Yes, that’s right. I am writing a blog post today about Scrum and Scrum Masters.
No, I haven’t lost my mind.
I just realized that out of everything I’ve written about Agile and Scrum, I never talked about what makes a good Scrum Master.
I’ve both been a Scrum Master and I’ve worked on a team with Scrum Masters and from both of those experiences I can tell you that there is much confusion about this particular role on a Scrum or Agile team.
Even the name Scrum Master has confusion around it, is it ScrumMaster or Scrum Master—you can tell, I prefer the latter.
So, let’s talk about why Scrum Masters exist in a Scrum team and what they actually should be doing.
Scrum Masters! What are they good for?
On some teams, unfortunately, it is absolutely nothing.
But, it doesn’t have to be that way. A Scrum Master actually serves a really important role on a properly functioning Scrum Team. (They bring the donuts or bagels in every morning, so the team can get actual work done.)
Ok, I am just kidding about that last part, but in reality it isn’t all that far from the truth. Let me explain.
A Scrum Master really is supposed to be the person who clears the path for the team so they can run as close to full speed as possible. The Scrum Master is sort of like the pit crew for a race car driver.
Without a Scrum Master, a Scrum team is slowed down by impediments which inevitably come up in any development project. It takes time and distracts the team to deal with these impediments, so the whole cadence of the team slows down unless someone external to the development process is moving the boulders out of the way.
So, really, the most important job of the Scrum Master is to remove impediments which may hamper a Scrum team from progressing on backlogs and getting their work done.
This isn’t the same thing as managing a project, because the Scrum Master isn’t deciding how and when things should be done. Instead, the Scrum Master is part of the team and the team as a whole is taking accountability for managing the project.
The Scrum Master also has the role of being the master of the Scrum process—hence the name. This is a tough spot to be in, but is a very important role that many teams neglect. The rules of Scrum are important to a successful Scrum team. One of the reasons why I started to write off Scrum as a process was simply because it was so difficult to get anyone to actually enforce the rules.
This is the job of the Scrum Master; he carries the big Scrum stick and he beats people over the head with it when they step out of line. He doesn’t do this because he is a big power-hungry bully. No, instead, he does this because he knows that the only way the team is going to produce their best work and not waste time arguing over process is if they all follow the process that was agreed upon from the start.
Scrum is intended to be more than just a way to develop software or organize teams, it is also a process that clearly defines what will happen, when it will happen and who will do what.
The Scrum Master is one of the most important roles on the team
It may seem, based on my previous description, that the role of a Scrum Master isn’t all that important to the overall performance of the team, but that is far from the truth.
In reality, the velocity of a team is more influenced by the Scrum Master than any other member of the team—with the exception of that lazy developer that breaks the build all the time and constantly falls asleep at meetings.
Even though the Scrum Master does not have direct control over the management of the team, the Scrum Master’s ability to both remove impediments and enforce the Scrum framework directly affects the team’s ability to get s!@# done.
A poor Scrum Master will let the team flounder and let outside influence distract the team from their work.
A poor Scrum Master will either be too timid or not care enough to force the team to obey the rules of Scrum, causing the whole platoon to go scampering off whatever direction they choose, rifles firing randomly in all directions.
I like to think of the Scrum Master as a guide who takes the team over rough terrain and shows them how to get water from tree leaves on their journey. Sure, the team could manage to bushwhack their way through the jungle without a guide, but it would take them a whole hell of a lot longer to do so—and they’d be much more likely to get eaten by a lion.
So, what should Scrum Masters actually do?
The answer is whatever needs to be done.
You know those gangster movies where some mob boss has a guy they call “the cleaner?” The guy that comes into a sticky situation and can hide a dead body, bribe the right cops, or just make someone disappear? If mobsters were following Scrum, that guy would be the Scrum Master.
The Scrum Master should be part of the team, but not part of the team. The Scrum Master should attend the standup meetings actively trying to spot impediments—especially the ones that aren’t mentioned by the team members, but exist beneath the surface of a problem.
The Scrum Master should ensure that all the Scrum meetings and processes flow smoothly. He should make sure that standups are being used for their correct purpose. He should encourage the team to hold each other accountable and he, himself, should hold the team accountable to what they promised to deliver.
The Scrum Master should be the guy (or gal), who makes things happen. He should know the right people to talk to and know how to get things done. The team should focus on the work, the Scrum Master should focus on the politics. If the team is dealing with politics the Scrum Master has failed.
Most of all, the Scrum Master should be willing to lay it all on the line—to take the hits for the team. Even though the Scrum Master doesn’t control the team and get to boss them around, they are his team and his alone. A good Scrum Master isn’t afraid to take full responsibility for the actions and performance of the team and step in the way of that bullet and take one in the chest if he has to.
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Far too many Agile development projects fail. It is hard to even accurately measure the number of failures because so many software development projects end up “complete” and shipped, even though:
- They took far too long to build
- The quality of what we built was poor
- What was built was not what the customer wanted
- The cost to develop was more than it should have been
Over the years, I’ve worked on many different Agile teams and have consulted for and trained many teams on Agile development. In this time, I have found 5 common problems, that if not resolved, are very likely to cause a project to be a failure.
