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(Prepared by Thérèse Lalor and Steven Vale - Septe= mber 2013 - Updated March 2016)
The idea of holding sprint sessions to develop standards for official st= atistics is fairly new, but has already shown its ability to considerably r= educe development time and cost. This section sets out the experiences and = lessons learned from the sprint sessions held to date, in the context of pr= ojects overseen by the High-Level Group for the Modernization of Official S= tatistics (HLG-MOS). It also makes recommendations for the conduct of futur= e sprint sessions in the context of developing statistical standards.
What is a sprint?
A sprint is an intensive effort, restricted to a specific duration, e.g.= one week, to deliver a pre-determined output. In the official statistical = community, a sprint can be explained as being something like a very intense= and focused workshop with a specific deliverable.
During a sprint, participants break down the task to be accomplished int= o small components, each of which can be resolved in one or two hours by a = small group. Sprints involve a lot of parallel working, so one person canno= t be involved in everything. The aim is to build on the best ideas and expe= riences of all participants to reach an outcome that is =E2=80=9Cowned=E2= =80=9D by all. This outcome is seldom exactly the one envisaged at the star= t of the sprint, as ideas evolve through the sprint process. However, it sh= ould be at least as useful and probably better as a result.
The first two HLG-MOS sprints were two weeks long, whereas others have b= een completed within a week. Some participants of the two-week sprints felt= that they were rather slow to get going, so for later sprints much of the = introductory material was covered in pre-sprint web conferences. This meant= that the participants felt they were starting the real work from day one. = Some participants, particularly those with family responsibilities, also fe= lt that two weeks is rather a long time to be away from home. Changing to o= ne-week sprints did, however, put more burden on the sprint team, requiring= much more pre-sprint and post-sprint work to compensate for the limited ti= me available during the sprint itself.
The optimal duration of a sprint therefore depends to a large extent on = the newness of the topic, the prior level of understanding of the sprint pr= ocess by participants, and the familiarity of the sprint master with the to= pic and the issues to be discussed.
Venue and facilities
The ideal set-up is to have the exclusive use of at least three rooms fo= r the whole duration of the sprint. To save time, it is preferable that the= se rooms are located close to each other. At least one of the rooms should = be large enough to comfortably accommodate the whole group seated at desks,= which should preferably be organised in a U shape, facing a screen for pre= sentations. All rooms should be equipped with whiteboards, flip-charts and = writing materials, and ideally it should be possible to stick posters and f= lip-chart sheets on the walls. Plenty of stationery, particularly paper, pe= ns and post-it notes should be available. WiFi Internet access is important= , along with easy access to an on-line collaboration space, e.g. a wiki. Pa= rticipants should bring their own laptops / tablets. Finally, to save time,= it is helpful if coffee and lunch facilities are available close by.
Travel and accommodation
From a practical point of view, it is very useful if all participants st= ay in the same hotel during the sprint. This helps build the team spirit, a= nd facilitates discussions in the evenings and over breakfast. It is helpfu= l if the hotel has a public seating area where people can work in small gro= ups. It is very helpful if someone from the host organisation can help to m= ake local arrangements and advise on practical matters such as travel betwe= en the airport, the hotel and the sprint venue, including where and how to = buy tickets for public transport.
Selecting the participants
Ideally a sprint should have 10-15 participants. If there are more, it i= s difficult to maintain a sprint atmosphere and to get people to work as a = single group. Normally there should be no more than two participants per or= ganisation, to ensure that as many organisations as possible can be represe= nted. Participants should come from a range of backgrounds, and, between th= em, should have all the necessary skills and experience to produce the outp= ut. For HLG-MOS sprints, participants have been mainly at the =E2=80=9Cexpe= rt level=E2=80=9D, and have included methodologists, IT specialists, metada= ta experts, business / information architects and external experts, dependi= ng on the topic. However, having a more senior person present can help ensu= re a sufficiently strategic focus.
Ideally there should also be representatives of =E2=80=9Cthe business=E2= =80=9D, i.e. subject matter statisticians. In practice it has proven diffic= ult to achieve this, as organisations are more interested in spending money= to send =E2=80=9Cspecialists=E2=80=9D as participants. Two possible soluti= ons are to try to select =E2=80=9Cspecialists=E2=80=9D who have previously = worked in statistical subject-matter areas, and to ask the host organisatio= n to make subject-matter people available for consultations if necessary.= p>
Selection of participants for HLG sprints has typically been a mixture o= f nominations from interested organisations, with targeted follow-up by org= anisers to ensure key people and skills are present.
