Commitment Driven Planning

During the sprint planning meeting, most Scrum teams use velocity in some form to determine how many stories they can take that sprint. However, there is an alternative approach to planning outlined in Mike Cohn’s Agile Estimating and Planning that I prefer, Commitment Driven Planning.

WARNINGThe following post talks about “commitments” and “planning” if your agile worldview finds these terms dangerous and unsafe, continue at your own risk.

What is Commitment Driven Planning?

Commitment Driven Planning (sometimes called Capacity Driven Planning) is a technique that lets a team determine how much work to bring into the sprint based on how much time they have to do said work.

What do I need for Commitment Driven Planning?

In order to get started with commitment driven planning, you only need a few things:
  1. The total capacity of the team in hours*
  2. The ability to estimate how many hours* a story will take to complete
  3. A facilitator
* You could substitute hours for another measurement of time, but I’ve found that hours are ideal

Commitment Driven Planning in 5 Steps

  1. Add up the capacity of all team members to arrive at a total capacity
  2. Discuss each story as you would normally, defining done, exploring scenarios etc.
  3. Task out the story and add up the hours for each task
  4. The facilitator asks the team “Do you have enough capacity to commit to this story?”
    1. If the answer is “Yes” the team adds the story to their commitment
    2. If the answer is “No” the team moves on to another story, or breaks down the current story.
  5. Repeat the process for the next story.

Calculating Total Capacity

Total capacity for the team should be calculated by adding up the total capacity for each team member. Capacity for each team member should factor in vacations, meetings, personal days and any other time that individual knows they will not be spending with the team working on the commitment. You should avoid using ideal numbers for individual capacity and stick to the elephant in the room numbers. For example, rather than assuming everyone will be working 8 hours in a day, use 6 hours when it’s common to arrive at 9AM, take an hour for lunch and leave at 4:30. This can be challenging as it often exposes the realities of how the team works, but it’s much easier than dealing with the pain later.

Task Out Each Story

For many teams, this is the most difficult step of Commitment Driven Planning. A lot of teams that are trying a Commitment Driven approach for the first time expend a lot of energy worrying about getting their estimates “right”. While getting estimates “right” is beyond the scope of this post, I will say that if you just focus on making sure you have all of the known tasks required to get the story to “DONE” you will probably be okay.

Can We Commit to This Story?

This is the most important step in the commitment driven process. It is vital that the team be able to decide to what level they fill their capacity. If the team thinks that given all the known circumstances they can only fill 50% of their total capacity, that’s okay, but more on this later. If you are one of the brave anti-commitment agilists who made it this far, I hope I am easing your fears of stick bearing managers beating the team in the name of commitment.

Committing to 50% and Buffer Time

Earlier I mentioned that it would be okay for a team to only commit to 50% of their capacity. This, like many things in agile, is a two way street. If the team commits to 50% of their capacity, they should be expected to finish in 50% of the time allotted. This presents a very powerful opportunity for being open and transparent with the work and the progress towards finishing that work.

When a team commits to 50% of their capacity in a one-week sprint, we should be able to track that they will be done sometime in the middle of the week. As work begins, discussions at standup about being on track and plans to stay or get back on track should be happening.

It is also very common for teams to want to include a “Buffer”, usually a fixed percentage of capacity. While I’m don’t necessarily believe in 100% utilization, I don’t think that uncoordinated free time (let’s call a duck a duck) is a great approach. I have yet to see a team include a buffer in their capacity that isn’t related to some other underlying, usually larger, problem. For example:
Objection: “We need a buffer because we deal with a lot of interruptions”
You have a problem with interruptions, deal with that.
Objection: “We need a buffer because some people on the team are slower than others”
Embrace collective code ownership, start pairing and improve the skills of the team.
Objection: “We don’t really know what it’s going to take to finish this story”
Improve your definition of “DONE” and remember that you can always inspect and adapt.

Interpreting Outcomes

When you first try a Commitment Driven approach, there is a good chance that you will wildly over or under commit. Here are some common problems and some suggested next steps.
We committed to our full capacity but failed miserably, only completing 1/3 of the work.
Next step: Start to identify where the time went. Were there interruptions? More meetings that expected? Sick team members?
Our task estimates were all wrong and we had to add a bunch of new tasks to every story!
Next step: What questions did you miss at planning that could have helped uncover these “unknowns”? Did certain types of tasks take much longer than expected? Did certain types of tasks take less than expected?
We only committed to 60% of our capacity, but still barely finished by the end of the sprint.
Next step: Did the overall work just take longer? How did the work progress during the sprint? Were there times when no progress towards the commitment was made? Was the progress towards the commitment discussed each day at the standup?