1. Not having a product owner
Of all the things that can cause an Agile software project to fail, not having a person that is ultimately the decision maker for the product being developed is the quickest way to ensure its demise.
It doesn’t matter if you are following Scrum, doing your own Kanban style project or something else; if you want your project to succeed, you need someone who can set its direction and make decisions about the product being developed.
Think about remodeling a kitchen. If you hired a bunch of contractors to come in and do the various jobs, like: plumbing; carpentry; flooring; etc, but you don’t have someone deciding what the actual finished kitchen should look like, you are going to get a random mess.
A few skilled contractors will probably be smart enough to find the right person to ask about what should be done, but it takes more than just making arbitrary decisions about where the cabinets should go to design a kitchen. You need someone to actually come up with a real design and vision and be able to modify that vision appropriately as the project progresses and problems inevitably occur.
It seems pretty nuts to spend a huge amount of money remodeling your kitchen, but not want to invest any time or effort in either designing the finished product or hiring someone to do it.
Yet, day in and day out, I see this exact behavior in software projects. I see companies investing huge amounts of cash in Agile development, but not appointing anyone to be the true owner of what is being built and to set the vision for it.
2. Not iterating
One of the key values that Agile development brings to the software development world is iteration.
What is iteration though?
You may think it means breaking your project into 2 week sprints or iterations. While doing this can facilitate iterative development, it doesn’t mean you are actually iterating.
Confused? Let me explain.
The key to iterating is to develop a product a little bit at time. It would be accurate to describe the process of iterating on a product as evolution of a product.
Whether you believe in macroevolution or not, microevolution, or adaptation is a proven concept. The idea behind evolution is that things change gradually over time. Those small changes add up to result in a big change.
Imagine how silly it would be if evolution worked the way most “Agile” software is built.
Imagine, if you will, a fish that swims in the ocean and has some little fish babies that are born with fully functional legs. Then, those legged fish babies grow up and have fish babies that have wings.
Probably the legs and wings wouldn’t do that fish much good, nor would they be designed properly, because instead of adapting and changing over time, they just suddenly appeared.
Features should not be built in a single sprint or iteration. It is as silly as legs showing up on a fish in a single generation.
Instead, features should be evolved and grow over time. A feature shouldn’t be pushed into a single sprint or iteration and then be done. A feature should start out small and develop and evolve over time as feedback is received and customers or the product owner tries it out.
Far too many times, I see Agile development projects mistake having iterations with actually iterating the development of the product.
Don’t try to ship a completed feature at once, let it evolve over time.
3. Not breaking things down small enough
The main reason why this is so important is because it prevents procrastination. Procrastination usually occurs when either we dread some large task that will be difficult or we don’t know what to do next.
If you can break a big project up into small parts, it will seem easier to accomplish and will have clear steps of progression.
I often see software projects where the person creating the backlogs or work items is not considering the work enough before giving it to the team.
I coined a term for these kinds of backlogs: fatlogs. Fatlogs are backlogs that are not broken down small enough and often are very vague in what needs to be accomplished.
Fatlogs are notoriously difficult to estimate and waste time when trying to explain and understand them. It is critical that fatlogs be broken down into smaller actionable backlogs before being given to an Agile development team or a large amount of time will be wasted.
Many times, I have found that the creator of the fatlog could have easily broken down the work it represents into several smaller backlogs that would be easier to explain and understand, even without knowing much about software development.
I often recommend to Agile development teams that they outright reject fatlogs and send them back up the chain.
“If you can’t take enough time to clearly state what you want, it must not be that important.”
This doesn’t excuse development teams either. Development teams should break down any backlogs they get into small tasks as well.
4. Not setting done criteria
What is the first thing a waiter asks you when you order a steak?
That’s right, they ask you how you would like it done.
If the chef doesn’t know what the done criteria is for your steak, the chef will have to decide what he or she thinks the done criteria is.
You may get back a well-done steak, or a rare steak, or something in between, depending on the personal preferences of the person cooking your meat.
This isn’t a good way to cook steaks and it isn’t a good way to cook software either.
In many software projects I often encounter lots of steaks being cooked but no one defining when they are done. The backlogs most often end up being “done” when time runs out.
It is very important to have explicit unambiguous done criteria for any backlogs being worked on by an Agile development team.
This means that the product owner should be defining some level of acceptance testing. It doesn’t matter if the tests are manual tests or fully automated tests (BATs), what matters is that some criteria is defined by which the team can evaluate whether they have achieved their goal or not.
Lacking this criteria is like a parent responding with “enough” when their child asks “how many more peas do I have to eat?”
Not having done criteria is demotivating and results in the finger pointing game of why the correct thing was not built.
I have found that if you tell someone exactly what is expected of them and what criteria they will be judged by, you get much better results than just throwing them in the ring, slapping them on the back, and saying “do a good job.”
5. Not letting the team be a team
Teams are strange organisms, especially Agile teams.
There are many dynamics that affect how teams act and interact. There are many ways to foster a healthy team and many ways to create unhealthy teams.
A healthy motivated team has synergy, a unhealthy gaunt team can be less effective than all of its members are on their own.
