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Getting to grips with agile product sprints

What’s it like to work on an agile project when you’re not from a tech background?

Ferenc Horvath, Unsplash

Our journey with Busy Bees nurseries started when they approached us with a vision of a tool that could be used by everyone across the business to deliver a world-class learning and development experience for the children in their care. The challenge thrown to us at 383 was to capture all of the knowledge, expertise and passion developed over a 35 year history and put it into the hands of parents and practitioners.

To develop a solution, we assembled a dedicated product team, made up of design, engineering and product specialists, who worked closely with Busy Bees to create UP – an interactive platform designed to unleash the potential of parents, practitioners, and children. We’ve worked in two week product sprints, using the Scrum framework – an approach that’s very familiar to us, but was entirely new to Busy Bees.

I was interested to find out how the Busy Bees team had adapted to working in Scrum – an agile process framework we use to deliver projects – and so I caught up with Jenny Shaw, Lead Academic and Research Developer, to ask about their experience. The Busy Bees team are experts in their field, but, by their own admission, are not experts in digital products, and had never used agile methodologies before. “We’ve got a huge amount of expertise in terms of delivering exceptional childcare,” explains Jenny, “However, what we had very little expertise in was anything to do with bringing this idea of delivering an app to our educators and parents to fruition. We knew the kinds of things that we wanted, but we definitely didn’t know how to get there.”

Goals, standups and demos

The sprint format is relatively simple. We work in quarters with Busy Bees by mapping out the high level features that we want to release, before breaking work down into a backlog. We start each two week product sprint with a goal for what we want to achieve – this goal is defined and agreed by everyone, with input from 383 and Busy Bees against the overall release plan. It’s a way of making sure the whole team has ownership over what they are committing to delivering in that two week period, and a clear picture of what the outputs should look like.

Jenny admits that this structure has been a bit of a learning curve for Busy Bees, who she says can be, “quite impatient with things. So, if we’ve had an idea we go, ‘Oh, it’d be really good if we could do this!’, and if we’ve already planned in a sprint, unless it’s business critical or it’s something that we got to deliver for a board reason, it’s going to have to wait for a future sprint.” As we’ve continued to work together, though, she says they have come to see it as a positive; “You won’t move people off the things they’re working on in sprints because, actually, they need to focus on it, and you need to have that dedicated time to do it. It’s more about us being able to understand that way of working and seeing the benefit of it, rather than just going, ‘Ooh, but please can we have this as well?!’”

Throughout the sprint, the product team holds daily standup meetings to share their progress, highlight any issues, and make sure things are on track. The sprint ends with a demonstration of what’s been achieved – each team member shows what they’ve been working on, and how it meets the sprint goal. Jenny says she loves being involved in the demo sessions; “I really didn’t know what to expect, but we’ve actually taken a lot of lessons from observing sprints. I’ve encouraged other people within the team, who don’t necessarily need to be there, to come along and sit in on a sprint, because I was absolutely raving about the way of working!”

After the demo, we move into planning for the next sprint. The team looks at all of the work and estimates the complexity of each task and how long they might take to complete, giving each item of work a point value. It’s a process that Jenny says they’ve now incorporated into their own projects. “The way that Hannah, the product delivery lead for Busy Bees, explained it when I first went along was that if someone’s estimated three points and someone else has estimated thirteen, it means that someone hasn’t understood something somewhere. She was explaining that it’s not that anybody on the team’s fault – actually, it’s about the clarity of the explanation. That’s something that we’ve really taken on board. Once a fortnight, we actually look at all the work on the table and we estimate that together, and that’s something we’ve nicked, basically, straight out of the sprint format.”

Having this regular insight into the product has helped Jenny and team to relay information back to the business more easily, too. “Because we have such regular contact with the team at 383,” she says, “we’re able to clarify our thinking and have really quite complex things explained to us in a way that we understand. There’s never a point at which I’ve thought, ‘God, I don’t know what that means,’ or, ‘I don’t know how to explain that,’ because we’ve worked in such a way that no one speaks tech speak. I’m sure you all do, behind closed doors, when we’ve gone away! But if you’re using a term that we perhaps wouldn’t understand, it’s explained very clearly, so that we get what we’re talking about, and then that makes it easier to relay it to everybody else.”

"If someone's estimated three points and someone else has estimated thirteen, it means that someone hasn't understood something somewhere. It's not that anybody on the team’s fault - actually, it's about the clarity of the explanation. That's something that we've really taken on board."

Jenny Shaw, Lead Academic and Research Developer, Busy Bees

Building relationships

Working in this way has also helped to strengthen the relationship between 383 and Busy Bees and really showcase the talents of our amazing specialists. “We’ve always been really, really impressed with 383,” Jenny explains, “but having everybody in that room together, we’ve been able to meet people that perhaps we hadn’t spoken to before. Actually seeing how everybody comes together to deliver the project and understanding quite what level they’re working at has just been really, really impressive, and really reassuring. I remember when we came out of the first planning session, our project manager said he always knew that our projects were going to be delivered well, but it was just so reassuring for him to know what safe hands we were in by having all these people around the table.”

It’s genuinely been a pleasure for us to work with the Busy Bees team as well, and to play a role in making their vision a reality. Seeing how UP has been able to genuinely impact the lives of parents, educators and children has been incredible, a sentiment that Jenny shares; “The best thing was when our educators started to use it, and we started hearing the real stories of, ‘It’s given me confidence and I didn’t have confidence before’, or, ‘I’ve been able to support a child who was really struggling and now they’re not because of this.’ I’ve worked in childcare for many, many years and the reason that most people go into childcare is to make a difference. Throughout my career and the careers of other people on the team, we’ve absolutely done that on a small scale. Now, we are making sure we’re delivering high quality childcare in over 350 centres, and there is no way that we’d be able to offer the same support to our educators, and now parents, if we weren’t doing it through something digital like UP. We wouldn’t have the same impact as what we’re having now.”

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