Timeboxing – A powerful tool

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A deadline is probably the most frequently crossed border in the world (ok, excluding the border separating Mexico and the United States, according to some). Deadlines stem from Project Management. I’ve never seen a product developed before any deadline without some compromise. Organizations can use deadlines as a tool of oppression. If a release window passes, then somebody pays contractual penalties. Or if deadline concerns an employee’s work, then this employee could be perceived as performing poorly.

But with a timebox, it is a slightly different story. The purpose of a timebox is different to a deadline. Timeboxing is about improvement, not about being a tool of oppression. The idea behind a timebox is to be better motivated to improve things. For example:  In Scrum, everything is timeboxed. In the case of a two-week sprint, the two-weeks is a timebox. In planning meetings, the development team agrees how much work they are able to do in this time. The Sprint ends whether or not all planned stories were done (done done!) or not. There is no going beyond the timebox. It just ends. If the team learns that there were too many stories for that iteration, then next time they get to plan a little less.

In everyday life, you can find many ways of applying the concept which lies behind a timebox. Budgeting, for example, is about constraints. When you have a credit card, it is easy to spend more money than you earned in a particular month, allowing you to buy whatever you currently desire. If this situation does not improve, then eventually this will lead to trouble. But when you decide not to spend more money that you earned this month, you’ll never have the same trouble. Moreover, you’ll think twice if you really need to buy anything. This is the way timeboxes work in Scrum, they force you to improve.

People will have tens of reasons why they should stay 10 minutes longer at any meeting. But if they stay, nothing around will improve. Meetings will be longer each time and the team won’t learn anything about how to make them more effective.

It’s human nature to procrastinate and make bad habits legitimate with lots of bad reasons. It is a role of the Scrum Master to coach the team on the benefits they can get once they apply truly timeboxed meetings. The Scrum Master should encourage people to try and experience how keeping timeboxes can affect things in a good way.

A timebox is a powerful tool for improvement, in Scrum as well as in personal development. It should be used the right way. Without exceptions.

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