Scrum done wrong

Scrum done wrong #

“Agile and Lean have a single purpose: to continually challenge the status quo. If you’re not doing that, you’re probably an impediment to it.”

Judging from the way some people become overly careful when discussing agile in general and Scrum in particular in my presence I seem to slowly have built up a reputation for being a strong proponent of these methods. Given the large number of flaky implementations as well as misunderstandings it seems to have become fashionable to blame Scrum for all badness and dismiss it altogether - up to the point where developers are proud to finally having abandoned Scrum completely - so that now they

  • can work in iterations,
  • accept new tasks only for upcoming but not for the current iteration,
  • develop in a test-driven way,
  • have daily sync meetings,
  • mark tasks done only when they are delivered to and accepted by the customer,
  • have regular “how to improve our work” meetings,
  • estimate tasks in story points and only plan for as much work per iteration as was done in the past iteration

… my personal take on that: Add in regular releases and you end up with a pretty decent scrum/agile implementation, no matter what your preferred name for it may be. Just for clarification: Though very often I write about what I call Scrum, I don’t use that particular method just because it is the latest fashion. It simply is a tool that has served me well on multiple occasions and given me working guidelines when I had no idea at all what software development in a professional setting should look like.

So where does all that friction with anything Scrum, agile, lean or whatever you call it come from? Recently I came across a blog post that nicely identified some grave issues with current Scrum adoption. Unfortunately the blog post only lists the failures without going into a deeper analysis of the actual defects causing those failures.

First of all, lets assume as working hypothesis that Scrum in itself does not solve any issues in your organisation but is a great tool to uncover deficiencies. The natural conclusion should be to use it as a tool to discover problems, but search for solutions for these problems elsewhere.

With that hypothesis, lets discern the the issues discussed in the post above and assign them to one of three defect categories.

Category one: Issues with the team

Problem: You have a team of all-junior developers, or of all-mediocre developers.

Goal: Turn them into a high performing team.

Solution: Imagine you were not using Scrum at all, what would be the ideal solution? Well the obvious route probably is to re-adjust the team, add several seniors so that you end up with the right mix of people that have experience and share a vision - juniors than can learn and adapt what works from them.

Comparing that to our hypothesis: Scrum is all for short delivery cycles. You will uncover teams that perform badly much faster than in methods with longer iteration periods. So it should be reasonably simple to figure out teams that have a dysfunctional configuration. Changing that configuration however no longer is dictated by Scrum.

Category two: Bugs introduced during Scrum roll-out

The failures discussed in the blog post include people following Scrum mechanically: Only because your developers are moving post-it notes from left to right does not mean they are doing anything agile. It’s perfectly possible to do waterfall in Scrum. Whether that helps solve any of your issues is a different matter.

Instead of mechanically going through the process what is more important is to understand the reasons and goals of each of the pieces that form Scrum. To make a rather far fetched comparison:

When introducing Scrum without a deep understanding of why each piece is done, what you end up with is people following that process without understanding the meaning of each step. They end up mimicking behaviour without knowing the real world: To some extend seeing only the shadows of good development patterns without understanding the real items producing these shadows.

As a general rule: Understand why there is a retrospective meeting, remember why you need estimations, think about why there are daily stand-ups (instead of weekly meetings, instead of daily sit-togethers, instead of hourly stand-ups). Figure out why there is a product owner, what the role of a scrum master does. Pro-Tip: As soon as you really have understood Scrum, you don’t need a checklist of all meetings to hold for a successful iteration - they will just fit in naturally. If they don’t, you are probably missing an important piece of the puzzle - rather than rely on a pre-fabricated checklist, go bug your trainer or coach with questions to better understand the purpose of all the different bits and pieces.

One very grave bug on roll-out is the general believe that Scrum is equal to a little bit of fairy dust you spread over your teams and all problems will automatically be solved afterwards. It is not - it’s not a silver bullet, it’s not fairy dust, it’s no magic - such things exist in fairy tales but have been seen nowhere in the real world. According to our working hypothesis above however Scrum does something really magical: By shortening delivery cycles it introduces short feedback loops which make it very easy to uncover problems in your organisation way faster than people are able to cover them up and hide them. Finding a solution on the other hand is still up to you.

The last roll-out issue mentioned is that of crappy certification - current certification programs are designed such that the naive organisation may believe that after two days of training their employers will magically turn into super heroes. Guess what - as with any certification training is just the very first step. Actual understanding comes with experience. Compare that to learning to drive: Only because you managed to get a drivers license does not turn you into a formula one winner. Instead that requires a whole lot of training. Same applies for any Scrum Master or Product Owner.

Category three: Organisation specifics

All other issues with Scrum mentioned in the blog post are either specific to the broken structures in the organisation under investigation or due to general Scrum mis-conceptions. Leaving these aside here.

To sum up: Scrum to me is nothing but a term to summarize good, proven development practices. I don’t care how you name them - however having any one name that is well defined makes it way easier to communicate. Scrum is not silver bullet - it does not solve all the issues your organisation may have. However it is a very effective debugger uncovering the issues employees and managers are trying to cover up. If you know all those issues very precisely already or you are certain that you don't have any, chances are you don't need Scrum.