Showcase, Demo, Review.. What's In A Name?

It's a couple of days before the end of the sprint, we're in the standup, there is still a bunch of stuff "in progress". "We can't finish it" says the team. "We're blocked. The code is frozen for the sprint demo so we can't check in 'til next sprint, and besides, we need to spend today getting the demo prepared for tomorrow so we can't do anything else anyway". I've seen more than a few teams lose days out of their sprint making sure their end of sprint demo is perfect. They end up essentially running an 8 day sprint rather than a full 10 days. The demo becomes the primary focus of the sprint. It's not supposed to be that way.

The scrum guide says that the teams should spend no more than an hour or so getting ready. Why do so many teams end up spending days? It's because they have lost focus on what the ceremony is about. The purpose of the demo is to show the team's progress towards working software. It's not a sales pitch. No one is selling anything. It doesn't have to be perfect. I think teams fall into the perfect demo trap because they call the thing a demo. The recent trend is to call it a showcase which is just as bad.

 It's really important to focus on the real purpose of the ceremony - to show progress towards working software and to get feedback from stakeholders. It's not a sales demo. No one is buying anything. If the software isn't working, so what? Explain why. Telling a room full of senior stakeholders that you can't show anything today because the environment is down is far more valuable that a mocked-up demo the team spent a day building out of smoke and mirrors on someone's laptop. For a start those stakeholders might just be able to do something about that flaky environment.

A lot of the problem is in the name. Demo is a loaded word. People have a perception of what a demo is - a perfect, well-rehearsed sales demo. Same for a showcase. A showcase implies a certain amount of showmanship and gloss. The scrum guide renamed the demo to the Sprint Review for this very reason. It's a review and feedback session, not a demo. Names imply things - demos and showcases imply showing things to people. It's a one way performance. Reviews imply a two way conversation - reviewing progress.

Names are important. A lot of words come with some built-in expectations around what that word means. Those expectations drive behaviours (like treating a sprint review as a sales demo) that aren't what we are looking for. In the past the agile community has deliberately chosen names for things that don't imply the wrong behaviours. The use of "user Stories" or the somewhat contrived "product backlog item", is all to avoid the use of the word requirement, because requirements imply things like 200 page requirement specs and a whole bunch of "the system shall..." statements. We use the word ceremony or ritual, rather than meeting, because meeting implies the one person talking, 20 people sleeping type of behaviour we are used to in status meetings. We don't have roles, we have teams, we don't have managers, we have leaders and so on.

One place we got it wrong though was the feedback session at the end of the sprint. We started calling it a demo. Turns out that's not a good idea. People are now calling it a showcase. That's bad as well. I prefer the term they are now using in the scrum guide - sprint review. That's what we are doing. We are reviewing progress towards working software. If no progress has been made, we need to review why and fix the issues, not trick up a slick demo out of smoke and mirrors.

The Master Hand looked at the jewel that glittered on Ged's palm, bright as the prize of a dragon's hoard. The old Master murmured one word, "tolk," and there lay the pebble, no jewel but a rough, grey bit of rock. The Master took it and held it out on his own hand. "This is a rock, 'tolk' in the true speech," ... By the Illusion-Change you can make it look like a diamond -- or a flower or a fly or an eye or a flame--" The rock flickered from shape to shape as he named them, and returned to rock. "But that is mere seeming. Illusion fools the beholder's senses; it makes him see and hear and feel that the thing is changed. But it does not change the thing. To change the rock into a jewel, you must change its true name."

Ursula LeGuin - The Wizard of Earthsea

Now, this isn't just an excuse to quote from classic fantasy books. In the world of Earthsea (and a lot of traditional cultures around the world), names are regarded as powerful magic. If you can name a thing, you have power over that thing, and if you change a thing's name, you change that thing to reflect its new name.

And names do indeed have a type of power. Names can drive behaviour (good and bad). Chose the wrong name and you can cause unexpected problems. Chose the right one and your problem might resolve...just like magic.