Is There Life Beyond Scrum?

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When Scrum was first defined, it addressed a number of issues that plagued IT organizations of the 1980s. Functional silos and their key side-effect, cross-team dependencies. Lack of clear communication. Extended lead times. Poor alignment of solutions with needs. High defect rates. More.

To this day, Scrum continues to be a valuable tool for teams and organizations that are operating in a traditional way, or that have achieved a certain level of basic proficiency with lightweight methods based on Lean and Agile thinking. As with any tool, Scrum is useful in situations where its characteristics are helpful, and when it’s applied mindfully and appropriately.

Scrum has helped, and continues to help many organizations get started on their Lean/Agile journey. It’s still an appropriate choice in many situations. There’s nothing wrong with it. At LeadingAgile, we use, recommend, teach, and coach Scrum quite a lot. It doesn’t fit every situation, but where it does fit, it fits very well indeed.

The Scrum cult

Scrum has been phenomenally successful. It may be the single most widely-used method for delivering software solutions, with the possible exception of the venerable and popular Random Method, and the widely-used Random software engineering technique, Copy-and-Paste-from-StackOverflow. But Scrum’s success has led to a curious phenomenon: A sort of Scrum cult has emerged. Scrum is All Things Good. Scrum is The Answer. Scrum is the End Game. There is nothing more beyond Scrum.

When you ask a Scrum cultist where a team or organization might go after Scrum, they look at you as if they can’t process the question. It’s as if you asked a Christian where you go after you’ve died, gone to heaven, and died in heaven. They look at you quizzically, because in their worldview there’s nothing beyond heaven; it’s the “end state.” You don’t “die in heaven.” They can’t process the question. Scrum cultists have the same mentality regarding Scrum. There’s nothing beyond Scrum; it’s the “end state.”

Continual improvement

But to a person who has internalized the idea of continual improvement, there is no end state. Continual improvement is like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or maybe a really hard video game, in which conquering one level leads to another level. Or you could say it’s like attending school. When we graduate pre-school, we become beginners in elementary school. When we graduate elementary school, we become beginners in middle school. When we graduate middle school, we become beginners in high school. When we graduate high school, we become beginners at university.

When we graduate university, we become beginners in a Masters program or in the work force. As we progress through our careers, we reach numerous milestones in our professional growth, but we never reach a permanent end state. We become beginners again and again, at different levels.

One more metaphor

I sometimes liken Scrum to Forrest Gump’s braces. In the movie, Forrest Gump, the title character wears braces on his legs as a child. He needs the braces to stand and walk. Then the day comes when he’s ready to run. At that stage, the braces are a hindrance. In the film, the title character starts to run, and the braces begin to break apart. Piece by piece, they fall away, leaving his legs free to carry him smoothly.

As an Expedition progresses through the LeadingAgile Basecamps on its Agile journey, it requires guidance and structure appropriate to its level of proficiency with lightweight methods; its ability to apply Lean and Agile thinking in practice. Teams in the Expedition that are burning down a backlog of planned features can benefit greatly from Scum when they are in the early stages of learning Agile. You could say that Scrum helps these teams learn to stand and walk. It adds value at least through Basecamp 3, and possibly further.

What we really want to see is Expeditions, and whole organizations, start to run. When they reach the stage that they’re ready to run, Scrum can be the same kind of hindrance as Forrest’s braces. Scrum practices can fall away naturally as teams learn to achieve the same goals with less ceremony. If we don’t allow the braces to fall away, we’re impeding the teams’ ability to progress.

Scrum practices can fall away naturally as teams learn to achieve the same goals with less ceremony

Cult? What cult? I don’t see no cult!

You may disagree that there’s any such thing as a Scrum cult. Disagreement is okay. But if the observation is valid, then what might have caused the emergence of a cult around Scrum?

I’ll make the personal observation that the vast majority of Scrum (and Agile) coaches have never seen or experienced what can happen once an organization truly internalizes Lean and Agile values and moves beyond the novice level with these approaches. Most coaches introduce novice practitioners to the basics of Lean and Agile (and Scrum), and then move on to another client where they introduce the basics again.

And again and again and again.

The best organizations and the best teams they ever see are those that have managed to achieve a reasonably good level of proficiency with basic, by-the-book Scrum (or some sort of Scrum-like hybrid).

