Tag Archives: scrum

Scrum and the Illusion of Progress

Agile is everywhere. Sprints are everywhere. Freshly trained Scrum practitioners and established devotees in the guise of Scrum Masters beat the drum of backlog grooming sessions and planning poker and demos and retros. 

They are very busy, and provide the blissful illusion of progress.

(Full disclosure: I am a Sprint Grinch, and my heart will not grow three sizes, or even one… on any day.)

Despite the mirage of progress, the people on the front lines doing the engineering work feel little relief from the ill logic and misplaced pressure of the pointy haired bosses. The managers aren’t getting the deliverables faster (like they convinced themselves they would). There are tons of charts and graphs that tell us how we’re doing (like burndowns) but now the CFO is using them to whip our horses just a little bit harder, trying to get them to go faster. They’re not going fast enough. (Spoiler: They will never go fast enough.)

And isn’t that what Agile is supposed to do… speed things up? NO!

Once upon a time, we used to build software like we built skyscrapers: plan every single task, put in on a Gantt chart, and make sure there are approval gates between every phase of work: elicit requirements, design the systems, write code, test it, deploy it, maintain it.

But a couple of big, bad things tended to happen over and over: 

  • By the time we got to “test and deploy” we’d discover that the thing we built was not what the users and stakeholders actually needed. (“But it’s exactly what you asked for in the requirements,” we’d say, “and you approved it at multiple decision points.” “Sure,” they would say, “but we learned a lot in the meantime, and things are different now. You just built us what we thought we needed six months ago.”)
  • The software developers would build something that the operations team, responsible for standing it up and maintaining it, wouldn’t be able to support at the intended service levels. (“You can’t expect us to maintain this,” they’d say. “It’s fragile.”)

Agile practices emerged more than two decades ago when engineers said… hold it, there’s got to be a better way. If we work collaboratively with our users and stakeholders, learning together, figuring out how to realize value together… then we’ll produce something that real people are able to get value from much faster. We need control over our process, and we need you to be actively engaged, business people. We can eliminate all these handoffs, and replace them with shared accountability.

The two solutions were: 

  • Agile: We said “let’s take a more collaborative approach to development, and get the users and stakeholders together with the engineers, so they can all learn and co-create together until they’ve produced the next nugget of value.” 
  • DevOps: Instead of two groups siloed from each other, let’s automate the handoff and make it seamless, and give the developers tools that will alert them when they’ve got to fix more stuff. If tests automatically run before the code is merged into production, we’ll always know that we’re deploying stuff that runs. (I’m pretty sure everyone agreed this was a good idea.)

Agile is a great aspiration. But how often have you ever seen the users and stakeholders sharing space, sharing accountability, sharing the process of creating value? Not often. They still coordinate through user stories, and tickets, and handoffs, and PRs. 

Agile speeds up value delivery, but not necessarily software delivery. Having daily stand-ups and burndown charts and JIRA tickets won’t make people code faster. But it will make managers think they should be coding faster, and that’s where the poison will settle in and grow.

Bottom line, my position statement is:

  1. Any (minimalist) process is better than no process.
  2. Agility is an essential goal, but Scrum and certified Agile practitioners are less likely to get you there.
  3. Go back to first principles: plan an iteration, co-create value, see where it got you and reassess your ability to reach your goal, then adjust. Keep experimenting.

Would I ever use Scrum? Sure, under specific conditions:

  • There’s something we have to build, and we’ve never built it before.
  • The road ahead is unknown.
  • We have access to collaborators who can help us see what’s needed.
  • We agree to intentional checkpoints where we can see how far we got, and whether we can still get to the place we’d originally intended.
  • We iterate, and iterate, until we agree we’ve incrementally added enough total value nuggets to move to the next project.
  • There are no well-meaning-but-not-helpful engineering managers or business managers hovering over the development team with bated breath, waiting to beat us with burndowns. The dev team can manage itself.

Agility is a laudable – and essential – goal. But only in rare cases do I believe Agile and Scrum will get you there.

Agile vs. Lean: Explained by Cats

Over the past few years, Agile has gained popularity. This methodology emerged as a solution to manage projects with a number of unknown elements and to counter the typical waterfall method. Quality practitioners have observed the numerous similarities between this new framework and Lean. Some have speculated that Agile is simply the next generation’s version of Lean. These observations have posed the question: Is Agile the new Lean?  

ASQ Influential Voices Roundtable for December 2019

The short answer to this question is: NO.

The longer answer is one I’m going to have to hold back some emotions to answer. Why? I have two reasons.

Reason #1: There is No Magic Bullet

First, many managers are on a quest for the silver bullet — a methodology or a tool that they can implement on Monday, and reap benefits no later than Friday. Neither lean nor agile can make this happen. But it’s not uncommon to see organizations try this approach. A workgroup will set up a Kanban board or start doing daily stand-up meetings, and then talk about how they’re “doing agile.” Now that agile is in place, these teams have no reason to go any further.

Reason #2: There is Nothing New Under the Sun

Neither approach is “new” and neither is going away. Lean principles have been around since Toyota pioneered its production system in the 1960s and 1970s. The methods prioritized value and flow, with attention to reducing all types of waste everywhere in the organization. Agile emerged in the 1990s for software development, as a response to waterfall methods that couldn’t respond effectively to changes in customer requirements.

Agile modeling uses some lean principles: for example, why spend hours documenting flow charts in Visio, when you can just write one on a whiteboard, take a photo, and paste it into your documentation? Agile doesn’t have to be perfectly lean, though. It’s acceptable to introduce elements that might seem like waste into processes, as long as you maintain your ability to quickly respond to new information and changes required by customers. (For example, maybe you need to touch base with your customers several times a week. This extra time and effort is OK in agile if it helps you achieve your customer-facing goals.)

Both lean and agile are practices. They require discipline, time, and monitoring. Teams must continually hone their practice, and learn about each other as they learn together. There are no magic bullets.

Information plays a key role. Effective flow of information from strategy to action is important for lean because confusion (or incomplete communication) are forms of waste. Agile also emphasizes high-value information flows, but for slightly different purposes — that include promoting:

  • Rapid understanding
  • Rapid response
  • Rapid, targeted, and effective action

The difference is easier to understand if you watch a couple cat videos.

This Cat is A G I L E

From Parkour Cats: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCEL-DmxaAQ

This cat is continuously scanning for information about its environment. It’s young and in shape, and it navigates its environment like a pro, whizzing from floor to ceiling. If it’s about to fall off something? No problem! This cat is A G I L E and can quickly adjust. It can easily achieve its goal of scaling any of the cat towers in this video. Agile is also about trying new things to quickly assess whether they will work. You’ll see this cat attempt to climb the wall with an open mind, and upon learning the ineffectiveness of the approach, abandoning that experiment.

This Cat is L E A N

From “How Lazy Cats Drink Water”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlVo3yUNI6E

This cat is using as LITTLE energy as possible to achieve its goal of hydration. Although this cat might be considered lazy, it is actually very intelligent, dynamically figuring out how to remove non-value-adding activity from its process at every moment. This cat is working smarter, not harder. This cat is L E A N.

Hope this has been helpful. Business posts definitely need more cat videos.