Giving the Team a Chance at WebNewSite

Giving the Team a Chance at WebNewSite

Scrum, combined with Extreme Programming, includes productivity-enhancing practices that increase Team productivity by orders of magnitude. One practice that slowly and then exponentially adds productivity to the Team is its commitment to its work and the team members’ commitments to each other. A Team says that it will do something, and it does whatever it can to do so. Team members commit to each other that they will do something, and they help each other out whenever necessary. Early on, someone told me that he had been afraid that Scrum would promote heroics; once he experienced Scrum, however, he realized that the heroics fostered were Team heroics. Let’s see what happens to a Scrum Team when a commitment fails.


WebNewSite was one of the first publishers of news on the Internet through its NewsWeb product. The key to its competitive edge was its lexical parsing engine. Taking feeds from many sources, it would quickly parse the information so that it could be retrieved by category, by time, by subject, by keyword, and almost anything else that you could think of. This engine had been devised and developed by Jeff Sutherland, the other creator of Scrum, and Thomas Sun, a reclusive MIT Ph.D. Jeff had moved on to head WebNewSite’s development organization, while Thomas remained the brain trust for the lexical parsing engine.

During its very first Sprint, the engineering team at WebNewSite had added a personalization facility to NewsWeb. Not only could subscribers get news, but they could also identify the types of news that they wanted to see by category and subject. Upon its release into production at the end of the first Sprint, personalization helped NewsWeb maintain its stature as a leading-edge Internet news product.

For the second Sprint, the people at WebNewSite had something up their sleeves that the competition would find hard to duplicate. The flexibility of the lexical parsing engine allowed them to also parse the news by source. Subscribers could say that they wanted to receive only international news from a given wire service, whereas local news could come from any source. During the Sprint planning meeting, the team decided that it could readily offer this capability, but Thomas Sun would have to be part of the team, a fellow pig committing himself to the team’s Sprint Goals. After some discussion of what this meant to Thomas and the team, Thomas committed himself. He assured everyone that he would get right on the customization of the lexical parsing engine so that testing of extracts from the database could happen early in the Sprint.

Thomas kept his word. He had finished within a week and had tested the additional parsing. He demonstrated it to the team, and everyone felt comfortable that the Sprint goal was within the team’s grasp. Thomas then dropped the bombshell. As one of the founders of WebNewSite, he hadn’t had a vacation in two years. He was planning on taking some much needed time off starting the next Monday. He and his wife were going hiking in Yellowstone National Park and would be gone for two weeks. But not to worry, he said: he knew what he had accomplished, he was sure that it worked, and the results had been well- tested by the other team members.

Three days after Thomas departed, the lexical parsing engine started hiccupping, and then it had a stroke. New permutations in the news feeds had uncovered flaws in Thomas’s work. Thomas was somewhere in the wilderness, completely unavailable to the team. The team’s mood went from despair to fury. How could the team members meet their commitment and release what the sales department had already been promising to the public? How could Thomas have done this to them? Hadn’t he understood that they were committed? Why hadn’t he left a way to be reached so that he could help them and direct them to the fix?

The Sprint felt dead. As ScrumMaster, I could have called for an abnormal termination of Sprint. Circumstances had changed so that the Sprint goal appeared to be unobtainable. I just couldn’t do this, though. WebNewSite had just started with Scrum; I had told them that the ScrumMaster removed impediments. This was certainly an impediment—Thomas couldn’t be reached. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that this was unacceptable. Even though Thomas hadn’t left a phone number, I was sure that he wouldn’t want to leave the team in the lurch and that he would want to immediately come to the team’s aid if he only knew of its predicament. But how could I contact him?

Unfortunately for Thomas and his vacation plans, I’m a fan of mystery novels. “Of course!” I thought. “I’ll hire a private detective to find Thomas.” After some searching, I found an ex-FBI agent who had an office in Billings, Montana. He was excited about working for an Internet startup. He found Thomas within two days. Thomas was able to assist the team, and the Sprint goal was met. I figured that I had been pretty inventive, spending only several hundred dollars to get around a major impediment in an unconventional manner.

Lessons Learned

I had done my work as ScrumMaster, and the team had met its commitment. Thomas, however, was steamed. Upon returning from his vacation, he stormed into the office that I was sharing with the team and read me the riot act. Who did I think I was to invade his privacy? Who was I to give his personal information to an outsider? (I had given his name and social security number to the private detective.) Who was I to expose him and his private vacation to the public like this? Circumstances were irrelevant; his privacy had been irreparably compromised.

In the end, Thomas and I agreed to disagree. I felt justified by the result, but realized that the means were pretty extreme. Thomas realized that the means, although inconsiderate, had helped his company and the team meet an important commitment. As ScrumMaster, I had weighed overall Team good against individual good and chosen. Had I chosen correctly? Everyone had a different opinion, but you’ll find yourself making similar choices about the Team’s welfare.