Building the team
In most cases, sprint participants already know a few of their fellow = =E2=80=9Csprinters=E2=80=9D, but it has never been the case that everyone k= nows everyone else beforehand. For this reason, it is important for the spr= int facilitators to try to create a team spirit as soon as possible. This s= hould start already in the pre-sprint web conferences, where participants s= hould introduce themselves, and ideally use a web-cam.
Encouraging participants to meet for dinner the evening before the sprin= t starts can be a useful way of helping them get to know each other in a le= ss formal environment before the real work starts. Ensuring a good mix of p= eople in the small teams for the first few rounds of tasks within the sprin= t can also help.
One important sprint rule is that there is no hierarchy within the sprin= t, all participants are equal, and all views are valid. This can be a chall= enge if an organisation sends two participants, one of which works for the = other.
A particular challenge is how to incorporate the representatives of the = host organisation in the sprint team. Ideally, for the duration of the spri= nt, they should consider themselves out of the office, in a similar way to = being at a meeting in another location, rather than just a regular day at w= ork. They should realise that being a sprint participant is a full time com= mitment, and they shouldn=E2=80=99t try to do their regular job as well dur= ing this period, and should advise managers and colleagues accordingly. The= y should also try to join the group in the evenings if possible.
From experience during the HLG sprints, it is essential to have two spri= nt facilitators. One should take the role of being =E2=80=9Csprint master= =E2=80=9D, whilst the other should take on more of a support and documentat= ion role. However, both should be capable of steering group discussions tow= ards agreements and solutions, resolving conflicts, and stopping people dev= iating from the sprint goals. It is therefore essential that the facilitato= rs should project confidence and authority, and be able to manage the group= . They should also be constantly aware of group dynamics and try to identif= y and resolve any potential problems before they escalate.
On the other hand, it is the sprint group that decides the priorities an= d contents of the outputs, and takes ownership of the working processes to = reach its goals. The facilitators should therefore be careful that they are= not steering the contents and imposing their views. In this respect, it is= helpful if the sprint facilitators are not experts in the topic, although = some background knowledge is useful to be able to follow the conversations = and issues. Some training in facilitation techniques or significant practic= al experience in delivering inter-active training courses is useful for thi= s role. The facilitators need to have a sound understanding of the project = goals.
Documenting progress, decisions and outcomes is very important. The spri= nt should normally result in a paper or report of some kind, and it is much= easier to start putting this together, at least in outline, during the spr= int, than to try to write it from scratch afterwards. To facilitate this, p= articipants should be encouraged to write up the conclusions of their discu= ssions and post them in a common work space such as a wiki, for others to c= omment, and for the facilitators to incorporate them into the overall docum= entation.
The facilitators should both have cameras, and should make sure that the= y take photos of all whiteboard or flip-chart diagrams, as these may be use= ful later to illustrate key points in the documentation.
Before the sprint
Planning a sprint typically takes around three months, with the work bec= oming more intensive as the sprint approaches. The first steps are to secur= e top management support for the proposed sprint, choose a sprint-master, f= ind a location and determine the budget. After these pre-requisites are in = place, a call for participation should be launched and circulated to key pe= ople (managers and potential participants) in the target organisations. Thi= s call for participation should make it clear that it may be necessary to l= imit numbers, and should explain what a sprint is, and how it is different = from a traditional workshop or seminar. It is often necessary to state clea= rly that papers and PowerPoint presentations are not required!
In preparation for the first sprint on a particular topic, the sprint ma= ster or organising team should consult key stakeholders about their expecta= tions for the scope and outcomes of the sprint. This consultation should in= clude a range of levels, from top managers to experts, and a wide range of = organisations, not just those expected to send participants to the sprint. = The summary of this consultation process provides a clear view of the expec= tations of the statistical community, which is a very useful starting point= for pre-sprint discussions with participants.
The sprint master should also use the pre-sprint period to research the = topic. The aim is not to become an expert, but to have enough knowledge to = be able to create the first inputs for the sprint team. It is easier for th= e team to start with something other than a blank page, even if the final o= utput is something completely different.
At least two pre-sprint web conferences are essential, both to help the = participants to get to know each other, and to cover all the basics about h= ow a sprint works. It is helpful if participants outline their backgrounds,= ideas and expectations for the sprint, so that some degree of consensus ca= n be reached before they physically meet.
