The State of Scrum


In the software development industry and beyond, the term "agile" is everywhere. But, much like the "organic" food craze, the rise of agile has also been accompanied by considerable head-scratching. What does it mean to be agile? Certainly, not all of the organizations boasting of agile practices can actually be agile? Unfortunately, there isn't a concise definition to encompass the myriad meanings packed into the term. In fact, the definition of agile is so loose that it hardly helps in assessing which organizations are using practices that are truly agile and which are just calling traditional methods by a new name. In part, agile's fuzzy definition has to do with the fact that it is, by definition, an umbrella term: Scrum, XP, DSDM, Crystal and other agile methods have emerged as subsets of the broader "agile." But, even then, those subsets seldom include the concrete processes a team needs when adopting a new management paradigm. In that sense, the term agile has become bankrupt of meaning: It serves more as a marketing buzz word than a defined set of processes. Because organizations require those processes-as a kind of roadmap to management success-Scrum has become the most popular of the agile management methods. But before further discussing how Scrum and its iterative, incremental approach to project management have appealed to teams and organizations alike, it's worth first considering where it came from.

If you follow Scrum's roots, they lead back to the Agile Manifesto and its break from traditional waterfall management, even to the Lean Manufacturing practices pioneered by Honda and Toyota in the early 1980s. But dig a little deeper and Scrum's family tree extends all the way to complex adaptive systems theory: a theory of evolutionary biology that tells us, when species are threatened or move closer to chaos, they adapt in order to survive. Most software developers would likely describe the work they do as chaotic-at least in relation to conventional engineering practices (i.e. bridge building). Scrum's fixed, repeatable work cadences, called Sprints, address this chaos by creating isolated periods of stability during which developers can focus on their goals. In that sense, Scrum provides the right balance of security-in the framework's principles and processes-in the midst of an unpredictable development environment. When you consider that Scrum challenges teams to always be growing and improving, it makes sense that it has emerged as the most popular agile management method.

Granted, that's a high-minded explanation of what makes Scrum so effective. Certainly, managers desperate for a better way to navigate the complexities of today's business world are satisfied with the results: frequent communication and high-impact collaboration that delivers products on time and under budget. One of the most important ways Scrum facilitates this communication and collaboration is through the "Daily Scrum," which actually builds an exchange of ideas and information into the process itself. As part of Scrum's iterative work cycle, team members meet every day to report on their progress since the previous day's meeting, what they'll be working on until the next day's meeting, and, finally, any impediments that obstruct their progress. It's a simple meeting with a simple purpose: To get people talking to each other and working toward the same goals.

That might sound like a modest goal, but communication is the key to highly performing teams. When information is shared, everyone knows who is contributing what and if impediments must be resolved to achieve success. Additionally, this level of engagement among team members builds bonds and creates a sense of shared responsibility. When that occurs, individuals begin to reorient their approach to work from personal heroics to the communal gratification of participating in a functional team. Then add Scrum's Sprint Planning and review meetings, which punctuate the beginning and ending of each Sprint and give the Product Owner a time to articulate vision and assess the team's work. These meetings make sure that it isn't just team members who are talking to each other, but that communication is also taking place between Product Owner and team. It's those formalized points of communication that allow Scrum teams to deeply understand the goals of the Sprint and the software they're developing, resulting in the delivery of a product customers truly want.

From an organizational perspective, Scrum is an attractive option because it is a lightweight framework that drives business value, without burdening team members with prescriptive engineering practices. For organizations about to adopt agile management processes, many approaches recommend starting with a clean slate. That's a sizeable challenge. It means ditching everything familiar to employees and re-building its culture from scratch. Given that organizations typically spend years developing their infrastructure-from values and culture to job titles and processes-razing what they've built for a fresh start simply isn't an option. But the Scrum framework is lightweight, which means it contains only a handful of roles, rules, meetings, and artifacts. In short, Scrum acts like a management wrapper, which can be carefully draped over an organization's existing structure with far fewer disruptions than starting from scratch.

Granted, Scrum's status as a kind of "wrapper" doesn't guarantee that it's easily implemented. In fact, as Michael James, one of Danube's Certified Trainers, has blogged, "Scrum is hard and disruptive." One of the most valuable aspects of the framework is its ability to surface dysfunctionality in the organization. When organizations alter the framework, they are not only compromising Scrum's principles, they are also ensuring that those dysfunctionalities remain unseen and unaddressed. So while Scrum does not demand that an organization use particular engineering practices, what rules it does have are neither optional nor redundant. To reap the rewards of Scrum, teams must actually adhere to the paradigm's rules.

Lastly, much of Scrum's popularity with organizations becoming agile can be attributed to how rigorously its principles and processes are preserved. Because the Scrum framework is so lightweight, it requires that none of its constituent parts be thrown out or ignored. For example, if you omitted a meeting or a role from the framework, at least one of Scrum's core tenets would be compromised. This means that it's essential to success with Scrum that all of Scrum's rules remain firmly in place.

One way that the integrity of the Scrum process is protected is through the work of the Scrum Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides information and resources for Scrum practitioners. Founded by Scrum co-founder Ken Schwaber, the Scrum Alliance has introduced a regulated certification process for professionals seeking training as a ScrumMaster or Product Owner. Through its regulatory efforts, Scrum has retained a concrete definition with clearly defined practices. Unlike the gray area of the umbrella term "agile," Scrum's vocabulary, processes, and values are not interpreted differently by every organization that uses Scrum. The Alliance has ensured Scrum has a universal meaning and that there are essentially no differences between a Scrum team in Oulu, Finland and one in the Silicon Valley. Moreover, the Alliance has created a standard for Scrum experience through its certification process for ScrumMasters, Product Owners, Trainers, and Coaches, which requires that individuals work in a Scrum environment for a particular amount of time prior to receiving certification. These certifications function as a gold standard for professionalism in Scrum. Employers can trust that if a potential hire, for example, holds a "CSM" designation, that the hire has at least completed a Scrum Alliance-approved Certified ScrumMaster course and will possess the attendant experience.

Today, Scrum stands as the most popular agile management method. Its emphasis on communication and collaboration improves teams' performances and yields products that customers really want. Through the support of the Scrum Alliance, the integrity of Scrum's principles and processes is protected from the diluting forces of organizations that would prefer a pick-and-mix solution. With its balance of supportive structure and flexible freedom, Scrum appeals to managers and developers alike. After all, good work is a result that no one can argue with.

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