Monday 17 November 2008

Defending Scrum

Recently Scrum has been taking a bit of a battering in the wider community, being made to take responsibility for some of the perceived failings of Agile. Under particular attack has been the scrum based certifications which are seen to churn out 'experts' on the basis of short courses. But who then in many cases lack the necessary expertise, of which experience is an important constituent, to actually make Scrum work. This is a view that I have much sympathy with, but I guess I distinguish between Scrum the methodology and Scrum the business and so am not required to hold the methodology to account for its', damn near literal, selling out by the associated business(es). That said, it was refreshing today then to read a defence of agile, and scrum in particular, on Robert C. Martin's 'Uncle Bob' blog.

I find myself in agreement with Uncle Bob's sentiment and arguments. The thing that I find a little surprising is the implication that teams can adopt XP or Scrum, maybe I have misread. Personally I have always thought of Scrum as a kind of management wrapper that works very well when surrounding XP practices. Another interesting post I read today was by Jeremy Miller.

I agree with most of what Jeremy has to say, and for me it comes back to the twelve agile principles ( If we as a development team lack the discipline to ensure that each of these twelve principles are adhered to then we invite issues of the sort that Scrum's accusers make reference. Scrum provides a framework that I find makes the introduction of Agile into an organisation easier. It is not the endpoint to my mind, as always there is a maturation process and with the right people, and good use of retrospectives, the teams practices may evolve out of the strictures of Scrum and into something different. What it does do though is provide some initial norms that the team can work to. In a project I am managing at work we have brought together a number of contractors, all highly skilled and some with excellent agile experience, to develop some software where the need to 'provide early and continuous delivery of valuable software' could not be greater. Scrum, I find, accelerates the process through Tuckman's four stages of team development, enabling the team to reach the stages of norming and performing far more quickly that they might were they to have to deal with project management issues during the forming and storming phases. Quite frankly, given the timescales, it is quite enough that they come to a sense of group ownership of the architecture, design and requirements, I am more than happy to begin with a Scrum based imposition of how the team will work, and allow them through retrospectives (starting after at least a couple of sprints) to begin with debating, and incorporating, improvements. This to me parallels closely the idea from the 5-S model that Shitsuke only begins once the initial 4 S's have been established.

This parallel with the 5S's brings me to Lean. Something that I've not been able to entirely figure out yet is the way that Scrum seems to be set off against Lean so much at the moment. If I look at the 5-S model for example I struggle to see how these would not be carried into a successful Scrum implementation. Perhaps it is because a lot of the Scrum material typically focuses on the project management, but the requirement for every feature developed to be of quality (even if deciding on quality can be left to the team) is still there. If quality becomes a relative concept where it can be 'good enough' then this is up to the team. If the team is committed to agile then the hope would be that there definition of quality includes the principle that 'Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.' Kanban were introduced to me whilst I was working at Immediacy and have been an essential in my Scrum toolkit since, Scrum in its essence seems to me to be as much about promoting visibility as anything else and Kanban are an excellent way of achieving this. Like I would imagine any agile system to be, Scrum is centred around a Pull system vision where the software developed is closely driven by its end users. The system is also a self-Pull system where the team pulls in detail and direction as required, pulls in the removal of impediments or resources where required.

In all of these respects and many more Scrum provides an COTS for Agile teams, where the customisations may lead to the team no longer doing 'Scrum' in the strictest sense, it may be a more open 'Lean' style where sprints are not timeboxed for example. At least some of the roots of Scrum (at the least its' name) are in the work of Nonaka and Takeuchi, as well as in the Agile software movement, and their text 'The Knowledge Creating Company' is one that I keep close as a constant source of interest. This text with its' examinations of companies such as Honda, Canon and Matsushita provides valuable insights into the practices of management in Japanese companies which typically come under the banner of 'Lean'. As a point in case, let us again return to the 5-S model which was first developed by Canon (Japanese Management Association, 1987) who were studied by Nonaka and Takeuchi, who in turn provided, at the least, inspiration to Ken Schwaber. A tenuous link perhaps, but one that perhaps makes it less surprising that this model fits so well with Scrum. The common ancestry, commonality of practice, shared principles, and current open warfare between Lean and Scrum always put me in mind that often the intra-denominational arguments can be at least as fierce as extra-denominational ones.

As a final thought, when in his post James Shore states that 'when people say "Agile," they usually mean Scrum' I am left wondering if this is true. A great many people (particularly in project management and related capacities) who I deal with know little of Scrum, and many have not heard of it. They are as likely to think of Agile Unified Processes or DSDM, and in many cases are so imbued with Waterfallesque thinking that they apply Scrum as a label to their clearly non-Agile UP practices. Agile is not something that they currently grok. Whilst I think it is true that Scrum has gained a very real momentum, in no small part due to the business that promotes it and certifies some of its' practitioners, I do not think that this is in any way a bad thing despite this. As Scrum implementations fail some will no doubt use it as an excuse to write it, and possible Agile with it, off. To my mind such people are unlikely to be successful whatever they do, harsh perhaps, but not reflexively analysing and learning from failures is a sure way to stunt professional growth and progression (and probably a reason for a failure to make Scrum work). If, however, good professionals (and this is the vast majority of those whom I have been privileged to work with) reflexively analyse the reasons for a perceived failure of Scrum then in many cases I suspect they will see the problem as not being with the methodology, but rather with its' interpretation and implementation in their context. With the adoption of methods not compatible with it, and with the failure to adopt methods required by it, in short the failure to work in the Scrum way.

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