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Planning a firebreak sprint

A firebreak sprint is a break from the usual cycle of work, and an opportunity to work on something different.

Agile methodologies get us into a very focussed cycle of producing and delivering work in short bursts. At Citizens Advice we work to a two week sprint which is punctuated with daily standups, fortnightly planning sessions, presentations, and retrospectives. While this is a proven, popular and productive way to work, it can become necessary to take a break from this cadence.

Therein lies the first reason to take a firebreak: it gives the team a much needed opportunity to reenergise. It is an exercise in self reflection and rediscovering motivation. The wider organisation also stands to gain because firebreaks provide a way of encouraging R&D (research and development) without impacting normal delivery. Finally, it’s the perfect opportunity to get on top of housekeeping tasks such as technical debt, maintenance of design libraries, and updating content styleguides.

Despite being an opportunity to work on anything, and for the team to self organise, a firebreak still requires a fair amount of planning. There’s a fine line between structureless work and uncertainty.

Our firebreak was booked well in advance, to coordinate with the requirements of other teams in the organisation. The calendar invite was sent out one month beforehand with a purposefully vague and open explanation of what would be involved:

Let’s down tools for 5 days and work on something that inspires us!Maybe you want to look at using data registers, maybe you want to thrash out some personas, perhaps you want to nail a bug that’s been bothering you, or maybe you want to progress some of the ideas we had at our away day.You might want to work alone. You might want to work in a team. Anything goes!

Three weeks before the firebreak we set aside space on our sprint board for to people to post their ideas. We also set up a Slack channel to share ideas and ask questions. Two weeks before the sprint we began to organise the ideas into more distinct categories to help to clarify the motivation behind them. Six categories emerged: learning, research, iteration work, improvements, product development, and process.

One week before the firebreak we had a group session to further discuss each of the ideas on the board before deciding what we wanted to work on.

Finally, in preparation for day one of the firebreak, we created a mini sprint board with team avatars assigned to ideas, and for fun, we taped off our main sprint board.

The morning of day one was led by an introduction from the Chief Digital Officer. It’s imperative that the team know there is organisational buy in. The core messages from the introduction were 1. that there is no pressure to produce anything during firebreak, 2. that we are attentive to requests from other teams who are undertaking business as usual, and 3. that we should, above all, have fun. By 10:30am teams had assembled and work was well underway!

I’ll post more updates as the week goes on.

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