future, training or other creative ideas.

As a child I can remember my grandmother offering up many pieces of advice, including the notion that "a change is as good as a rest." Personally, I’ll take a rest over a change any day, but in truth both work. And there’s no reason not to employ both as productive investments in the overall health of a scrum team between release cycles.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is true for many fields

    Reading books. Watching movies.

    Speaking for myself, I need a change. If I have watched a psychological thriller twice in a row, third time, I will probably pick up a comedy.

    Even going to the gym. If you exercise biceps one day, you give it a rest by exercising another set of muscles the next day. You still go to the gym- but just alternate muscles.

    Great post , Jon !