But that’s not the “end state.” There’s more.

Value and overhead

A key concept in the Lean school of thought is customer-defined value. Time spent in activities that directly add customer-defined value to a product is deemed “value add time.” All other time is deemed “non-value add time.”

The distinction is often misunderstood, as it differs from conventional thinking about value. Conventionally, we consider anything that helps us deliver value to customers to be useful and possibly necessary. Things that are useful and/or necessary to get the job done surely are valuable, right? Sure, in the casual sense of the English word, “valuable.”

Consider a financial institution that offers services to customers. All services must comply with government regulations designed to protect consumers and the national economy from errors and unethical actions that might do harm. Conventional thinking tells us the things we do to assure compliance are valuable. We may well invest additional time and effort in compliance activities just to be really sure we’re doing it well.

When we look at the same situation through a Lean lens, we perceive that customers are willing to pay for certain services. They have a baseline expectation that their transactions will be accurate, ethical, and safe, but they don’t think about those things as part of what they’re paying for. They only intend to pay for the service they want. The time we spend in maximizing the direct value of those services is value add time, and the time we spend to support necessary overhead items such as compliance is non-value add time. We may well invest some effort in seeking ways to minimize compliance overhead.

Similarly, customers do not wish to pay us to fix our own bugs. If we create a bug, that’s our problem, not our customers’. Therefore, from a Lean perspective, bug-fixing, remediating technical debt, and production support—even testing—are non-value add activities. A Lean thinker will seeks ways to minimize the time spent on such activities. A conventional thinker might only think about improving how they do these things, rather than looking for ways to eliminate the need for them.

No doubt you can see how this minor shift in perspective helps us identify potential areas of improvement in our delivery processes. Every minute spent on non-value add activities is a minute lost to value add activities. But what does this have to do with Scrum, or with the supposed “cult” of Scrum?

From walking to running

As mentioned above, Scrum was created in an era when certain organizational and procedural problems were endemic to large-scale IT organizations. It was designed to address several of those problems directly. Its three roles—Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Development Team—represented a sharp change from the then-common manager-driven hierarchical organizational structure and “matrix” assignment of so-called “resources” (meaning humans) to multiple projects concurrently.

Many IT organizations needed something like Scrum to help them stand and walk. The Product Owner mitigated the generally poor communication between business stakeholders and the IT organization. The Scrum Master mitigated the generally poor understanding of effective delivery processes on the part of IT staff. The Delivery Team brought together individual specialists from various functional silos to create a cross-functional team, significantly reducing communication delay and misunderstandings.

But that was the 1980s, hanging over into the 1990s. There are still organizations operating as they did in the 1980s, but the industry as a whole has long since moved on. Does Scrum help an organization in which communication between business stakeholders and the IT organization is already good? How about an organization in which the staff understands and uses effective delivery methods? How about an organization in which staff routinely collaborate across individual specialties and are accustomed to transparency? How about an organization that already delivers small batches incrementally and on a short time scale?

In other words…what about an organization that has learned how to stand and walk, and is ready to run?

From a Lean perspective, every role, every artifact, and every event defined in Scrum is overhead. Scrum itself is not what customers buy. It isn’t what they want to buy. It’s a way of delivering what they want, but it isn’t The Thing they want. A conventional thinker will think of ways to “do Scrum better.” And maybe that’s exactly what they should be doing, based on where they are in the journey at the moment. A Lean thinker will seek ways to minimize the overhead of using Scrum, with the eventual goal of making Scrum unnecessary. That’s quite a different goal.

The rub

To outgrow the need for Scrum is a fine goal, but you have to earn it. To earn it, you have to understand the substance of what Scrum is helping you achieve; merely following the prescribed practices isn’t sufficient for that. A novice delivery team can’t arbitrarily discard Scrum, just because they recognize it as overhead. Teams must learn to achieve the same goals and deliver the same value without the overhead of Scrum. Then the braces can fall away.

Scrum cultists will chafe at the word “overhead” here, but the reality is that there’s always some form of overhead in any process. Lean thinkers prioritize “eliminating waste from the process” third, behind “focus on value” and “maintain continuous flow.” They know some overhead is inevitable, necessary, and ultimately all to the good. The trick is to minimize non-value add time while still fulfilling all necessary requirements.