Answering “Are We on Track?” With a Burndown Chart

Recently, on twitter, Tobias Mayer asked if anyone was still using burndown charts as described in the original scrum literature:
I personally enjoy using burndown charts and like exploring the different stories they can tell given the multitude of ways you can design them. I am currently working with a team that is using a commitment driven approach to planning who also uses a burndown chart of remaining task hours. I replied to Tobias with:

This seemed to spark a big discussion with a lot of people chiming in with their opinions and experiences. The discussion followed the usual Agile Twitter Debate Formula™ involving charges of not being agile, assuming mutual exclusivity with other practices, general misinterpretations of various points concluding with the usual series of just-do-what-you-want-and-lets-stop-arguing-about-this tweets.

Since twitter proves time and again to be a terrible place to expand on things, I figured it was worth explaining my original tweet in a little more detail here.

Value vs. Work

One of the first issues that came up in this discussion was that the sum of tasks for a particular user story don’t necessarily add up to any real meaningful value, so since tasks themselves don’t represent value, we shouldn’t be tracking them.

So, fair enough, tasks don’t represent value so let’s track story points instead. While I think that a burndown chart of story points can tell a story, I like to tell lots of stories so I usually use this in conjunction with other artifacts. I’ve also seen plenty of teams who have a burndown chart of story points that goes sideways for three days and then everyone realizes that they’re not going to get everything done by the end of the sprint. Whoops!

Do we have enough gas to get there?

Imagine that you and some friends are planning a road trip to an outdoor music festival. You all hop in the car and get going. Being a beautiful day, you suggest taking the scenic route and stopping on the way to take a group photo. As you’re driving, the GPS on your dashboard is squawking commands and you’re fairly confident that you’re heading in the right direction. After a few hours someone in the backseat asks “Hey, do we need to stop and get gas?”

At that moment you look down and realize that you’ve got a quarter tank left, with some quick math and a glance at the GPS you determine that you do not have quite enough gas to make it to the music festival and having passed the last gas station before your destination you can’t stop and get more. Your only choice is to break the bad news to your friends and negotiate taking the group photo on the way back from the music festival.

Are We on Track?

I view a burndown chart of hours remaining as a gas gauge. It doesn’t tell us anything about if we’re going in the right direction or if we’ll ultimately get to our destination, but it can be a useful way of making sure that you’ve got what it takes to make it there.

Most importantly, tracking hours remaining isn’t about tracking hours, or management making sure people are busy or any of the other treacherous things suggested during this twitter discussion. For me, tracking hours remaining is about all of the questions and things you uncover as a result of asking “Are we on track?” and the answer that follows.

Building a Self-Sustaining Ecosystem through Agile Coaching

I was recently fortunate enough to attend the Culture Conference in both Philadelphia and Boston. Even more so, I was able to enjoy the company, conversation and new relationships as a member of the party bus that traveled between the two conferences.

As we drove over the George Washington Bridge, I was having a conversation with Dan Mezick about the role of Agile Coaching in ethical billing and creating learning organizations. I’m a firm believer in the idea that as Agile Coaches, we should strive to foster an environment of organic learning and prescribe specific solutions only when absolutely necessary.

As Dan and I were talking, it occurred to me that an Agile Coach has a similar role to a planted aquarium hobbyist. One can think of a typical organization as a poorly maintained aquarium. There are frequent algae blooms, some of the fish have died, and the plants have discolored leaves and weak roots.

If handed over to an accomplished aquarium hobbyist, they would start by measuring chemical levels in the water to asses the environment. With continuous checking, day by day and week by week, our hobbyist would slowly adjust and improve the balance in the tank. They might add or remove certain plants, invertebrates or fish. Over time, as a result of their actions, the aquarium would achieve a state of balance and the inhabitants would enjoy a harmonious co-existence.

Similarly, an Agile Coach might enter a dysfunctional organization and begin measuring and improving the organizational environment. Again, like the hobbyist, they would help the organization adjust its culture such that it too could become a thriving, self-sustaining ecosystem where the inhabitants live in balance and harmony.

This isn’t to say that once this state is achieved, the coaches work is finished. Just as the hobbyist needs to maintain the aquarium by adding and removing plants or fish, an organization committed to continuous improvement needs the help of the coach to keep learning and improving.

As Agile Coaches, I hope that we strive to build self-sustaining learning organizations rather than insert ourselves as linchpins in the ecosystem. I strive for the self-awareness to ask of myself “Am I just adding chemicals or am I helping the roots grow deeper and fish prosper?”

Agile Principles: Tear Down These Cubes

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
– Agile Principles

Manager, Tear Down These Walls

If you were tasked with designing a system that made spontaneous collaboration difficult, you couldn’t go wrong with the modern cube farm. Members of a “team” dispersed over an area of the office, isolated in their drab tchotchke ridden cubicles. Instant message, e-mail and chat might be great for passive communication, but when it comes to real collaboration, being physically present is essential.

But We’re Distributed!

Co-located teams are better than distributed teams. However, sometimes we cannot be co-located. That does not mean we resort to passive forms of communication and digital tools to convey our progress and ask questions. Skype is better than a phone call which is better than e-mail. Don’t underestimate your brain’s ability to gather important insight from the facial and body language of the person on the other end of that video chat.

