There are probably as many ways to look at Scrum commitments as there are teams doing Scrum but I think that I have seen a couple of patterns emerge that I’d like to share with you.

The Galley Slaves

The first team I’d like you to meet is called the Galley Slaves. When we first meet the Galley Slaves they are in the middle of sprint planning.

PO: This is our prioritized backlog. I’d like to remind you all that we’re way behind for the next milestone so I want you to commit to as much as possible this sprint. We have to get the top 18 user stories into the sprint or we’ll never make it.

Team: But that adds up to 65 story points and we’ve only managed 45 during our last two sprints.

PO: Yes, but remember that Peter was home sick for three days last sprint and John had to stay home with his kids for two days the sprint before that. You should be able to make it. This is no time to under-commit.

Team: Okay. We will commit to the top 18 stories then.

So in this situation we have a PO or PM that’s pushing the team to take in more work than they should. This is not the first time it’s happening so the team has a history of missing their previous “commitments” and have a disadvantage when trying to convince the PO that they should do even less. The team might even feel bad about not meeting their previous commitments and have some delusion about being able to catch up.

Next time we meet the Galley Slaves is mid-sprint.

Team: It seems like Peter came back from sick leave a bit premature. He had to go back home again right after sprint planning. It also looks like John caught the same thing because we haven’t seen him since then either. We will never be able to finish all of this on time.

PO: But you made a commitment to these stories …  I’ve communicated that you would do this to upper management. It looks like you’ll have to work this weekend now.

At this point we get to see even more push from above. The team has made a promise and other people will get into trouble if they don’t meet it.

But who did actually make the commitment? Usually in cases like this, one part of the organization has made promises to another part of the organization and now people whose butts are on the line try to shift the blame further down the organization.

The Flagellants

The second team I’d like you to meet are called the Flagellants. The flagellants were a medieval brotherhood that thought they could scourge themselves to absolution. In 1417 the church banned the flagellant movement but they are still very much alive in modern-day corporations.

Let’s see how sprint planning goes for the Flagellants.

PO: This is our prioritized backlog. I’d like for you to pick from the top the stories that you think you’ll be able to finish during this sprint.

Team: Okay, we’ll have to bring in at least the top 18 stories if we’re going to make the next milestone in two sprints.

PO: That will be 65 story points and you’ve only managed to deliver 45 points per sprint the last two sprints. Do you really think you can make this?

Team: If we are to get everything into the next release, we will have to go for it. So we will commit to these 18 stories.

This team obviously feels a strong responsibility for the entire product. As with the Galley Slaves, the Flagellants have a history of not meeting their commitments and they really want to make up for it. Every time.

Now we meet the Flagellants mid-sprint.

PO: So, how’s your commitment coming along? Your burndown chart has been flatlining for three days now and it was quite flat even before that.

Team: Yeah, but we’re on top of that. Peter has cancelled his vacation and we’ve all decided to work Saturday as well so we will catch up. You know we had some database problems at the beginning of the sprint but it looks like we will be able to solve those now.

This team if full of optimists, no doubt about that. They always believe that the last hurdle has been passed and everything will be downhill from now. They also make a commitment at the wrong level. A sprint level commitment can be contained and controlled to quite a large extent by the team but any promises made by the organization on release- or product level are outside of the team’s control.

Team Alfa

Finally I’d like to present you with team Alfa. These are my favorites. Let’s watch their sprint planning.

PO: This is our prioritized backlog. I’d like for you to pick from the top the stories that you think you’ll be able to finish during this sprint.

Team: We have picked these 12 stories. They correspond to our velocity during the last three sprints and we feel confident that we will be able to finish them. This is our commitment and we will do our best to deliver these stories during the upcoming sprint.

This looks healthy to me. The team is looking at their history and they make a commitment that is both feasible from a historic perspective and it is a commitment that they actually believe in themselves.

But alas, even team Alfa can run into troubles. Let’s listen in on them mid-sprint.

Team: Unfortunately we’ve fallen behind since this one story called for changes in a database outside of our control. We didn’t see that one coming. We have tried to work around the problem; Peter stayed here until eight o’clock last night but this will take quite some time to handle. We don’t think that we’ll be able to do the last two of the stories that we initially committed to anymore.

PO: Okay. Let me take the last two stories back to the backlog and re-plan them for the next sprint. In the meantime you do your best on the rest. Does that sound like a plan?

We will always make estimates that don’t come true. There will always be unforeseen events happening. What we need to do is to accept this as a fact and adjust our game to the reality.


What will happen to teams like the Galley Slaves and the Flagellants in the long run?

  • We will get quality issues. When we start looking at commitments as truly fixed, our sprints become miniature projects with fixed time, fixed resources and fixed scope. The only dimension left for the teams to compromise with is quality.
  • Disappointments. The teams will get disappointed in themselves for not meeting their commitments and they will lose credibility towards the rest of the organization.
  • Burnout. No one is able to handle this much negative pressure and overtime in the long run. The Flagellants are in the worst positions since they really don’t have anyone to complain to.

The reasons that we ask for commitments are that we want to be able to look into the future for planning purposes and because it gives the team a good intermediary goal to work towards. That is; prognosis to see what will be ready when and the motivational factor from having clear expectations set by oneself.

What we need to remember about these commitments is that they are still based on estimates and estimates come with a confidence level. We need to inspect and adapt even within the sprints.

Everyone is entitled to their view on what a commitment are but there are two parts of the agile manifesto that (in my eyes) trump any personal interpretations of the term commitment:

“Responding to change over following a plan.”


“Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able
to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

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