The key to having a healthy motivated team, is letting them be mostly autonomous. Regardless of your political persuasion, you would probably agree that when a country invades another country and sets up an unelected government to oversee the people, there are going to be problems.
The same thing happens in Agile development.
I’m not saying teams shouldn’t have accountability. But if you want to run a software project in an Agile way, you have to let teams self organize and self manage to some degree.
When big brother is always watching and interfering, team dynamics become very different. Naturally, teams usually develop their own cadence, leadership and roles (this is called norms.) However, when outside forces directly interfere with how the team does things, and they don’t have the power to decide their own fate, team members begin to realize that they need to look out for themselves.
Additional agile development resources
I’ve found it to be pretty difficult to find good resources on these topics, but here are a few books I’ve found useful that address some of the issues I described above.
- Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum - This book is focused on Scrum but it applies to many different kinds of Agile projects as well. Mike Cohn and I usually agree on most Agile subjects.
- Agile Retrospectives - I’ve found this book to be useful for getting good idea for team retrospectives that can really help to break down some barriers and help teams learn to resolve issues themselves.
- Scrumban and Kanban and Scrum - Both of these books have excellent information about combining Scrum and Kanban and have great solutions for dealing with some of the problems I described above.
What do you think? Have I missed any of the major Agile project killers? Any useful tips for dealing with them?
Let me know in the comments below.
It seems just yesterday I was trying to push forward the idea of developing software in an Agile way, but somehow now it seems like that battle is over.
As if we won without a fight.
When I look around now, I don’t see software development shops doing big upfront design. I don’t see consultants knocking down doors to certify you as a Scrum Master.
It seems that we have now entered a phase where Agile is accepted as the default and now instead of everyone trying to pitch the idea of Agile, everyone is trying to fix their broken Agile implementations.
The funny thing is, still no one even knows what Agile is
The big problem with Agile from the beginning has always been trying to define it.
Pretty early on, this problem was solved by calling it Scrum. Scrum was something that was easily definable, and something you could get certified in.
Scrum was a set of rules you follow that makes you Agile.
At least that is how it was pitched too often.
I predicted that Scrum would die, and I am pretty ready to call that prediction as correct.
Sure, there are plenty of development shops still using Scrum today, but it isn’t really growing and less and less organizations are following it strictly. (I can’t back this up, just my feel.)
I am a pretty firm believer in most of the value of Scrum being that it contains a firm set of rules that doesn’t require debate or judgment calls. If most organizations are just taking the idea of a 2 week sprint and having daily scrum meetings, they are not likely getting much of the value out of Scrum.
But, the problem is that Scrum itself was never Agile. Scrum was a defined set of process, that if you followed, would give you the framework you needed to actually be Agile.
To me Agile has always meant stopping the BS about software development.
To me Agile meant stop building this plan that you know is going to fail and rules lawyering your customers to death to get them to pay for something they didn’t want, because that is what they agreed to.
To me Agile meant to instead try to develop software as honestly as possible. To go in and find out exactly what the customer wanted at the moment, try to build that thing and as openly as possible and as quickly as possible get further feedback to refine and improve. To focus on doing a good job and know that if you are doing that everything else will fall into place. To me that is what Agile has always been.
So when I say where is Agile now, I am probably asking a different question than most people
I have to ask myself: are software development shops doing what I define as Agile? Has that idea permeated the software development community as a whole?
I don’t think so, but I don’t think it has died, nor will it ever.
But, I have seen some things that make me hopeful.
I’ve seen a large amount of talk about MVP, Minimum Viable Product.
I’ve seen many start-ups launching MVPs and being successful doing so. And I’ve seen awesome companies like Buffer using this idea to build a product that is exactly what I want, because their plan is completely based on the customer and it adapts to the customer.
Why am I saying all this?
Simple, I think that what the world thought was Agile was two things:
- Iterative development
For the most part the software development world has ditched Scrum, at least the only form of useful Scrum, which is strict by-the-book Scrum, and adopted Scrum meetings and iterative development. Honestly, I could do without the Scrum meetings, because although they are a good idea, no one actually does them correctly.
So, in essence, we won the wrong battle and we did so with major concessions. But, that is ok, because what the consultants packaged up, certified people in and sold as Agile, wasn’t really Agile at all.
Instead the real Agile movement has been gaining traction and it isn’t being sold by consultants, it is being championed by small start-up companies that are producing products that are 100 times more weighted on the side of results in the results to employees ratio than traditional software development shops and they are calling it MVP.
This is where the true spirit and ideas of Agile live and thrive and as more and more of these companies become successful and more and more researchers dissect their results, they are going to find that these small software boutiques were the ones who were actually practicing Agile, because they were cutting through all the BS of software development and focusing and developing and building exactly what the customer wanted—tools, process, contracts, plans be damned!
I’m not really the biggest fan of Scrum meetings.
It doesn’t have anything to do with my like or dislike for Scrum itself. Plenty of teams that aren’t following Scrum have Scrum meetings. Plenty of teams that don’t even really follow any kind of Agile process have Scrum meetings.
The reason why I am not a big fan is because most of the time they are very ineffective.
The idea behind a Scrum meeting is simple
The idea is that you have a daily stand up meeting where you basically determine how the work is progressing and if divine intervention is required to keep things progressing.
