23Aug2011
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What is the true value of Scrum?

Regarding the degree to which a project may succeed or fail, I often question what role the choice of implementing Scrum has on the final outcome.  Made even more disturbing is a trend to accept the accolades for Scrum that shows massive gains in productivity, while also claiming that failed projects implementing Scrum are not following the core concepts and principles properly.  In reality, I believe that a complex string of decisions, both small and large, that take place prior to the inception of the project through the final iteration influence more heavily on the outcome than any single choice regarding development methodology.  I would propose that success, however you might want to define it, centers primarily on the core skill of informed decision making and how well those decisions align with the best interests of the project, team or company.  In this context, the decision of implementing and following Scrum sets the company down one path, in a world of infinite possible paths, that singular decision cannot be considered more important in the greater context of the entire string than any decisions made before of after that point.  In mathematical models, there exists an infinite set of possible paths to a set of outcomes.  Focusing on what determines that path and analyzing why perhaps might be more productive than focusing on a single decision point.

Determining what decisions will ultimately be in the best interest of a project is much like determining up-front requirements, it leaves much to be desired by way of consistency, accuracy and is highly prone to error.  With Scrum, we embrace this uncertainty and it can be leveraged only within those organizations capable of rapidly processing information and then properly making more good decisions than bad based on that informed condition.  Companies and teams not following Scrum may succeed, while companies following Scrum properly may fail, all due to the quality of the decision making skills of those in key positions.  In Scrum, we decentralize some of the decisions and mitigate risk by using the collective intelligence inherent within groups, as opposed to the singular vision and direction of an autocratic manager.  However, given the skills of the autocrat vs. the skills of the team members individually (and thus averaged collectively), the process or framework may play a secondary role in determining success.

Some of the primary factors that might contribute to effective decision making are:

  1. The quality of the information being presented. (Quality)
  2. The value placed on the source of the information by the decision maker(s). (Source)
  3. The history of the decision maker(s) in applying lessons learned and personal experience to the decision. (History)
  4. The timeliness of the information. (Actionable Nature)

In digesting the first factor, the quality of the information, this directly relates to form and presentation as well as the “perceived quality”, which relates to point #2, the source.  If someone’s opinions and advice are not valued, the perceived quality of the information is therefor suspect.  The second point directly relates to the impression and reputation the source has within the organization.  People who constantly find ways to complain and criticize without suggestion for improvement fall victim to the “complainer” model.  In that, the perception of that person is aligned with that mental model.  Now consider someone who’s opinion is highly valued, speaks rarely on critical issues but everyone knows that when this person talks, people should take note.  The problem is that within the Scrum team, we do not want to solely have the “wise sage” nor the “complainer”, we instead want to build teams capable of communicating effectively on issues that run the spectrum from trivial to business critical.  We allow the proper digestion and action based on that information to happen through our standard ceremonies, not the least of which is our daily standup and scrum or scrums meeting.  Now, some teams not following Scrum might not have the “complainer” and might be made up with a collection of more effective communicators that help address the stream of daily challenges while they also contain the one or two “wise sages” that offer a guiding hand.  If these teams work well, communicate and leverage their collective strengths, their decision on what development method to follow seems to be less critical, since Scrum is rooted on the effectiveness of human interaction and appropriate action, including the accumulation of knowledge on which to base better decisions.

Consider other contributing factors, such as sales and marketing strategy, operating income, organizational dynamics and even the hiring practices of management.  All of these having nothing to do with how well a team implements or executes a project using Scrum.  I am personally interested in how the hiring practices within technology teams serve to confirm any existing bias and preference by the hiring manager.  When considering team dynamics, a collection of  like-minds negates some of the benefits we like to see by using Scrum, or other efforts that leverage the wisdom of competing experiences and viewpoints.

This is not to say that Scrum is not a critical tool that cannot be leveraged to great benefit.  Scrum, from my experience, works best in organizations that contain an openness to new ideas, that is looking for a change based on poorly performing teams and projects and thus is motivated to change, and finally within companies that can align a group of talented decision makers (aka Product Owners) with a diverse team that is looking to own the “how” of the project and are willing to engage in a set of practices that allow for rapid information sharing across an organization so that effective decision makers can be leveraged.

As someone that has dedicated a large portion of his career to training and coaching teams on Agile practices and adherence to Scrum, this set of concepts is what I drive home the most with new clients.  I can ensure that with a properly trained and motivated technical team, combined with high quality decision makers that can respond quickly to emergent needs and carry a consistent vision for their product, the possibilities of project failure are reduced, but not eliminated.  The rest is up to the market demand for the product and the continuing financial viability of the company, as well as the hiring practices of the company and primarily by the corporate culture.

We should focus on what Scrum can do for us and why, what the conditions need to be to leverage those benefits fully and not fall victim to idol worship for a set of concepts that are simply tools, nothing more and nothing less.  We can act as a skilled craftsman, using these tools to build masterpieces or we can act as a novice apprentice, the choice is up to us and no amount of hype or worship makes a skilled craftsman, only time, experience and an alignment of our talent with the demand of our work product will see us through.

What do you think is the true value we should place on Scrum in determining project outcomes and why?

About the Author

Matthew Summers has over 12 years of experience working with Agile teams, leveraging Scrum, TDD and XP practices to build better software. He takes a hands-on mentoring approach with his teams, from initial Scrum Training, to conducting Agile Workshops and educating Product Owners and Stakeholders during enterprise Agile transitions.

Visit this author's website   ·   View more posts by Matthew Summers

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