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Scrum sounds great but can Scrum work with fixed deadlines? We get this question a lot from project and programme managers that are used to classical ways of waterfall working.

The short answer is yes. But not in the way you are thinking.

Traditional waterfall thinking tries to fix the iron triangle of scope, budget and time. But no one can predict the future. And given that waterfall projects fail over 80% of the time we know that we should be careful when using crystal balls.

The reality is that every plan is a guess or an aspiration. Writing a plan doesn’t mean we will be able to deliver exactly to that plan. We all know that no plan survives first contact with reality. Change happens. Plans go out of date, fast.

Ok so we know plans change. What about those fixed deadlines? The challenge with fixed deadlines is that they usually come with fixed scope.

Fixed deadlines come with the following assumptions:

  • We know exactly what we need specifically.
  • We know exactly how we are going to get there.
  • We know exactly how long it will take.

How many experienced delivery agents would say they know all that. In fact at the beginning, there is a lot we don’t know. So the whole notion of fixed deadlines should give us pause for thought.

So how can Scrum deal with fixed deadlines?

We know change is a constant in complex programmes. We know we don’t know everything. We know we cant predict the future. So, we should use Scrum to maximise our chances to deliver maximum value at the intended date. How does Scrum do that? Read on.

Start with a Roadmap – Planning is everything

The Product Owner is a central role in the Scrum framework. Good Product Owners approach projects with a reasonable roadmap. This means that goals and milestones are set up to chart the journey. And we can front load all our most valuable stuff up front – aiming to get that done and delivered first. But our roadmaps come with a clear message that dates are estimates at best. And we know things will change.

We don’t know the future so we don’t pretend to predict it. What we do is give our teams clear goals and directions to aim for. We keep our scope manageable and small. Delivery as we go is the best way to achieve our aims. So, we track our progress along the roadmap as we go and adjust as we learn.

Scrum makes productivity happen

Friction makes projects late. Challenges, problems and impediments slow progress. Through Scrums various meetings the entire team works together to plan and track progress daily. Sprint Planning gives the team a focused, tangible target. Daily Scrums raise problems and create opportunities to fix them. Sprint refinement’s look at upcoming work as a team and ensures understanding. Sprint Reviews look at the concrete outcomes of the Sprint and show us where we are in relation to our plan. And Sprint Retrospectives help us improve and get faster.

In this way the team works together to resolve impediments and overcome challenges every day. Scrum fosters a culture where problems are surfaced and fixed actively and quickly. As soon as a challenge impedes progress, the team finds out within a day. This is risk management at its finest. And this approach keeps the team achieving every sprint. That’s important. If you have a fixed deadline, you better be great at staying productive and removing blocks.

Scrum makes your progress transparent to help you adapt

During the Sprint the Daily Scrums keep the Scrum Team aware of how we are doing at a day to day level. The Sprint Review looks at the recent delivery and helps the stakeholders and team understand where we are with regards to the overall plan. Both the low-level Daily Scrum and Sprint Review give the Stakeholders and the Team clarity with regards to how we are doing. This awareness signals support if needed. Based on reviewing the end of Sprint delivery, Product Owners and Stakeholders can decide if the team needs to cut scope, increase budget or any other measure to help a project. Most importantly as Sprints go by, everyone gets a clearer and clearer idea of what will be delivered at the deadline.

Does Scrum guarantee delivery of a fixed scope to a fixed deadline with fixed budgets?

No. No project framework does. Every project and programme is affected by change. Every single one. So professional change management and adaptation is essential to every single project or programme.

Scrum optimises for adaptation and organises the team for maximum transparency, maximum productivity and proactive risk control. In this way Scrum gives projects and programmes the best chance for delivery.

If you really want to level up your Scrum skills, why not join us on one of our Scrum Training events here  or take our practice assessments.

And finally, to continue learning you can find our blogs here.

To learn more about the framework, check out the Scrum Guide.

Good luck in your Scrum journey!

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