The idea is to provide a transparency where anyone can see what exactly the team is up to.
The basic format of a scrum meeting is pretty simple. Each person on the team says three things:
- What did I do since our last meeting
- What am I doing until our next meeting
- What is impeding me
On the surface these seem like sensible and valuable things for each team member to talk about, but…
So often these three things end up being BSed
No offense to anyone I’ve ever worked with. Heck, I know I have BSed them myself. It’s just too easy to do it.
When I say BSed here, I don’t necessarily mean blatantly lying about what you did and are going to do. (Although that happens plenty as well.)
What I am talking about is saying what you did or what you intend to do without really having a purpose of why you are saying it.
How many times has this happened to you? You walk into your Scrum meeting and panic hits!
Oh crapola! It’s coming around to me! What am I going to say?
I didn’t really get much done yesterday. I was fooling with the build, then I kept getting interrupted. Then I was answering a bunch of emails and I ended up helping Joe with that task he was working on. Then we started talking about how we’d like to start using this framework.
I don’t even know what I am really planning on doing today. I’m just going to keep working on the backlog I am working on. I don’t want to say that though, I need to say something more important.
So what do you do? You kinda make up something important sounding, and you mix in some of what you did do and try and make it relate to things happening in the sprint. You prattle on about stuff that no one really cares about, because you need to say something. You’ll look like an idiot if you don’t.
This kind of thinking is contagious
Pretty soon you end up with the whole team just prattling on about things that aren’t really important to anyone else or just saying something like:
I continued to work on backlog X, I’ll continue to work on backlog X today.
Waste of time, waste of breath. A scrum report is only valuable if it is providing usable information about the progress of an iteration and helping to bring impediments that can be resolved, to light.
I really don’t mean to sound harsh here but I want to be truthful. We don’t benefit anything if we can’t examine what we are doing with a impartial lens and tear it apart if needed.
I am a firm believer that pointing out problems without offering solutions is just whining. It has no value. I wish I could say I myself was never guilty of it, but the truth is, I do my fair share of it.
With that said, I am offering a solution to this problem…
By happenstance, I just finished reading Clean Coder by Bob Martin. (I’ll post a review on that book when I get a chance, but excellent read. It hurts to read it, because it will call you to a higher level of accountability, but read it.)
Anyway, that book has a great chapter on commitment, which coincides nicely with a technique I came up with awhile ago to help make Scrum meetings much more valuable and harder to BS.
The basic idea is pretty simple. I replace the 3 topics in a Scrum report with my sub-classed version:
- What did I commit to doing yesterday and did I or did I not meet that commitment. If not, why not.
- What will I commit to getting done today.
- What is impeding me that can be improved by bringing it up in this meeting.
Commitment can be scary
But, it is something that carries with it accountability. See the problem with your normal Scrum meeting is that it is far too easy to BS. There is no accountability, so you can basically make up whatever you want.
I’m sorry if this offends some people, but I am not placing myself above BSing a Scrum report. I would venture to guess that a majority of Scrum reports given on this planet are heavily weighted to the BS side of the scale. Once again, not necessarily saying people are lying. I am just saying that your Scrum reports contain the value of feces from a male bovine. Just saying…
What I try to do with my solution is add some accountability by focusing on commitment.
The idea is that it makes you think about what you are actually reasonably going to get done in the day. It forces you to think about priorities and schedule. It requires you to break down your work and think ahead a bit so that you can come up with something that you can commit to.
It also tends to make sure that what gets worked on is what should be getting worked on. You don’t get to say what you worked on yesterday, you only get to talk about what you committed to that you either did or did not get done. This prevents team members from talking about all the other non iteration related stuff they did.
It really makes you think before you jump off down some rabbit trail if you really want to say in Scrum the next morning that you didn’t do anything you committed to.
It really makes you think first before implying you are going to get something done. Instead of saying “I’m going to try and finish up backlog X today,” you are more likely to break down some component of backlog X and say “I will commit to getting done task A in backlog X.”
The difference here is critical, because in it lies the value. The value is that someone listening to your report can actually get an idea of the true progress of the team and of the backlogs being worked on by the team. If every day team member just report they are working on backlog X and backlog Y, we aren’t really learning anything about if backlog X and backlog Y are really progressing. On the other hand, if team members are required to make a commitment about what they are going to get done on backlog X and backlog Y, we start to get a real picture of how that work is progressing.
Keeping it relevant
The other thing this Scrum meeting modification does is to keep everything talked about relevant. By talking about what was committed to and what is going to be committed to, it doesn’t leave much room for talking about other unrelated issues that are best left to another meeting.
A Scrum meeting is effective because it is a short status meeting. When other stuff bleeds in, people start tuning out and pretty soon we are all standing around talking to the mirror.
I make a point that no one should be talking about impediments that cannot be reasonably be expected to be helped by bringing them up in the Scrum meeting. What is the point of talking about something that can’t be fixed?
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I talked about how moving the finish line is one of the most destructive things to do to a Scrum team, but I wanted to talk about another variation of the same problem, which is scope creep on backlog items in progress.
Responding to change
Agile is all about responding to change. Don’t get me wrong, I am not for one second suggesting that you should specify your requirements upfront before working on the backlog item.