In their book, Lean Thinking, Womack and Jones distinguish between two types of non-value add activity, or muda. (That’s Japanese for “non-value add activity.”) Type 1 muda comprises activities that don’t help in any way and are only performed out of habit. These activities can simply be stopped, with no downside impact.

Type 1 muda could be, for instance, preparing three different status reports about the same tasks in three different formats for three different managers, or entering the same information about hours worked into four different time tracking systems. (But those examples are absurd, of course. Who would do that?)

Type 2 muda comprises activities that are necessary to get the job done, but that don’t directly add customer-defined value to a product. The goal here is to minimize the overhead involved in carrying out these activities. This could include, for instance, governance review procedures to ensure information security standards were followed in developing an application, or functionality built into an application to track data for auditors. Bake the security standards into your development process, and you can dispense with the review step in the delivery pipeline. Build logging into your reference architectures, and you can dispense with any extra effort to satisfy auditors.

The process of the braces falling away piece by piece naturally involves the organization and the teams within it learning to satisfy all the ancillary requirements surrounding the product with a minimum of effort, time, and cost. As these requirements become ingrained in the delivery process, overhead activities to double-check them become less necessary.

Full circle

As an example, let’s home in on one of the factors that Scrum addresses: Predictable delivery. Business stakeholders in the 1980s and 1990s were constantly asking IT organizations “How long will it take to deliver X?” IT professionals came up with various ways to estimate the time they would need to deliver X. Some are formal and some informal, and may be based on experience, calculation, statistics, heuristics, empiricism, or a combination.

Customers won’t place an order for an estimate. They may want to know how long it will take you to deliver a solution, but they don’t expect to pay you just for the estimate. If customers aren’t intentionally buying estimates, then the time you spend preparing estimates is muda.

During the years when estimation was regarded as a core competency of software development rather than as an overhead activity, delivery performance continued to be unpredictable. Sure, some teams boasted that their estimates were always within 5% of actuals, but this was almost always gamed; they padded the estimates enough that they could make their numbers look the way management wanted the numbers to look.

Scrum as such doesn’t define an estimation method, but teams tend to use certain methods more than others with Scrum. A novice Scrum team may estimate User Stories in terms of clock time. This doesn’t do much to improve predictability, but it does help the team get into the habit of decomposing work into small pieces and thinking about what’s involved in delivering the pieces.

As they gain proficiency with Scrum, the team may estimate in terms of ideal time, applying a load factor to their planned capacity to account for interruptions such as meetings and production support issues. Usually, they begin to see some improvement in predictability.

As they progress, the team begins to understand what their Scrum coach meant all these past weeks or months when she told them to stop thinking about time and to think about relative size instead. They shift from time-based estimation to relative sizing of User Stories based on a scale of arbitrary points.

Initially they may peg points to time (e.g., “One point is half a day”), but sooner or later they drop that. Now they see significant improvement in predictability, because they are planning their work based on their own demonstrated delivery performance in the recent past. This is empiricism, consistent with the Scrum approach.

Throughout these early stages, the discussions surrounding estimation serve another purpose: They help build shared understanding about the problem space, the solution space, design considerations, and acceptance criteria. These are among the things a team must learn to do in other ways before they can dispense with story-level estimation.

Continuing to mature in Agile thinking and practice, the team gradually learns to decompose and structure User Stories into reasonably same-sized chunks. Eventually they discover most of their stories seem to be of the same size. They stop using relative points and just count stories instead. This reduces their planning overhead without sacrificing predictability. (They couldn’t have dispensed with estimation in the beginning; at that time, they didn’t know how to achieve predictable delivery without it.)

At this stage, everyone can see approximately how long each User Story takes to deliver. The team has gone full circle, and can now answer the question “How long will it take to deliver X?” directly, in terms of clock time, just the way stakeholders need it to be answered.

A piece of their braces—story sizing or estimation—can fall away naturally. In Lean terms, they have reduced the planning overhead necessary to deliver customer-defined value. Similarly, teams can learn to deliver effectively without other pieces of the braces, too. It may not be intuitively obvious how to achieve this, and that’s why it’s helpful to work with guides who have been there and done that.

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