Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Brother-in-Law Says Scrum Doesn't Work

The question inevitably comes up at my internal, or more often, at my public Scrum classes. "Does this really work? My brother-in-law worked over that Barf-o Software, and it was all messed up over there."

Deciding whether Scrum, or any other agile methodology, really works based solely or your or someone else's personal experience is anecdotal. It's the person who doesn't want kids because his brother's kids are out-of-control mini monsters, or doesn't like wiener dogs because one bit him when he was seven. For me, it was football. I didn't play because my brother said the coaches were mean to him when he was in 7th grade. I finally tried out my senior year and loved it. And the coaches weren't mean to me. Well, not very. I did have to run extra laps for talking to David Stewart when coach was talking to us.

Scrum works (better in some in contexts than others), but when it's going poorly, it's often because of 1) people doing Scrum wrong, 2) bad company culture, or 3) difficult team and project structure.

I've seen ScrumMasters (the role that should know Scrum the best, and therefore educating others) let the daily 15 minute Scrum go over 45 minutes, do planning poker estimating for each person's task for every story in the sprint, post a formula that showed the ratio of story points to developer and QA (it was 1 and .5, just so we all finally have the answer to that secret recipe), tell the team what their tasks would be, make every decision, lie to the team (FYI - that's bad), and more. Of course, this has an impact on the team. They don't do as well as the could, maybe even poorly. But that doesn't mean Scrum doesn't work. It means the ScrumMaster isn't doing it right. And worse, the team isn't owning the principle of continuous improve to work through these, and other, issues and get past them.

Secondly, bad company culture will make Scrum, and any other process, go poorly. Management that sets unrealistic deadlines on a project with fixed scope without asking the team for estimates will be bad for the team whether they do Scrum or traditional waterfall (although it won't be as bad with Scrum because at least you can tell management within two weeks that it looks like it's not all going to get done when they asked for it). Project managers who let every new change or request pass right through to the team without asking good questions or request priority or feature trade-offs when new, valid  needs are discovered will cause problems on any type of project. Some company cultures simply don't value the project teams, but hold to Theory X and see them solely as resources who need the whip cracked in order to get results. These executives will try Scrum because they hear it will get more results faster. But when they find out that these improvements (and others) come in part through self-organized and self-managing teams (who expect to be supported and empowered), senior management won't let go and trust, but instead tries to implement the Scrum practices without the Scrum and agile values. The results are predictably bad (and the teams upset, too boot).

Last, Scrum works best with cross-functional teams of people sitting together, and preferably kept together long term and fed different project. Once, a ScrumMaster was saying he felt his team wasn't gelling and collaborating well together. It turned out that every one of his team members lived in a different country. In Scrum, we work better and more efficiently in part because we move away from our functional team silos and heavier-than-needed process and towards individuals and interactions (just simply talking to each other more in order to solve problems and get stuff done). If you don't have that, it won't work as well. And that's not Scrum, that's your organizational structure. I've seem team members on a team matrixed on 17 different projects. How effective can you be, really, with 10% of your time on a given project? On paper, with some resourcing tool splitting everyone's time up, the math deceptively looks good. But in reality, ramping up and down daily on different projects and activities thrashes productivity. That's not a Scrum problem, that's someone somewhere not wanting to prioritize and say, "Really, these three initiatives are the most important. The other 14 will have to wait."

These, and other, challenges are some of the problems covered in the Certified ScrumMaster class. Scrum doesn't solve these people or culture problems for you. It simply makes the problems you have clear, and gives you great tools to show, if you change, how good things can be right away.


mozrat said...

Great article, thanks Scott.

One thing stuck with me from the ScrumMaster course you ran for us a month or so ago.

"Scrum amplifies organisational dysfunctions" - it's very true.

Scott Dunn said...

Thanks, Mozrat, for the comment. One thing I like about the Scrum framework is that, as hard as Scrum can be to implement, you quickly get to see how a company can respond to real change.

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