Agile is also about iterative development. We take a thing, get a rough idea of what we want to build, build it and then iterate on it, making it better as we progress and figure out what we truly want.
The specific problem I am after today is about knowing when to allow change and at what resolution to iterate.
I think these are very important ideas that need to be understood to really be successful at Agile software development.
To some people Agile means we allow change at any point in time. I think this view is a little too far on the extreme. There are certain points in an Agile process where change is welcomed and that depends on the process.
Scrum welcomes change up to the point the team has committed to the sprint. After that point changes to the scope of what will be worked on during the sprint are detrimental.
Kanban and Kanban like methodologies embrace change all the way up to the point that the backlog is in progress. At that point a significant change to the scope or focus of the backlog causes more harm than it provides business value. (In general)
What kind of changes are also important to define.
The kinds of changes greatly affect whether or not they can cause harm or be good. Changing the layout of a screen during the development of a backlog usually is not a big deal. Changing the way the screen functions usually is. Changes that add significant functionality also are harmful when the backlog is already in progress.
A little later on I’ll talk about some of the reasons for this. For now let’s look at…
There is a prevailing misunderstanding of what iteration means and how it is valuable in Agile software development.
Many Agile practitioners think iteration applies only to the software package itself and to iterate means to add features.
This resolution is far too large. If the smallest iteration of your software is a complete feature, you probably have fatlogs, and you are going to run into trouble.
You may not ship features to a customer until they are completely evolved, but if you try to complete the evolution of features all in one sprint or cycle, you are probably going to bite off too much and miss out on the true value of iteration.
Just as your software should be iterating by adding features, the features themselves should be iterating by adding functionality.
Think of your software as a tree and features as branches. If you were to watch that tree grow, it would be pretty bizarre if whole complete branches just started popping up on the tree everywhere.
It is much more natural for the branches themselves to grow from little stubs into a large branch that might even have branches of its own.
Tying it back together
Given a backlog is already in progress and you have a good understanding of when change should be allowed in your process, and what resolution iteration should happen, it should start to become obvious why adding new requirements to that backlog is a bad idea.
If you take an existing backlog in progress and add new requirements to it, you’re introducing change at the wrong point, and possibly trying to “poof” branches onto your software tree, instead of truly iterating.
It is much better to add a new backlog that will serve as an iteration of the existing feature than it is to try and tack on new requirements to the work already in progress.
Well, hopefully our discussion of change and iteration resolution has given you some idea of why, but there is much more depth to the question than that. Let’s discuss some of them.
There is a huge psychological portion of software development. We tend to be motivated by accomplishment and feelings of a “job well done.” We tend to be demotivated by goals changing out from underneath us and feeling like a job won’t ever really be done.
Let me give you a simple example. Imagine you tell your child that their chore for the day is to make their bed.
They go and do it, come back to you and tell you it is done, then ask for you to check it. When you check, you see that the bed is made, but you say “the floor also needs to have everything picked up.”
So they go and do that, it takes a little longer this time, because they have lost some motivation, but they finish and come back to you again and you see the floor is now cleaned up, but this time you say “the floor needs to be vacuumed.”
In this situation although each request is reasonable, the building of the requests on top of the original task has the effect of demotivating the individual and deprives them of their sense of accomplishment.
When you do this in software development, a similar thing happens. You also lose the trust of the team because the team starts to think that when the business says X they are really going to want X + Y + Z. The team starts to work much more slowly because it doesn’t really matter anyway. You do not want to operate in this mode! It is very bad!
Not letting evolution takes its place
If you try to cross a river by taking a huge leap across it, you are either going to get wet or you are going to make it. If the river is big, you will mostly get wet.
It is much better to cross a river leaping from stone to stone until you are all the way across.
Adding a requirement to a backlog in progress can be like making a big leap. By adding another backlog to bring you closer to the goal, you allow the current backlog to be a step, and the new backlog to be the next step.
It is a judgment call whether or not a change to an in progress backlog represents a new requirement which should be a new backlog or not. I would err on the side of making new backlogs rather than adding requirements though. I generally say if it will increase scope significantly it should be a new backlog. Either way the work is going to be done, so why not have your…
Estimating more accurate
Nothing kills historical estimations like scope creep. If you want accurate data, don’t add unaccounted for work. Squeezing new requirements into in-progress backlogs adds work to your historical data that is not properly accounted for.
It is much better to catalog the work and account for it than to tack it onto a place where you will not have a way to extract it back out when you are trying to analyze your data.
Consider also the loss in quality as a developer assigned to the expanding backlog starts rushing the work in order to get it done because they feel like they are going to be measured against the backlogs they completed, and work added to an existing backlog isn’t going to be counted in the metric.
Don’t forget prioritization here. If you tack a requirement onto a backlog in progress, you can’t prioritize that work. You may add that requirement at the expense of delaying other higher priority work in other backlogs. Make the new requirement into a backlog and you can prioritize it correctly.
If you are a product manager, product owner, or business person reading this, give it a try. You will be amazed how much more happy and productive your team is if the next time you are working on a backlog with them and realize it needs to account for X and Y also, you announce that you will create two more backlogs instead of tacking it right on.