Agile Principles: Self-Organizing Teams are Motivated Teams

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
– Agile Principles


Allow the people doing the work to self-organize and discover the best implementation they can given what they know right now. Protect them from organizational politics and outside distractions, enable them to focus on the work at hand.


While we encourage self-organization, we remember the need for direction. While the team does not self-direct, they need a clear vision and an understanding of success in order to attain the autonomy and purpose required to feel motivated.

Agile Principles: Collaborate Everyday

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. – Agile Principles

Email is not Enough

Working together involves more than exchanging e-mails about the software. It’s more than passive instant messenger conversations. It’s not reviewing a digital agile tool in isolation. Working together means collaborating, negotiating and exploring the software that is being built.

Too Busy for Success?

If you’re too busy to interact, fairly frequently, on a daily basis with the rest of the team, you’re too busy to enable product success. High performance teams don’t allow their schedules to be overrun by meetings. They don’t let anything get in the way of daily collaboration, negotiating and exploration.

Agile Principles: Frequently Deliver Working Software

Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
– Agile Principles

Quick Feedback

A short feedback cycle is incredibly valuable. A short feedback cycle helps ensure you’re building the correct thing. A short feedback cycle helps you decide if you should keep going. A short feedback cycle helps you know if you should stop.

Product vs. Project

Shift your mindset from working on a project to working on a product. Products don’t have end dates, they continue to exist and the organization realizes their benefits over and with time. As time goes on, incrementally release working features for the product so that you can harness the power of short feedback cycles.

Probability, Velocity and Re-Estimating User Stories

When working with user stories, story points and SCRUM, it is not uncommon to come to the end of a sprint and realize that a smaller story took longer to complete than a larger story. While this is an excellent reminder that story points reflect complexity, not effort, it is often misinterpreted as an indication that remaining stories need to be re-estimated. Basic probability distribution shows us that over a large enough sample, all three point stories in the product backlog will take about the same time to complete. A team’s desire to re-estimate stories in the product backlog based on a few stories deviating from the norm is a mistake.

Not All Stories are Created Equal

If you were to roll a pair of dice a million times, you would see the majority rolls sum up to seven. If you graphed the data, you would see a bell curve shape. User stories are no different.

Over a large enough sample, you will start to see the same bell curve shape in the time it took to complete those stories. Some three point stories might take two hours to complete while others take twelve; but most take seven. At the same time, some of your five point stories will take ten hours to complete and some twenty four; but most take eighteen. Consider the overlap in the following diagram:

The overlap between the time to complete some of the three point stories and some of the five point stories should not be mistaken for a need to re-estimate any stories. Sometimes a three point story will take as long to complete as a five point story.

Commitment Driven Planning

One technique from which all SCRUM teams could benefit is that of Commitment Driven Planning. From Cohn’s Agile Estimating and Planning

A commitment-driven approach is an alternative way to plan an iteration. Commitment-driven iteration planning involves many of the same steps as velocity-driven iteration planning. However, rather than creating an iteration plan that uses the yesterday’s weather idea to determine how many story points or ideal days should be planned into the current iteration, the team is asked to add stories to the iteration one by one until they can commit to completing no more.

So what happens when a three point story is tasked out and comes to ten hours, and a five point story is tasked out and comes to nine? Often times the first inclination of the team is to inflate the three point story. Especially interesting is that almost no one suggests to shrink the estimate of the five point story. Again, we should expect that some three point stories will take the same amount of time to complete as some five point stories, but in the end this will even out.

Velocity is The Great Equalizer

Again from Mike Cohn’s Agile Estimating and Planning

What’s happened here is that velocity is the great equalizer. Because the estimate for each feature is made relative to the estimates for other features, it does not matter if our estimates are correct, a little incorrect, or a lot incorrect. What matters is that they are consistent. We cannot simply roll a die and assign that number as the estimate to a feature. However, as long as we are consistent with our estimates, measuring velocity over the first few iterations will allow us to hone in on a reliable schedule.

As the team complete more and more sprints, developers will come across three point stories that are a little larger than average and five point stories that are a little smaller than average. Between our bell curve distributions and velocity acting as the great equalizer, over time, the bumps in the estimations will smooth out and the desire to re-estimate stories will fade.

Agile Principles: Deliver Early and Often, but Always Deliver Value

The Agile Manifesto describes twelve principles of agile software. In a series of twelve blog posts, I will explore each principle.

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer
through early and continuous delivery
of valuable software.

This principle can be broken down into two separate thoughts. Continuously delivering early, and always delivering value.

Delivering Early and Often

Delivering early is more than just delivering something before the competition. Delivering early is more than just delivering before you would have had you not been being Agile™. Delivering early means specifically delivering less than you could have otherwise. Continuous delivery and iterative development are synonymous, it is not enough to just deliver early, you need to frequently do so.

Always Deliver Value

Delivering value is difficult. At a high level, it is difficult to know what is and is not valuable. Following the process and being disciplined can get you to a point where you are delivering early and often, but without a unified vision of what you are creating, it is very difficult to deliver real value.

Delivery early and often, but always deliver something of value.