Agile for the real world.

I have once again this weekend been drawn in to reading articles and discussions on LinkedIn, mainly discussing how Scrum=Bad, KanBan=Good, or KanBan=Bad and ScrumBan=Good, and a variety of similar content that frankly is just noise to 99% of the people involved in Agile Software delivery. The reality is that most software professionals really don’t care.

Did I really say that?

It might be a little ironic and I might just be adding more to the noise but I’d just like to bring us down to earth a little.

My experience of Software delivery has been mostly large corporations and the Civil Service, and what I can say with a good deal of confidence is that the staff involved in software delivery want Agile, no question, they are overwhelmingly in favour. I suspect that a step back to Waterfall would see hands go up in horror and a great deal of frustration and maybe even many people leaving in protest.

But I see it as the difference between learning to drive and understanding how an engine works. Most, and that is a sweeping generalisation, but most of the teams I have worked with want me to teach them how to drive, they want to use the skills they learn and to be taught how to teach themselves. What they are not interested in, initially at least, is the mechanics of the car. When they become proficient that may change they may believe that for particular types of driving a different vehicle may be appropriate, but initially simply learning to drive and practicing the basics is as much as is needed and they are happy to have a car suggested to them.

Recently I have been working very closely with three development teams and indirectly with others, and of those teams I’d estimate that maybe 10% have an active interest in the mechanics of Agile Software delivery as a topic and probably less than half of those would give two hoots which flavour of Agile we follow, so long as we follow the principles – most see the framework as a tool like any other it is about getting the job done right. But 100% want to be shown how to use Agile techniques to improve their way of working, but they rely on an expert to guide them. They wouldn’t hesitate to tell me if they thought it wasn’t working.

Most have had no prior Agile experience other than minimal training. Many have been in Agile workplaces in the past but if I am brutally honest they seem to have been poor implementations, a few had good experiences and a very few have been exposed to more than one variation of Agile frameworks.

In the real world a development team wants to build software, perhaps a little over simplistic but a coder wants to code and a tester wants to test. Now I can encourage them to co-locate, cross-skill and try to mix things up, they can use Agile to improve and most have an inherent desire to be Agile and improve. I can show them how to use TDD or BDD, I can encourage them to Pair Program, and they will be enthusiastic and supportive. Most will join in Retrospectives with relish and find true value in Stand-ups, most see the value in Sprint Reviews and the closer engagement with Customers – Why?

Why? Because they are embedded in a framework that works for them, they see positive results and they like what they see. But that doesn’t translate to wanting to have a discussion on the finer points of Agile frameworks. Most don’t see value in a debate on the differences between Scrum and Kanban.

As an example: I have read a lot about #NoEstimates recently and I find it interesting, there are others in my organisation that I could discuss it with and share ideas. But honestly I suspect the teams I work with really don’t care, they use Story Points and T-Shirt sizing because I showed them how and because it works, they see the value. Would they change to NoEstimates – maybe, probably! if I encouraged them to, but the likelihood of the suggestion coming from the teams is low, and it is unlikely to have support or interest of the majority. Certainly not enough of them would have sufficient interest and understanding to make it an inclusive discussion.

However, The same was true of Pair Programming, initially I met quite a bit of resistance from the teams, one guy in particular was very much opposed and resisted, but I encouraged the teams to try it out for a Sprint and then another, and now it is a regular part of their routine and the biggest opponent is now the strongest advocate.

You may be thinking that these teams were not very Agile, or they are not sufficiently mature, but that simply isn’t the case. It just isn’t their primary area of interest. While I am reading about Agile techniques they are reading Tech journals or exploring new tools. As an agile practitioner these details and nuances matter to me, but to a software developer they are just another framework, another tool in their toolkit. The teams may be self-organising but sometimes it needs an outside catalyst to encourage them to push their boundaries.

My point is that software delivery is the goal, the Agile Methodology of choice is just a tool selected to do the job, don’t expect a horde of zealots raising pitchforks and screaming “Scrum”, or “KanBan” any more than they would demand TFS or Jira or any other tool. At least not until they have used it enough to be proficient. That debate is reserved for the agile practitioners.

I have seen Scrum adopted well and adopted poorly, the same with Kanban, neither is a silver bullet, and one is not better than the other (In my opinion). Again in my opinion, when I hear complaints about scrum it is generally because it is not Scrum, but an unchanged organisation that has applied scrum titles, or a cargo cult that follows the schedule without understanding the purpose. And sadly the current trend of handing out certificates to anyone that has done a half-day training course demeans the framework. Too many people see Scrum as a means of control rather than a framework of support, and sadly that is the weak underbelly of Scrum, the framework can be used to create self-organisation but can just as easily be used to stifle it if you have the wrong mindset.

Agile is a mindset much more than a process, the framework is simply scaffolding, but if your mindset is wrong the implementation will be wrong.

I love Scrum, I think it has so much promise and when used well I think it can be hugely effective, in most situations it would still be my starting point with organisations new to Agile, especially when management is not fully engaged. One of the likely intended side-effects of Scrum is that it becomes a tool to regulate the rest of the organisation and create stability for the teams to grow, it creates a protective bubble to enable agility to develop.  

So It saddens me when I see Scrum being seen as a barrier to agility. When ScrumMasters are wolves in sheep’ clothing and simply managers or PMs assuming a title and then undermining the framework, because they don’t understand the essence of the role. Where cargo cults masquerade as agile teams, and when they fail they blame Scrum.

My dad used to say that a “bad workman blames his tools” this was never more true than with Scrum. As a tool in the right hands it can be fantastic, in the wrong hands it becomes a fine quality chisel being used as a crowbar.  

The debate will continue and sadly because of its early success in widespread adoption Scrum has had many poor implementations and so is in danger of bad press which could ultimately spell it’s doom. Far too many experienced agile practitioners are advocating against Scrum based on bad experiences, but I for one believe that as a framework Scrum is good, but sadly there are too many cargo cults giving it a bad name. 

5 thoughts on “Agile for the real world.

    • Hi Andy, I am absolutely blown away by the new role. The company is fantastic and the people are all so enthusiastic and there is a genuine enthusiasm for Agile here. In two weeks I have learned so much.
      I wish there was a way to share some of the experiences, perhaps I can write up some of the ideas that stand out.

      Like

      • John,

        I think you should , it can only make our journey better and I know many of us read your blog

        Like

  1. As a junior programmer with an experience of 2 years in Scrum Framework, reading your article pushed me to think again about the way I see Agility and Scrum. Thanks!

    Like

    • Thank you for reading, I appreciate the comment, personally I am very passionate about Agile, and indeed Scrum, but getting too blinkered to one solution is itself not agile. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

      Like

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