If you are a developer on an Agile team, you may not have even realized this problem might be sapping your motivation. You might not be in a position to do much about it, but you can always suggest that the new requirement be a new backlog.
I thought today would be a good day to talk about what I am calling the “Scrum Bubble.” There seems to be just tons of heat on the Scrum and certifications topic going on lately. From my original post on Scrum for the Money to Ron Jeffries post on Certifications to Uncle Bob’s post on Certifications, to David Starr’s post on Certifications.
Here is the thing about a dead horse. Well, you just can’t really know it’s dead. I mean, sure its eyes are closed. Sure, it’s lying there in a bloody mess on the floor, but is it really dead? The only sensible thing to do is beat it just one more time, just to make sure. Let’s kill that horse good!
THE SCRUM BUBBLE
Remember the .com era. Ah, wasn’t that great.
How about that whole stock market always rises decade…
Oh, and don’t forget the housing boom. The housing boom was great!
But then… What happened?
Oh yes, we got nuked back to the stone age.
The same thing is happening with Scrum. Certification proliferation is fueling it. What happens when everyone in the software development world is a Certified Scrum Master, and we are still building shitty software? What then?
It implodes, just like a bubble. That bubble will burst and when that happens it is going to take Agile right along with it.
A wise man once said
You can shear a sheep many times, but skin him only once.
When you arm people with useless certifications and send them into organizations to go and conquer the beast of software development, you are skinning that sheep. All the consultants that are milking so much money out of Scrum will eventually find that tit dry.
Scrum is good
It is. It is really a great tool for building software. It makes sense, it is practical and if you apply it correctly you will get a good result. The problem is applying it correctly. The problem is it isn’t addressing the other things that need to change to really be able to do Agile development. (Which is why I suggested a new process Kanbanand that does address those things.)
Training and consultants are good also. Getting good hands on training from someone who really knows what they are doing can accelerate you on your learning curve like nothing else. Consultants who have already been through a process and can look at things with a fresh eye can be invaluable in making positive changes in an organization.
The problem is Scrum is not the end-all-be-all to software development. It is not the silver bullet that kills death march zombies. It is a tool. I really like Henrik Kniberg’s approach to Scrum and Kanban, where he talks about each being a tool to help you develop software. In his book, (buy it this book is really good), he asks the question, which is better a fork or a knife? A pretty silly question to ask, which illustrates the point well.
When we hype up Scrum to the point of rock star stardom and then use it as a tool to extract large amounts of money out of the software development eco systems quickly, we are creating a bubble. Just like any bubble, we should expect it to burst if we keep inflating it.
There are a lot of good people in Scrum
There are plenty of good people that have a sincere passion for the craft that are really investing into Scrum because they know it is a good way to deliver value to customers, and it is a simple framework that can be easily taught and implemented. There are plenty of people like David Starr and Tobias Mayer that are honestly trying to do good in the world of software development and using Scrum to do it. I honestly believe that.
But, there are plenty of other people that are riding on the success of Scrum and building careers out of being a certificate factory. We have to take away the keys to the kingdom from those people if we want to avoid destroying the good that others are doing in the name of Scrum.
In my last post, I talked about some of the problems of Agile processes and suggested the introduction of a new process which takes some of the best parts of each of the popular processes and condenses them into the Kanban lean-style-thinking of limiting the work in progress.
For this post I want to clearly define what I am calling “Kanbanand” with two primary goals in mind.
- Allow someone who is interested in doing a Kanban like process to find enough information to be successful.
- Create a common thread for people who are already basically doing what I am suggesting.
Three Pronged Fork
I want to present Kanbanand as a three pronged fork. In my mind there are 3 distinct areas of a successful Agile process which must be addressed.
- Business and overall encompassing project process.
- Development practices, including standards and best practices.
- Infrastructure: build systems, deployment, source control.
We must know how to run our day to day process, how we physically construct our product, and how we actually build and deliver the product.
- Project is broken into stories which are small vertical slices through the system which are prioritized.
- A Kanban board is used to make the progress of a team visible and has limits to control the Work In Progress (WIP).
- At least once a day team members meet around the Kanban board in a stand up meeting to talk about the progress of the board.
- The team meets on a regular basis to have a retrospective to discuss how to better improve their process.
- Teams always pull in work, work is never “pushed” in.
- Once work has been approved as “done” it can never be “not done”.
- Find something to measure and measure it.
- The team is responsible for, and empowered to determine how the team accomplishes its goals.
- Roughly same sized stories over irregularly sized stories.
- Stories specifying what, over stories specifying how.
- Stories that are one sentence over stories that are one page.
- Talking about how to move the board forward over talking about what I or someone else did.
- Cross functional teams over specialized teams.
- All code is unit tested.
- Static code analysis tools are used to set code standards, all code must meet those standards.
- Any code that is done, is completely done. It is refactored, it is unit tested, it meets the quality standards.
- Code is never commented out. Anyone is allowed to delete any commented out code at any time.
- Determining code is meeting the quality standards must be done in an automated way.
- No one owns code, anyone can work on any code.
- Documentation is ONLY created when it will serve a known purpose and has an immediate value. (Code should document itself with good names and simple flow, unit tests document the low level requirements of the system. Automated tests document the behavior of the system.)
