Challenging Why (Not If) Scrum Works


Agile works. Early adopters, working largely by instinct, have seen good success. To go to the next level, instinct alone is not enough. As we face more complex and uncertain environments, as we face the need to scale to the enterprise, we need to apply intelligence and knowledge, guided by experience. Knowledge about why Scrum works.

Knowing the whys behind Scrum lets us perceive opportunities for improvement that might otherwise be overlooked. It lets us evaluate practices to identify good and better practices. It helps us adapt practices—based on principles—to new or similar situations. It is how we have started realizing success at helping our customers deploy Scrum in their enterprise. I have been doing some form of Agile development for over 20 years. For the first 10 years, my approach was somewhat informal. While I did use techniques such as automated testing, I did not fully understand its general value, seeing it more as a solution to a particular problem. Failing to see the why, I overlooked countless opportunities when it would have helped. Not until 1999, when I started studying Agile methods in greater detail, did I appreciate the value of this approach. I believe in the value of understanding "why." For myself and for teams I work with.

Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege of being a trainer, coach, and mentor for dozens of teams migrating to Lean-Agile methods.This requires a fundamental shift in their behavior, rather than simply knowing what to do next. It requires a confidence that the new approach will make a difference. This confidence is essential because when things get tough, people begin to fear that they will not succeed with the new approach, so that usually revert to their previous (bad) habits. Again and again, I have seen that when teams finally understand the whys, they finally gain the confidence to work through the fear. To know that they can work through the uncertainty that is always present when you are doing something new. And not only teams. Management seems to be much more comfortable when they understand the rationale for a particular practice. When was the last time you convinced someone with "well, it worked over there!" Or imagine telling a manger to use self-directed teams because that is what makes Scrum work...Manager: "You mean I should just let my team figure it out?" The same guys who can't deliver software on time? Yeah, right!'"

Why Does Scrum Work?
Understanding why Scrum works involves understanding where a team is in its evolution. This seems to involve four main phases:

  1. Getting organized (starting with Scrum)
  2. Using Scrum to manage a project and improve the team's process
  3. Sustaining Scrum by attending to quality assurance and code quality issues
  4. Extending Scrum into the enterprise with Lean thinking

Based on what I have seen, most teams that have adopted Scrum are in Phase 2 (Phase 1 being a pre-cursor to Phase 2). Much of the success attributed to Scrum is may simply be due to the team organizing itself better. Let me illustrate. Suppose you are the team lead in an IT organization that uses a somewhat stifling, heavy-handed process. You have to work on five or so projects at the same time. Now, your manager offers you the chance to pilot a new methodology called Scrum. He states: "Since you are doing a new process, you can ignore our current procedures so we can see how Scrum does it. We will co-locate your team. And you will only work on this one Scrum project instead of the five or six projects you are working on now. We will make sure management doesn't interrupt you with other things. And, we'll give you access to our marketing manager who knows what the customer wants so she can answer your questions." What would your reaction be? Hallelujah!


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