Time off and vacations/holidays are a reality for all Scrum Teams. What does Scrum say about this and how do you deal with a missing Scrum Team member under these circumstances?
The first question has a short answer. Scrum says nothing about how to deal with a temporary absence. Scrum is a simple framework and does not provide the answer to every scenario you will encounter when using it. This is by design. Although it is counterintuitive, adding more guidance would make the framework less effective overall. The last thing people need when facing complex problems is a complex rule book to learn and apply. This hinders rather than helps.
Such absences are a reality, so how should you deal with them? Do not temporarily abandon Scrum or cancel the Scrum events. Scrum continues even if circumstances are imperfect, which they almost always will be. Practice the art of the possible. Keep going and do the best you can under the circumstances, accepting that things may not run as smoothly as normal. If you have a true self-managing team, they will be able to continue like this in the short term. Providing plenty of notice to allow the Scrum Team to prepare for the absence is advisable.
Let’s explore how we might handle temporary absence for each of the 3 Scrum Accountabilities.
An effective Scrum Master will have helped create an environment where the Scrum Team is not dependant upon them. The Scrum Master should not be the only person who can facilitate the Scrum events or remove impediments. The Scrum Team should be capable of addressing its own issues. More challenging issues may need to wait for Scrum Master to return, but the day-to-day issues can be addressed without them.
Scrum Teams can nominate someone as a substitute Scrum Master to make it clear who will provide cover. This could be someone who is interested in becoming a Scrum Master in the future, which would give them the opportunity to gain experience. Alternatively, it could be the Scrum Master from another team who would fill in temporarily if they have capacity.
Where a Product Owner will be absent, the Product Goal and Sprint Goal can help the Scrum Team to maintain focus and make limited decisions without them. If the Scrum Team stays focussed on work to support these goals, then the opportunity to go off track reduces. In a professional Scrum Team, Developers will be empowered to talk directly to stakeholders. This will enable work to continue when the Product Owner is unavailable.
If the Product Owner will be away for more than the current Sprint, then additional effort can be made the refine the Product Backlog ahead of time. This will ensure there are more ready Product Backlog items to select in Sprint Planning. Prior discussion can also take place around possible future Sprint Goals so that the wishes of the Product Owner can be understood for future Sprint Planning events.
Appointing a temporary substitute Product Owner is another popular option. The person who substitutes should be someone who knows the business domain and understands Scrum well. If no such person exists, the Scrum Master or a Developer could act as the stand in. Whilst the accountability would belong to the Product Owner, the substitute could help make low cost/risk decisions.
Scrum requires a cross-functional Scrum Team. The Developers need to have the skills, knowledge and experience to develop the product. The Scrum Team needs to be able to deliver a Done Increment every Sprint. To enable this, many Scrum Teams ensure a level of redundancy exists within. If a Developer is absent, there would be at least one other Developer who can cover the skill or knowledge. If you only have 1 person who can test in the Scrum Team, the Scrum Team cannot deliver an Increment if they are absent.
There are always limitations to building redundancy within a Scrum Team. The other Developer may not have the same level of expertise as the original, so the cover they can offer may be limited. For some rarer skills, it may not be possible to have the redundancy within the Scrum Team as the cost may be prohibitively high. The Scrum Team may have to recognise the limitation and ensure the Sprint Goals that they set are realistic and achievable when a particular Developer and skill set is missing temporarily.
Time off, vacations and holidays are inevitable. So are absences due to sickness. Scrum Teams need to find a solution to handle this reality. The solution should come from the Scrum Team and be one that is suitable for their specific situation. They may benefit from running experiments to allow them to inspect and adapt to find a answer that works for them. Often the answer that is selected will be the “least worst” option. Key people being temporarily absent from a team will always have an impact. How we manage and mitigate it is the important thing.
Hi, my name is Simon Kneafsey and I am a Professional Scrum Trainer with Scrum.org & TheScrumMaster.co.uk. I am on a mission to simplify Scrum for a million people. I have helped over 10,000 people so far and I can help you too.