- Testing requirements come from the customer, not from the developer.
- Test driven development over writing unit tests after the code is done.
- Pair programming over working alone.
- Readable code over smaller sized code.
- Doing things right over doing things fast.
- Showing the customer over asking the customer.
- Impromptu discussions at white-boards over scheduled meetings.
- Building tools that will help make completing ten things faster, than completing one thing faster.
- Writing automated tests over manual testing
- Code is continuously built and integrated as soon as it is checked in.
- Builds build code, run unit tests, run quality checks, produce deployable bits.
- Builds fail if any unit test fails, or any quality check fails.
- Code is only deployed from the exact bits that were produced by the build machine.
- Code can be deployed to any environment with the push of a button.
- Production data never goes to any other environment.
- Developers can always run a local build which is the same as what will be built on the build server.
- Moving forward to fix problems over rolling back.
- Integrating soon over merging later.
- Quick builds over slow builds.
- Deploying on demand over deploying on a schedule.
That is my first crack at it. I have tried to keep the process as simple as possible, but still include as rules the things that I think are most important to be successful. I tried to keep the things that involved judgment calls as values. I believe this provides enough information to allow an organization to create a custom process that will work for them, but will still have enough controls to be consistent in the things that I feel make Agile practices valuable.
Let me know what you think or if you have any suggestions. I will update this post as this list evolves. I am sure there is something I missed or could state in a better way.
Like I said before, if you are doing some form of Kanban, you probably are already doing Kanbanand. If you are doing Scrum, your major change would be to drop the planning and instead try to get same sized stories while limiting your WIP.
I was originally going to call this post, “why I chose Kanban”, then I realized I didn’t choose Kanban.
What I chose was Kanban and most of the other “Agile” stuff that I consider good practices and find valuable. There really isn’t a good name for this and when people say they are doing Kanban, it really doesn’t say much. Hence, I am coining a new phrase (Kanbanand), which I hope will be much more specific than saying I am doing “Agile or Kanban development”, and not quite as specific as saying “I am doing Scrum”.
Agile is pretty vague
There is a major problem in the Agile community today. The problem is “Agile” is too broad and involves a large number of assumptions about what Agile involves. There is not much that defines Agile even though many types of best practices are considered to be Agile.
Which of these best practices are clearly defined in the Agile manifesto or Agile principles?
- Test driven development
- Paired programming
- Daily stand up meetings
- Progress board with swimlanes
- Having a product owner
- Stories or backlog items
- Continuous integration
- Automated testing
The correct answer is none of them. Don’t get me wrong here. I am not attacking Agile. I am just saying that when you are saying “I am doing Agile development”, what you’re saying means different things to different people, and most people don’t even realize what the Agile Manifesto actually says, or what the Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto says. Instead they have this general idea of what Agile is and it may include one, all, or none of the items I listed above. (Actually, I would venture to wager that most people think Scrum and Agile are synonymous.)
Scrum, XP and Kanban
Scrum and XP don’t really suffer from the problem that Agile in general does. They are not really vague at all. Actually, to be more accurate, they are not really vague about process at all. Scrum is a little vague about development practices. Either way, both of these processes suffer from a different problem than Agile itself. No one is actually doing them. Well, hardly anyone is.
Lots of people say they are doing Scrum. But what they are actually doing is what is known as Scrumbut. “We are doing Scrum, but… “. And no one that I know of is actually brave enough to claim they are doing XP.
The problem is these processes are just a little too restrictive, a little too prescriptive.
Kanban is out there on the other end of the spectrum. It is sitting closer to Agile. It is the least descriptive. Heck, Kanban doesn’t even have to be Agile at all! I am sure most people that are doing Kanban are doing it in an “Agile” way, but there really is nothing about Kanban that says anything more than you have a Kanban board and you limit your Work In Progress (WIP). If you have a whiteboard and you can put a number on that whiteboard, you are doing Kanban!
Kanbanand is good in the same way that Scrumbut is bad.
The goal of Kanbanand is to be a fully Agile process, adhearing to the Agile Manifesto and the Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto, as well as process that is not as specific as Scrum or XP, but specific enough to be distinct and recognizable. The basic idea of Kanbanand is to take the simple non-prescriptive, open framework of Kanban and formally add some of the best practices that are considered “Agile” as requirements and others as guidelines.
In the spirit of the 80/20 rule. I want someone saying they are doing Kanbanand to be able to convey with just those words, 80% of what their development process looks like.
In my next post I am going to attempt to define what I will call Kanbanand. I will proceed with the goal of making Kanbanand be much of exactly what most Kanban teams are already doing, just formalized in a way that is specific enough that someone doesn’t have to know the undocumented features of Agile development to understand it.
If there is enough support around this idea of creating a more formalized version of Kanban that more specifically states the process, and is still Agile, I intend to create a website and community dedicated to this idea. Contact me if you are interested in participating. I think we are at the point where the only thing holding Kanban back is that there isn’t a formal enough definition of exactly what it is. I believe once we have a real Kanban process that can be implemented and clearly identified many of the teams and organizations that intially thrived under Scrum, but are now held back by the strict time-boxing, will jump to our side of the fence and embrace the idea of limiting WIP.
