Spreadsheet sprinting is an easy and cost-effective way to get started with Agile.  Too often, Agile adoption involves learning new terminology, tools and methods.  Spreadsheet sprinting bypasses the learning curve and enables immediate focus on priorities, goals and tasks.

In 2017 Agile is state-of-the-art for software product development.  When Agile is fully realized, prioritization of work becomes transparent.  Stakeholders can review progress in real time.  Product managers can identify and resolve blockages.  Teams can measure productivity and do a better job of hitting milestones.  Design, engineering and testing are linked so efforts are coordinated.  Communication improves as silos are broken down and sharing increases.  Teams can be more responsive when plans need to change.

Agile adoption can be challenging and expensive

But Agile also has costs and often meets resistance when newly introduced.  Stakeholders are sceptical because Agile doesn’t emphasize completing product specifications before work starts.  Unless managed correctly, product completion goals and timing are sometimes harder to see.

Spreadsheet sprinting using swimlanes and MVP
Spreadsheet sprinting using swimlanes and MVP

Agile tools typically require big upfront investment.  Even more importantly, Agile requires a philosophical transition to new and unfamiliar concepts including User Stories, Scrum Teams and Sprints.  Meetings are more numerous including daily standups.  More time is spent documenting work and recording progress.

And it takes significant time for Agile benefits to kick in.  From our experience, it can take more than two months to adopt good practices for documenting and prioritizing work.  Successful sprints with acceptable completion rates typical don’t happen until the fifth month.  Providing stakeholder visibility requires a constant commitment to developing and improving dashboards.  Developing the ability to predict and accurately hit milestones can take six months or more.

It’s simply not efficient to spend time learning new tools and learning new concepts when teams should be focusing on completing the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and progressing down critical Swimlanes.  Getting to the Next Key Stage of product completion, branding, funding, staffing, digital presence and revenue growth.

There is a better way.  

Agile Agile drives acceleration and focus toward key objectives

Agile Agile is a new methodology that focuses on priorities, goals and milestones.  With Agile Agile, we bypass learning new terminology, tools and methods.  We go straight to clarifying, aligning and accelerating progress toward key objectives.

MVP tasks
MVP tasks

Agile Agile is aimed at ventures developing innovative new products.  This includes startups and innovators in large established organizations.  Agile Agile focuses on medium-term planning which is the bedrock for organizations trying to reach the Next Key Stage across all areas of growth.  It also enables the flexibility to adapt when plans need to change from new ideas or environmental factors.  While Agile Agile is effective for engineering, it can also be applied broadly to branding, staffing, funding and digital presence.

This article is a continuation of the series, “Agile Agile: The Agile adoption of Agile methodologies”.  Previous articles introduced the key concepts of focusing on a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and defining Swimlanes.  Here, we weave the concepts together and show how organizations can glide into Agile with minimum distraction and rapid benefits.

Setting up the Spreadsheet Sprint

An MVP spreadsheet is a good tool to focus and prioritize all engineering efforts.  Recall that MVP has just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development.  MVP is reached by executing tasks.

The Swimlanes spreadsheet covers all the critical drivers of company growth.  These are the requirements for getting to the Next Key Stage.  Each Swimlane is comprised of corresponding goals and milestones.  Swimlane goals are translated into MVP tasks and added to the MVP spreadsheet.

Each MVP task description answers the following questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. Why do we need it?
  3. What is its priority?
  4. Who is going to do it?
  5. How long will it take?
  6. How much will it cost?
Swimlanes Goal & Milestone
Swimlanes Goal & Milestone

The MVP spreadsheet is meticulously groomed.  No task is longer than 2 weeks.  Bigger tasks are always subdivided.  No individual person has more than 2 weeks of top priority tasks.  No top priority tasks are blocked by incomplete prerequisites.

Sticking to these requirements, we can sort the spreadsheet to separate the top priority tasks.  This set of tasks is assigned to the first two-week sprint.  The team intends to fully complete 100% of these tasks within 2 weeks.  In Agile, this set of tasks is known as the ‘sprint backlog’.  Copy the sprint backlog tasks to a newly shared spreadsheet.

Executing the Spreadsheet Sprint

Now select the two-week period.  Most teams will simply define 2 weeks from Monday #1 to Friday #2.  For various reasons, I prefer spanning from Wednesday #1 to Tuesday #2.  Either way is fine.

To prepare for sprinting, add new columns to the spreadsheet which will specify:

  1. Date of most recent update
  2. Is the task blocked?
  3. A phrase describing status
  4. URL (pointer to more information)

The first day of the sprint starts with a planning meeting.  Use this meeting to verify that every team member understands and commits to their tasks for the sprint.  Since all team members were involved in forming the spreadsheet, there should be few misunderstandings.  If necessary, make adjustments.

And then work starts.  Each task owner should update their current task daily.  Managers and stakeholders can review the spreadsheet daily.  This will provide a snapshot of all status.  The project manager can trigger discussions to clear up any blocked tasks.

Complete and Repeat

Work continues this way for 2 weeks.  The last day of the sprint ends with a review meeting.  This meeting is for summarizing accomplishments.  No doubt there will be incomplete tasks.  It’s possible some tasks were not started.  This should not be surprising.  Predicting engineering velocity is challenging and elusive.

Sprint backlog
Sprint backlog

Remaining work from sprint backlog tasks should be merged back into the MVP spreadsheet.  Now is the time to groom this spreadsheet again with the same criteria as last time.  Groom it meticulously.  Then sort and select the backlog for the next sprint.  Use the experience of the previous sprint to adjust commitments.  Learn from this experience to improve the predicting team velocity.

Spend some review time on a retrospective discussion.  Talk about what worked and what didn’t work.  Make adjustments which could include lengthening the sprint to 3 weeks and/or scheduling 1 or 2 intermediate ‘check in’ meetings for the team or a subset, within the sprint.  All ideas are good.  Try to sense what will work best for your team.

Go Forward

The process of spreadsheet sprinting is quite informal and not very proscribed.  Top priority is fully completing commitments from the backlog.  This while maintaining priorities and focus that perfectly align with reaching MVP and progressing through Swimlanes to the Next Key Stage.  Avoid time-wasting and distraction from new terminology, methods and tools.  Focus on forward progress.

After 3 sprints, your team will be accustomed to the tempo of sprinting.  You will start developing sprint culture and best practices.  At that point, you can consider more prescription of tasks, commitments, progress, completion and validation.  These topics will be covered in future articles.

Spreadsheet Sprints: Fastest Way to Test-Drive Agile