“Our Scrum Is Special”
Essential Steps in Implementing Agile Technologies
“The Agile movement seeks alternatives to traditional project management. Agile approaches help teams respond to unpredictability through incremental, iterative work cadences and empirical feedback. Agilists propose alternatives to waterfall, or traditional sequential development.” —AgileMethodology.org
“Scrum is an agile software development model based on multiple small teams working in an intensive and interdependent manner. The term is named for the scrum (or scrummage) formation in rugby, which is used to restart the game after an event that causes play to stop, such as an infringement.” —TechTarget.com
When clients ask me to help with implementation of agile techniques by using Scrum, my first question is: “What do you mean by ‘Scrum’?” Usually, I then hear that the company has its own special version of Scrum (or other agile technique) because, according to the people with whom I’m meeting, their company is a special case.
First, yes, your company is a special case. Each company is unique and in a special market niche. Second, if you followed the evolutionary approach of improvements in small increments, you have adapted your process to the environment of the company. No two companies are alike. Hence your need for an external consultant to examine the special conditions in your company.
Introducing (and running) Scrum means that you want to change your company according to proven methods. You can’t have your cake (Scrum) and eat it, too (changing Scrum to suit your company)—you can’t improve your company by adapting the Scrum process to your company.
As a consequence, the reality I see all too often is that the company hires a Scrum Master who merely acts as a supporting firefighter, accompanying the former project manager (now “product owner”) and running around the company putting out fires. This kind of extra resource is justified to upper management by pointing to “agile” and its use in other companies…
Looking at the actual causes of problems
One of the techniques in project management is to find the cause of an issue. Digging deeper, my next set of questions to the client usually focuses on the greater picture or vision of the company. Instead of telling me about their mission, they typically respond that they want to “test” agile and then implement it in other parts of the company.
Besides the obvious misunderstanding of agile as the new (local!) management technique, other questions arise: What is a success? What is a failure? What are the concrete, measurable business objectives of the project of introducing agile?
I am convinced that introducing agile itself should be managed with modern project management techniques, PMBOK being my favorite. Managing agile goes far beyond the scope of this article, but you certainly must have an idea about where you are going with it and what you want to achieve.
To illustrate this further, I recommend reading Ayn Rand’s introduction to philosophy that looks at the example of an astronaut stranded on a planet:
Suppose that you are an astronaut whose spaceship loses control and crashes on an unknown planet. When you regain consciousness and find that you are not badly hurt, the first three questions on your mind would be: Where am I? How can I find out? What should I do?
You see unfamiliar vegetation outside, and there is air to breathe; the sunlight seems paler than you remember it and colder. You turn to look at the sky, but stop. You are struck by a sudden feeling: if you don’t look, you won’t have to know that you are, perhaps, too far from Earth and no return is possible. So long as you don’t know it, you are free to believe what you wish—and you experience a foggy, pleasant, but somehow guilty, kind of hope.
You turn to your instruments: they may be damaged, you don’t know how seriously. But you stop, struck by a sudden fear: how can you trust these instruments? How can you be sure that they won’t mislead you? How can you know whether they will work in a different world? You turn away from the instruments.
Now you begin to wonder why you have no desire to do anything. It seems so much safer just to wait for something to turn up somehow; it is better, you tell yourself, not to rock the spaceship. Far in the distance, you see some sort of living creatures approaching; you don’t know whether they are human, but they walk on two feet. They, you decide, will tell you what to do.
You are never heard from again.
This is fantasy, you say? You would not act like that and no astronaut ever would? Perhaps not. But this is the way most men live their lives, here, on Earth.
Ayn Rand, Address to the Graduating Class of the United States Military Academy at West Point New York — March 6, 1974 (adapted)
In terms of a company, your immediate goal is of course to survive the next month. But then, you have to establish where you are on the map. You have to open your eyes, look at the sky, and check your instruments.
In terms of agile, I recommend to my clients that they run it like a project. We know what works from hundreds of studies, and we can create a list of items that are implemented in Scrum. In that list, we simply mark the current state of the process. Often, even in non-agile companies, some processes have already been implemented because the people who are managing projects notice which ones work. A simple approach is to use the list from http://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html:
- Welcome changing requirements.
- Trust and motivate individuals on your team and other teams in the company.
- Developers and non-developers (e.g., marketers, salespeople) must work together daily.
- Face-to-face is the most efficient and effective method of getting things done.
- Progress is measured in terms of working software.
- The entire team must promote sustainable development.
- The entire team must work together to continuously improve technical excellence and to enhance agility.
- Keep in mind that simplicity is valuable; simplicity is the art of maximizing the amount of work not done.
- The best solutions emerge from self-organizing teams.
- Effective teams reflect regularly on how to become more effective.
- An agile company satisfies customers through early, frequent, and continuous delivery.
Together with the client, for each point, I detail how this is implemented in the company—this is the first step of documenting the current process. If I can’t explain how it is implemented or if we find that it is not implemented, I focus on those points and try to find explanations for each: why the company is not able or not willing to fulfill this part of the agile process. And I do not just ask, “Why?” I ask, “Why why why why why…?” until I find out the actual reasons something has not been implemented (see
And at this point, the real work starts: addressing those issues that hinder the agile process on a daily basis.