In doing so, I had to really think about why exactly I think waterfall is bad.
The feedback loop
It really came back to one central thing for me, which is the length of the feedback loop. When we are using a waterfall process for software development, the customer doesn’t really have a chance for feedback until the end of the project. Even the testing is done at the end of the project, so that feedback is coming very late.
The biggest strength Agile gives over Waterfall, is the tightening of that feedback loop. The quicker you can get the feedback, the quicker you can respond to it and the less time you spend going in the wrong direction.
From a programmer’s perspective, think about how many of us used to write code before the tools came along to help us, and before we knew any better.
Write a bunch of code for 2 hours
- Run the compiler
- Fix an error
- Repeat 2-3 until all errors are fixed
That wasted a large amount of time. Especially when we had some syntax wrong that affected large portions of code.
Using a modern IDE, we are able to see syntax errors getting highlighted the second we type them. We can start to type a method name and auto-complete can take over and offer us suggestions. It it difficult to write bad syntax because we are getting constant and immediate feedback as we write out code. The feedback loop is so tight that we don’t even consider compiling to be a separate step. There are even some IDE plugins which will continuously run any unit tests which may be affected by your code change in the background as you are making the change.
If the modern IDE experience is Agile, then Waterfall is punch cards.
Taking the best of all
So, here is my prezi presentation. Please give feedback if you have some. Remember this presentation is designed to be a very basic beginner’s guide to why someone should choose Agile over Waterfall. It is not going to go into very detailed topics about Agile.
Also, at the end of the presentation you will notice that I suggest taking some of the process of Scrum, and the XP best practices, and running Kanban using those guiding principles. I currently believe that is the best mix of what Agile has to offer.
Oh what an ethical dilemma.
I’m about to piss off a lot of people.
But, I am going to tell the truth.
Often a person has to make a choice between standing by their convictions and doing what they believe is right or doing the more profitable thing at the cost of integrity. I don’t like to use this blog as an avenue to bash anyone, but I have held myself to the requirement of being honest. Honest in the most tactful way that I can.
I am also not always 100% correct. Sometimes I am plain wrong, but I have to call things as I see them until corrected and shown otherwise. I am open to being corrected. That is how to learn. Learning is more important than being right.
One last disclaimer. I don’t hate Scrum. I think it is good. I think it is really good, and if implemented correctly can provide enormous benefits. I think most of the ideas are sound, even though I do believe it has some major flaws. I think if 90% of software companies stopped doing their broken process and at least tried to adopt Scrum, the world would be a better place. But… I also think Scrum is not the end. It is just the beginning of an eye opening and awakening of problems in developing software.
If I attack Scrum, it is for two reasons.
- To push us to build on the principles of Scrum and go beyond it to iteratively find an even better process.
- To fight against the blood-thirsty vampire consultants, trainers and organizations preying on the uninformed and making Scrum a commercial enterprise which sacrifices its integrity.
Today I will talk about the latter
Perhaps this isn’t a smart move. Perhaps this will remove opportunities from my path and make people angry with me. So be it. If I am wrong, teach me.
What sparked this whole post is the relaunch of scrum.org. I listened to Pluralcast #12: The Future of Scrum with Ken Schwaber. I truly listened to this with an open mind and was optimistic about the new programs being launched. I bought into the story about the Scrum Alliance becoming a money making scheme and selling certifications. I welcomed the fresh clean break to “free certifications” and altruistic motives. I thought teaming up with Microsoft to bring in a .NET track, and later a Java track, was a great idea. Until I visited the website and found the only difference between scrumalliance.org and scrum.org is who is taking your money.
But please, don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at the pages together.
This is the assessments page, let’s click Professional Scrum Master.
Hmm, there is also a Professional ScrumMaster II on the page below. Let me register and add them both to my cart, so I can take this test and get certified.
WOW! Umm, what is going on here? Didn’t they just talk about how Scrum Alliance was ripping us off and turning Scrum into a money making venture?
Ok, how about Professional Scrum Developer, that one I am really interested in.
Okay, can’t take the test on here the first year. Have to take a course first. That sounds pretty reasonable. Let’s check out the prices of the courses.
Umm. $2000? Then I can be a Certified Scrum Master? How is this different than Scrum Alliance? Okay, what about the Certified Scrum Developer?
Okay, sorry, I’m not sipping that Kool-Aid anymore.
The ScrumAlliance.org courses are even cheaper. (Although, they are still a rip off IMO)
It’s all about the Benjamins
My current assessment of the Scrum consulting world just got worse instead of better. I really wanted to believe in what I heard on that podcast. It seemed really good to me. I even bet the classes will be really good. I know one of the instructors and he is awesome!
The problem is, I can’t trust Scrum.org, and I can’t trust ScrumAlliance.org, not when they are about making money. (That little .org domain on the end is kind of ridiculous). It is pretty clear to me that this is what the whole Scrum movement has become. When all the dust settles and the consultants have certified every Scrum Master in the world, will software development really be better?
If I am wrong, tell me. I won’t filter the comments here. Ken, if you want to, address this post. Do so, you have a right to and I won’t filter your response. Sorry if I am “hurting your guys business”, but my conscious does not allow me to stand by and say nothing.