What Is Timeboxing in Scrum?

Prioritize focus and value by limiting time spent on an event or activity
A group of professional colleagues meets at a table

Reviewed by: Raúl Herranz

The scrum framework includes setting a maximum amount of time in which an event or activity takes place. Defining a timebox encourages focus and predictability. With a set amount of time in which to achieve a goal or task, all of the participants are empowered to center their attention on what is essential to achieving the goals of the event or activity.

What Is Timeboxing?

Timeboxing is setting a fixed, maximum time that can be spent on an event or activity. 

The maximum is just that: a maximum. That doesn’t mean the scrum team must fill the entire timebox no matter what. Instead, people can and often do conclude events and activities before the timebox if they’ve accomplished what they set out to achieve.

Many teams use timeboxing to define open-ended backlog items, such as research. It allows teams to create a clear definition of done for items that might not otherwise have one. For example: “the research is timeboxed to two hours” lets the people doing the work know when the task of research is done. 

What Are Timeboxed Events in Scrum?

Scrum has four timeboxed events:

There is a fifth event in scrum: the sprint itself. This event contains all other events and has a fixed length of one month or less. Technically it is not timeboxed. The sprint is not shortened or ended early if the sprint goal is met or if all of the forecasted work is completed. 

Sprint planning: Sprint planning helps a team plan their sprint, including establishing the sprint goal and backlog. Sprint planning is timeboxed to eight hours for a one-month sprint. Shorter sprints will have shorter planning timeboxes.

Daily scrum: The daily scrum helps teams stay focused and collaborative by synchronizing their work each day. Timeboxing it to 15 minutes means the team has just a brief daily meeting that is limited to what they need to cover and nothing extra. 

Sprint review: During the sprint review, teams will show the sprint backlog items (and any other outcomes) delivered during the preceding sprint, providing transparency for the stakeholders to inspect the outcomes. The review is timeboxed to four hours for a one-month sprint, and shorter sprints usually have a shorter review timebox.

Sprint retrospectives: In the retrospective, teammates discuss ways to increase quality and effectiveness by inspecting the way they were working and collaborating in the previous sprint. Retrospectives are timeboxed to three hours for a one-month sprint, with shorter sprints having a shorter retrospective timebox.

What Are the Benefits of Timeboxing in Scrum?

Supports Focus

Timeboxing helps a scrum team focus. With only a limited amount of time to complete an event like sprint planning, diversions and detours become less valuable than concentrating on the desired outcomes of their collaboration. 

Provide Value Over Chasing Perfection

By limiting time, scrum teams can focus on their delivery of continuous value. With limited time, teams will focus on valuable and usable outcomes that meet their definition of done instead of chasing perfectionism and making changes to finished work that are outside of scope.

Protects Time 

Timeboxing protects time available for collaboration and progress toward the product goal. Scrum teams are thus able to focus more on their interactions and work and less on administrative meetings, processes, and documentation. 

Creates Predictability

Timeboxing also makes scrum events predictable in their time demands. Traditional meetings can balloon outside their original scheduled length. Scrum team members can rely on a maximum amount of time, which makes events reliable and predictable.

Purposeful Events, Not Endless Meetings

Finally, the very existence of timeboxing undermines a criticism sometimes leveled at scrum: “It has too many meetings.” In fact, each event has a purpose and is limited in time. The events of scrum are opportunities for transparency, inspection, and adaptation — without these three pillars, the empiricism of scrum doesn’t exist. Thus the events are crucial but also timeboxed to prevent wasting time, effort, and brain power.

Timeboxing vs. Time Management

Timeboxing can be thought of as a type of time management that focuses on goals and outcomes over blocking time to spend on certain tasks.

People sometimes confuse timeboxing with time budgeting, because they're similar. However, If you "budget" an hour for a meeting, you're likely to spend that entire budget. However, with a timebox, you know the event must fit into the box, but doesn't need to fill it. If an event can be successfully completed in less time than boxed for it, the team is empowered to end before the timebox is up. 

What if the Timeboxes Are Too Short?

Imagine your scrum team finds themselves exceeding timeboxes over and over again. What should you do?

One approach is to have a conversation. The retrospective event is a great opportunity to discuss what is contributing to the exceeded timeboxes. Are there similar reasons each time the event or activity runs long? For example:

  • Conversations spill outside the main focus area
  • The timeboxes don’t seem to allow enough time for all participants or all of the work that needs to get done to achieve the goal
  • There are too many goals for a single timeboxed event or activity

In most cases, the scrum team can work together to resolve the issue without having to change the timebox itself. The scrum master on the team can coach the team to identify the root cause and then collaborate to address it.

Timeboxing Is an Essential Part of the Scrum Framework

Timeboxing is a fixed, maximum time that can be spent on an event or activity. It encourages focus, effectiveness, and predictability. Timeboxing helps scrum teams protect their time for collaboration and progress toward the product goal. 

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