Trashing Scrum or Reflecting Reality?

Posted on November 26, 2008 by admin

Tobias Mayer thinks the Lean folks in our community have been trashing scrum!

While his criticism was aimed at Mary Poppendieck, others associated with Lean in software development, most notably Alan Shalloway and I have said things that the Scrum community don't like. So I think it worth expressing my point of view on this.

For 6 years, since I developed the manuscript for my book, I've been saying that Scrum is a useful process that helps immature teams achieve success. However, it only takes them so far and that more is needed if they are to keep improving. Based primarily on the available literature at the time - 2002 - I observed that Scrum is designed at the practice level to eliminate a lot of external variability that affects the performance of most development teams. As such, this recipe of practices, or prescription will have a quick positive effect on performance, but without a true focus on organization level continuous improvement and cultural change, it will fail to generate further improvements. The result will be a [more or less] unit step improvement in productivity and reliability [and possibly quality]. The Scrum community doesn't like this observation.

However, many of us working in the field find senior people in large companies telling us - we've tried Scrum and it worked for a while but now we are looking for what is next, for the thing that will take us to the next level. This isn't an issolated comment. And those saying it are not critical of Scrum. They simply recognize that it gave them a boost in performance and reliability and now they need something more to continue improving. While the leaders in the Scrum community like to promote the concept of a culture of continuous improvement, Scrum does not appear to have enough depth in its guidance, literature, training and coaching to get teams there. Perhaps these teams are amongst the teams that Ken Schwaber describes as having "failed with Scrum." If that's true then as Alan Shalloway suggested, Scrum is failing us. If what it takes to really do Scrum right, you need Jeff Sutherland or one of his folks to be present, then more work is needed - more guidance, more depth, more theory, more practices. The literature simply leaves too much as an exercise for the reader.

Jeff Sutherland has been the voice of reason in the Scrum community over the years. He has been the one talking about the challenge of achieving hyper-productivity [4x productivity improvements] and the one publishing metrics. It turns out that few Scrum teams achieve the hyper-productivity and of those who do when you look at the absolute numbers the performance is good but not stellar. Again, this reflected an observation I made years ago, that many agile teams were anecdotally reporting relative improvement but not absolute numbers for productivity or quality. I strongly suspected that FDD teams were out-performing many other agile teams significantly and this turned out to be a correct assumption when years later metrics began to appear. Even the original FDD team in Singapore building a huge enterprise system produced productivity at the higher end of scale that Sutherland reports. The team at Motorola that I was running, particularly on the OTA Device Management project exceeded the productivity of the Borland Quattro Pro project that Jeff likes to quote as one of the best ever and not only did we have the code production metrics, we also had the initial quality as escaped defects to system test numbers. Both were in the 99th percentile for the industry. It's only recently that, as a community, we've started to have an open debate about absolute performance of agile teams and look at what truly affects performance. What's driving this is enterprise scale adoption. It is no co-incidence that big corporations want to see productivity data. So while, Scrum has clearly helped a lot of teams improve and the relative improvements have often been enthusiastically received, the absolute numbers, seem to imply that more is needed. As Tobias reports Mary Poppendieck reflecting on Jeff Sutherland's approach, Jeff does more. He includes many software engineering and risk management practices that in my observation improve the organizational maturity and ultimately produce significant productivity improvements that are remarkable in absolute terms, not just in relative terms. I often lament that Jeff Sutherland has not written a book.

Apparently, trying to have this kind of rational discussion about Scrum and its practices is unacceptable. The Scrum community doesn't want to hear anything other than "Scrum is great!" and "Scrum is the answer to all problems." Any form of discussion or debate is regarded as dissent. This leads me nicely to my second observation...

My second observation about Scrum relates to the community itself. In recent years, any form of debate that suggesting there may be challenges with Scrum or implementing it has been rooted out and abolished. There were several public ex-communications from the Scrum Yahoo! group including prominent figures like Scott Ambler and Alan Shalloway. Others like me, were warned off by Ken Schwaber and chose not to participate further. My observation from the outside is that the Scrum community reflects the antithesis of our agile values. It is run from the top. The message is strictly controlled. Dissent is not permitted. It resembles a cult of personality and appears to be the very definition of command'n'control in its execution. Speaking from my own experience forming the APLN, we were very conscious that we must create an agile organization that truly reflected the values that we espoused. So we created an organization that encouraged spontaneous affiliation, encouraged diversity, had a small government run at almost no cost, requiring no annual fee, that encouraged innovation and dictates no rules to members or local chapters. If you are trying to create a culture where people feel free to speak up and raise issues at daily scrums, I cannot see how this is possible, when the organization doing the coaching discourages any form of dissent.

So when you hear someone from the Scrum Alliance accusing others of trashing Scrum look deeper. Apparently, if you say, Scrum really helped a whole bunch of projects, teams and companies improve productivity and reliability on project delivery, but the improvements topped out and now they need something more to really keep moving you , are trashing Scrum. This leads me to the conclusion that if Scrum is so easily trashed, how can it have any real substance or worth? If the leaders in the Scrum community truly believe in its worth and value then they should show some maturity and open themselves to constructive professional objective debate.

Related articles: Why we lost focus on development practices