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Swarming: How To Instantly Boost Your Scrum Team’s Productivity


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Swarming is a simple but often overlooked way to immediately boost the velocity of any Scrum Team. It is a pattern consistently used by hyper-productive teams in any industry.

In fact, swarming is so easy to implement even those teams new to Agile can begin using it right away. In this post we will explore how and why swarming works and share a real-world application of this pattern in a healthcare setting that quickly delivered dramatic results.

bees swarming scrum agile how toWhat is the definition of swarming in scrum? Swarming occurs when as many team members as possible work simultaneously on the same priority item. And they work on just that one item until it is done. 

How Swarming Works

Every Sprint Backlog is comprised of items of differing importance. They all need to be completed before the end of the Sprint, but only one of these items can be the team’s top priority. 

When a team swarms they should do so on that top priority item. That can be more difficult than it sounds. 

As Dr. Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum and founder of Scrum Inc. points out,

“Many organizations today have individuals, teams, and even the organization itself working on many projects that are all top priority.”

This, he adds, creates massive dysfunction and slows down the teams and organization. So to reduce frustration, boost happiness and increase the team’s effectiveness they must

“focus on what is the most important story.” 

So step one in swarming is making sure the team knows what the top priority item in their backlog really is. 

Step two is pulling in all possible team members to work on that priority item. You may not be able to get the whole team working on that one project.  The goal is to get as many as possible. 

Step three is to get to work in a truly shared and simultaneous way. Obviously the exact nature of what this entails is dependent on the work being done. But the goal remains the same, have as many team members as possible working simultaneously on that item.

When that is completed, the team then swarms on the next item until it too is completed. And so on. 

Try this for a Sprint and the results may surprise you. It is common for Scrum Teams to notice a significant boost in their velocity in that short amount of time. We’ve even seen jumps as high as 200%. 

Still, swarming may sound counterintuitive. Many Scrum Teams try to divide and conquer their backlogs by having individual members work on different items at the same time.

The thinking is this will lead to more being done since the work is happening at the same time. But that is just not the case. 

As Jeff explains, “The most common cause of a team being late or not having everything done at the end of a sprint is that everybody is working on their own thing. Everything is open and nothing is done.”

This, explains Jeff, decreases the velocity of a team by creating a bottleneck at the end of the Sprint “where everything has to be tested at once, but there's not enough time to do that and the sprint fails.”

Why Swarming Works

We, as a species, love distractions. We often have our focus shattered by emails, texts, phone calls, whatever. Those distractions come at a cost.

Every time you switch focus from one thing to the next, you lose a sizable percentage of your productivity. That is because you have to mentally reset and ramp-up, possibly use a different system, or move to a different place. Whatever the reason, you will lose productivity when you or your team buys into the fallacy of multitasking

This concept, called “Context Switching” was first laid out by author Gerald Weinberg in his seminal book Quality Software Management. And it has been proven to be true time and again.

Weinberg explains that if someone is working on just one thing until it is done they will obviously have 100% of their focus and time spent on that work. But if they have to context shift just once, the amount of time available for work drops to 80%.

If you have to context shift three times in a day, your effective time drops to just 60%. Shift five times and you will lose 75% of your time and focus to context switching. 

Swarming reduces context switching by having the whole team keep their focus on the one priority backlog item in the Sprint. Thus, there is no mental reset, no rebooting, no context switching loss at all. 

Swarming also boosts the productivity of Scrum Teams by improving the important metric known as process efficiency, defined as the amount of actual work time needed  to finish an item on the backlog divided by the calendar time it takes to get it to done.

The average process efficiency of a typical scrum team is five or 10%. And though that sounds low, it is higher than non-Agile teams. 

Here’s how Jeff explains it. “If something takes an ideal day of work to get done, if you look at the data you see it's taking 10 days to get to done. That means one day of work took 10 calendar days of the process. Efficiency is 10%.” 

Here’s where swarming changes the game. “What if you put three people on that story,” asks Jeff, “and they all worked on it together and they got it done in one day? Then that process efficiency is driven to over 100% and that automatically drives an increase in velocity.” 

Data shows Scrum Team velocity can double by improving process efficiency by 20 to 50%.  

There’s one additional way swarming boosts velocity well worth covering. Swarming reduces a very specific kind of waste.

Called Muda by Taiichi Ohno, the founder of the Toyota Production System, this is waste in the form of unfinished work. Ohno considered this the worst form of waste because you have spent time, money, resources, effort, yet you have nothing to show for it because the work has not been completed.

Swarming solves for this waste by having as many Team Members as possible work on that priority item until it is done. And done is always better than incomplete in any context.

An Example of Agile Swarming Patterns: In the Hospital

We want to leave you with a real world example of swarming at work. For that we turn to a section of The Scrum Fieldbook by Scrum Inc CEO JJ Sutherland. 

In a section titled “Innovating the How”, JJ shares the story of  Scrum Inc. consultants who partnered with a hospital chain to solve a problem which had beguiled them for decades - decreasing the time it took to sanitize and reset their operating rooms. All without decreasing quality or risking lives. 

Known as the “wheels out” to “wheels in”  time in reference to the gurneys that carry the patients. It took about an hour for the cleaning crew to do the job. “This is no easy task,” writes JJ, “Think about it. It’s not just sterilizing the room. They need to coordinate with the next medical team, the surgeon, anesthesiologist, and nurses, in order to have the right surgical instruments set up in the right place.”

Swarming was a key process improvement. And one the cleaning crew came to on their own. 

“They soon realized that if they partnered on the same task it would get done faster. Repeat that cooperation and the total time it took to clean the room would decrease significantly. For two days they tried this experiment, and it worked again and again.”

Other process improvements were instituted as well, and in tandem with swarming, JJ explains,

“The results were clear. The “wheels out” to “wheels in” time had been cut in half. From an average of about an hour to half an hour, sometimes less. All without sacrificing quality.” 

These improvements continue to be seen today. And, as JJ notes “it possible for this hospital to save more lives and treat more people. Not by changing technology. Or adding staff.” And this “wheels out” to “wheels in” barrier, which had stood for decades, was cut in half in just two weeks. 

All with the help of swarming. 

Additional Benefit of Agile Team Swarming

Swarming really is a secret weapon for Agile and Scrum teams. And not just for the reason we’ve outlined above.

Swarming also allows learnings to be shared freely and in context between Team Members. Thus allowing individuals to learn or improve skill sets. And while this is not the primary focus of swarming, this additional benefit is worth pointing out. 

We have worked with hundreds of organizations and thousands of teams and yet, as Jeff notes, we have “never seen a high-performing Scrum Team that does not consistently use the swarming pattern.”