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How does a Scrum Team deal with urgent work?

Updated: Mar 12

As Scrum teams work to deliver their sprint goals, it is common for unplanned work to emerge, such as urgent requests from stakeholders or unexpected defects. These interruptions can derail the team's progress if they do not have a mechanism to manage them effectively. One solution to this problem is the use of an interrupt buffer, which is a reserved capacity that allows the team to address unplanned work while still delivering their sprint goal. Moreover, Carnegie Mellon Research shows that teams with a plan for interruptions get 42% more work done than teams who don't plan for interruptions. In other words, this practice can almost double your team's productivity

The success pattern happens when the team sets aside a portion of its capacity to address interruptions and unplanned work. This buffer is typically calculated based on the team's past experience with interruptions over several sprints, which allows for a realistic estimate of how much capacity the team will need. I have successfully implemented this practice countless times to protect the team from interruptions and improve their performance. Here's how it works. It starts with the Product Owners holding periodic triaging activities to decide how to treat unplanned requests.


The interrupt buffer is critical for ensuring that the team can handle unplanned work while still delivering their sprint goal. Without this buffer, the team may become overloaded with work and unable to address urgent requests or defects that emerge during the sprint. This can result in delivery delays or even the failure to achieve the sprint goal.

One of the key benefits of using an interrupt buffer is that it can help the team develop a more proactive approach to managing interruptions. By analyzing past interruptions and estimating the size of the buffer accordingly, the team can gain a better understanding of the types of interruptions that are likely to occur and take steps to prevent them from happening in the first place. This can include improving communication with stakeholders, prioritizing backlog items based on their value and impact, and implementing other process improvements to reduce the occurrence of unplanned work.

As the team becomes more proactive in managing interruptions, the size of the buffer can be gradually reduced. This is because the team will have a better handle on the types of interruptions that are likely to occur and will be better equipped to manage them without relying on the buffer. Ultimately, the goal is for the team to achieve a sustainable pace of delivery while also being responsive to emerging issues.

It is important to note that the size of the interrupt buffer should be carefully calculated based on the team's past experience with interruptions. If the buffer is too small, the team may not have enough capacity to handle all of the interruptions that emerge during the sprint. Finding the right size is critical to the success of the team. Thus, the team should use the average capacity that has been consumed in the past 3-5 sprints to address unplanned work.

The role of the product owner is also critical in managing interruptions and ensuring that the interrupt buffer is used effectively. The product owner is responsible for triaging incoming requests and determining which ones must be addressed during the current sprint. This involves working closely with stakeholders to understand their needs and priorities and making decisions based on the team's capacity and the sprint goal.

If an incoming request is deemed urgent and must be addressed during the current sprint, the product owner must work with the team to refine and estimate the item. The team can then check the interrupt buffer to see if there is enough capacity to take on the new work. The team needs to agree on an emergency procedure should there is not enough capacity. This may involve enlisting the help of other teams with free buffer capacity, decomposing the work to a smaller size, reevaluating the urgency of the request, or calling an emergency replanning meeting to adjust the sprint goal.

It is important to note that the emergency procedure should only be used in rare cases and should not become the norm. If the team finds that they are regularly using the emergency procedure, it may be a sign that the interrupt buffer is not the right size or that the product owner needs to work more closely with stakeholders to prioritize requests.

One potential challenge with using an interrupt buffer is that it may be difficult to accurately estimate the size of the buffer. The team may not have a clear understanding of the types and frequency of interruptions that are likely to occur, particularly if they are new to the project or working with a new stakeholder. In this case, the team may need to adjust the size of the buffer as they gain more experience and insight into the project.

Another challenge is that the interrupt buffer may be seen as a safety net or excuse for not managing interruptions effectively. If the team relies too heavily on the buffer to address unexpected work, they may become complacent and fail to take proactive steps to prevent interruptions from occurring. For example, they may fail to communicate effectively with stakeholders to ensure that requests are properly prioritized, or they may not take steps to address recurring interruptions.

To avoid these challenges, teams need to view the interrupt buffer as a tool for managing unplanned work rather than as a safety net. The team should take proactive steps to prevent interruptions from occurring, such as communicating effectively with stakeholders and prioritizing backlog items based on their value and impact. The interrupt buffer should be used as a last resort for addressing unexpected work that cannot be managed through other means.


Ultimately, the use of an interrupt buffer is just one part of an effective strategy for managing interruptions and unplanned work in Scrum teams. Teams need to adopt a proactive approach to managing interruptions, work closely with stakeholders to prioritize requests, and maintain a focus on their sprint goal. With the right approach, Scrum teams can handle unexpected work while still delivering high-quality products on time and within budget. By reserving a portion of the team's capacity for this work, the team can handle unexpected requests and still deliver their sprint goal. The size of the buffer should be carefully calculated based on the team's past experience with interruptions, and the product owner should work closely with stakeholders to triage incoming requests and ensure that the buffer is used effectively. With the right approach, the interrupt buffer can help Scrum teams achieve a sustainable pace of delivery while also being flexible enough to handle unexpected work.

In conclusion, the use of an interrupt buffer is an important tool for managing interruptions and unplanned work in Scrum teams. By reserving part of their capacity for unexpected work, teams can achieve a sustainable pace of delivery while also being flexible enough to handle unexpected requests. However, teams need to view the interrupt buffer as a tool for managing unplanned work rather than as a safety net. The team should take proactive steps to prevent interruptions from occurring, such as communicating effectively with stakeholders and prioritizing backlog items based on their value and impact. The interrupt buffer should be used as a last resort for addressing unexpected work that cannot be managed through other means. With the right approach, Scrum teams can handle unexpected work while still delivering high-quality products on time and within budget.

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