During the sprint
Most HLG-MOS sprints have been opened or addressed by the head of the ho= st organisation. Active interest from this level can help to inspire partic= ipants. Towards the end of each sprint, a presentation is usually given to = the staff of the host organisation. This serves several purposes, but mainl= y helps the participants to focus on how to communicate their work, and exp= lain it to people outside the sprint group.
After any introductory material, the first task of the sprint team is to= create a work plan covering the duration of the sprint. During the sprint,= it is essential to monitor progress against the work plan, and towards the= expected outcomes. A short plenary session first thing every morning is us= eful. This can review what has been done, and what remains, and to decide o= n the priorities for that day. A useful addition to this session is the ide= a of =E2=80=9Csoapbox=E2=80=9D presentations. These are opportunities for p= articipants to present briefly (i.e. in 2-3 minutes maximum) any issues the= y think are important. =E2=80=9CSoapboxes=E2=80=9D are often a good opportu= nity to share ideas from informal discussions the previous evening.
Participants then break into small groups to discuss and resolve the pri= ority issues. These groups are usually self-selected, but some mixing of pa= rticipants by the facilitators can be useful to ensure the same people are = not always working together, and to ensure the group dynamics are maintaine= d. Small group discussions should typically last between one and two hours,= and have a clear deadline. The facilitators should check each group period= ically to see if the deadline will be met. The small groups briefly report = their outputs in plenary sessions. Typically about 70-80% of time is spent = in small groups and 20-30% in plenary sessions.
If a group wants more time, or is struggling to resolve a particular iss= ue, several options are possible:
During a sprint, participants tend to get very involved and enthusiastic= , wanting to share their views and ideas. For this reason, sometimes in sma= ll groups, but always in plenary sessions, it is useful to have a clear way= of asking for the floor. In HLG sprints, participants are given different = coloured objects. They hold up one colour if they want to speak, another if= they think the speaker is going into too much detail, and a third if they = think the discussion is going off-topic.
Finally, a good tradition that has developed at HLG sprints is to ask al= l participants to bring snacks from their home countries for coffee breaks.= This creates a non-work topic of conversation, which helps people get to k= now each other better.
After the Sprint
The main task in the immediate aftermath of a sprint session is to trans= form the sprint outputs into the final versions of the sprint documents. Du= ring a sprint, there is only really time to capture ideas and outlines, but= these need to be expanded and made understandable for a wider audience. No= rmally at least a week is needed for this, usually involving the facilitato= rs and some participants (particularly the Anglophones!).
Another important consideration, which should ideally be planned beforeh= and, is how to capitalise on the momentum developed during the sprint. A ne= w (and hopefully strong) network of experts has been created, and can be us= ed to further the wider aims of the project. The precise follow-up actions = will depend on the nature and stage of the project. In HLG projects, the ap= proach of linking the idea of sprints with short-term virtual task teams th= at meet frequently over a given period to make further progress, has been s= uccessful.
It is also useful to take stock at this point about the organisation of = the sprint. What worked, and what should be done differently in future?
Whilst most HLG-MOS sprints have been face-to-face events, the idea of v= irtual sprints has also been tested, with some success. In most cases, this= approach has involved bringing sprint participants together several times,= each for a few hours, by web conference. For example, a virtual sprint can= take place over a week, with a two-hour plenary web conference each day, a= t the time most suitable given the different time-zones of participants. In= -between these plenary sessions, participants work individually or in small= groups (with people in similar time zones) to produce inputs to the next p= lenary discussion.
Virtual sprints are clearly much cheaper than face-to-face sprints and c= an be effective in certain circumstances, particularly if the =E2=80=9Cspri= nters=E2=80=9D have already met beforehand. They work best for topics that = are already reasonably well developed, such as revising an existing standar= d but are less suitable for developing new material which usually requires = more intensive discussion.
Sprints have proved very valuable in the context of the HLG-MOS projects= . The Generic Statistical Information Model (GSIM) Development Project was = completed within a year, which is less than half of the time taken for comp= arable initiatives using more traditional methods. There is a cost, both in= money and time, but feedback from chief statisticians so far is that the v= alue of the outputs more than outweighs the costs.
Whilst sprints are probably not the best approach in all situations, the= ir value in the development process for international statistical standards= seems to be confirmed.