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Agile vs Waterfall. Why?

August 26, 2016

Every week it seems like I read, see or hear someone positioning Agile as some sort of opposite of Waterfall.  I understand why people do this – it’s a shortcut of sorts.  However I feel it can be extremely shortsighted and a potential conversation-killer, especially when people in positions of authority or of significant influence are the ones doing these comparisons.  It’s even worse, in my opinion, when Agile practitioners do it.

Waterfall, as a software development approach, is largely a straw-man.  If you don’t believe me, read the source that seems to have started it all. And yet, even if you believe Waterfall is real, recognize that it is primarily (if not solely) focused on the process aspects of developing and delivering software.

Agile, on the other hand, and in my opinion, is a cultural approach (future posts will explore this) to software development.  This culture has been adopted outside of software development.  Agile is not only concerned with process.  It is concerned with both the people and the practices involved in software development.

So while Agile is about incremental and iterative software development (which is why its often pitted as an opposite of the straw-man that is Waterfall), that’s not where it ends. Agile informs how we organize to address our software development challenges.  Agile addresses the importance of engaging those who will use our solutions during the development process (as does Royce’s paper by the way).  Agile emphasizes paying attention to our technical practices and improving as we progress.

So instead of comparing Waterfall with Agile – which reminds me of people who compare the United States with Africa (thinking Africa is a country) and I’ve met quite a few of those people in my day – let’s have meaningful conversations around the aspects of the way we work that we’d like to improve.

What’s Wrong With Scrum – Part Deux

May 8, 2016

Five months (and a bunch of Agile thoughts) later, its time to continue to address the challenges organizations have with Scrum.

In my last post on this subject, I focused on the Scrum Master role, the current certification model and the failure of people who are in supposed Agile change agent positions to really dig deep and own their craft.  I got a bit of feedback from some people indicating I was a bit too harsh.  I’m sorry if I offended anyone.  The remainder of this post may also be offensive to some. Please proceed with caution.

This post focuses on the situation where the existing organizational culture not being a fit for Scrum (and Agile).  The values of each subculture are not shared or complementary and the behaviors are at odds with each other.

Many organizations that want to “go” Agile (by way of Scrum for example) don’t realize that they are potentially embarking on a cultural change that the organization may not be prepared for.   A lack of awareness and unpreparedness eventually causes conflict and failure. I’ll present (as examples) three Agile cultural values that are often at odds with the prevailing cultural values in many organizations.

Planners Plan, Doers Do

I’ve shared my thoughts on the role of the manager in knowledge work and human-based systems.  You can check out all my posts on this here.  Many (if not most) managers have been informally trained to be managers from the school of Taylorism with the belief that managers “plan” and the non-managers “do”.  A manager is only successful if she or he is good at telling people exactly what they should do, how they should do it and ensuring it gets done.

Scrum teams are self-managed. It’s been my experience and observation that many organizations find themselves at odds with the concept of self-managed teams because it challenges the conventional role of a manager in their organization.

The organization has little need for Scrum Master’s who focus on helping establish self-organizing teams.  Managers want someone who will answer to them and “drive the team to success”. But in order to have the moniker of an “Agile organization”, they label these individuals as Scrum Masters.  It doesn’t take long for Scrum to implode in such environments.

Get Off My Lawn

Many organizations struggle with establishing cross-functional teams that work across functional silos.  The development of products is often more than just a ‘tech org’ endeavor and yet I often hear people (in and outside of technology) suggest that Scrum (and Agile) is just for technology.  As a result of this, silos are encouraged and reinforced.  People spend hours debating roles and responsibilities and then developing RACI matrixes to govern their interactions.  Working as a cross-functional team throughout the process of developing products simply doesn’t occur.  Instead, work is handed off from department to department and complex processes are developed to manage these handoffs.  If your organization is not committed to cross-functional teams and believes deeply in silos, Scrum has a little chance of helping the organization change.

It’s Just Complicated (Not Complex)

Many individuals in organizations will agree (on paper) that product development is inherently complex and yet their behaviors would indicate that they view software development as being a “complicated”.  What’s the difference between complicated and complex?  The answer to that is probably worthy of it’s own post however I will try to illustrate with simple examples.

A jigsaw puzzle of 1000 pieces is complicated.  Even though it’s difficult and may take hours to finish, there is still only one outcome that indicates that we have solved the puzzle. With study we can determine the best way to solve the puzzle and possibly automate its solution.  On the other hand, a soccer match is complex.  There are many interactions that are occurring and multiple outcomes are possible.

Product development is complex.  Scrum as a framework realizes this and has “rules” and events that are intended to guide work that is occurring in a complex system.  Organizations that spend a lot of time creating plans and then attempt to follow them as closely as possible are treating product development as if it’s complicated.  Organizations that focus primarily on efficiency (over effectiveness) are essentially considering the creation of products to be a predictable and repeatable process.  Scrum will struggle in environments where this is the case.

Culture Matters…

These are just three examples of where the Scrum subculture could be in conflict with an organizations pre-existing subculture. I actually expect such conflicts to exist.  The question is this: Is your organization ready to embark on a cultural change journey or is it wedded to its current culture?  If there is no intention for meaningful change, then it’s very likely that there is nothing with Scrum. On the other hand, there may be something wrong with your organization.  I’ll let you decide that.

What’s Wrong With Scrum?

January 10, 2016

What’s wrong with Scrum? In my opinion, nothing really. That’s right, nothing.

But Scrum isn’t perfect. Okay, show me what is, please.

But Scrum is missing some key properties. Okay, show me what has ALL the key properties you believe are required for successful software delivery.

But Scrum doesn’t work in MANY situations. You just might be right and I just might agree with you. But does that mean that something is wrong with Scrum? I think not – and I’m not a Scrum defender (even though it seems like I’m becoming one these days).

There are at least a three reasons that I can quickly think of as to why Scrum will NOT work in a given context (I assume you’ll be able to add to the list):

  1. The nature of the work is not a fit for Scrum.
  2. The organizational culture is not a fit for Scrum.
  3. The individual(s) responsible for guiding Scrum adoption are lacking in skill and ability.

In a very unusual turn for me, I want to explore bullet point 3 first, that is, I want to focus on the individual(s). I rarely do this but in this case I believe it to be important, so with that being said, let’s talk about the Scrum Master role.

The Scrum Master Role

The Scrum Guide says this about the Scrum Master:

The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules.

The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.

But actually doesn’t stop there, it goes on to say the following:

Scrum Master Service to the Product Owner

The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner in several ways, including:

  • Finding techniques for effective Product Backlog management;
  • Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items;
  • Understanding product planning in an empirical environment;
  • Ensuring the Product Owner knows how to arrange the Product Backlog to maximize value;
  • Understanding and practicing agility; and,
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed.

Scrum Master Service to the Development Team

The Scrum Master serves the Development Team in several ways, including:

  • Coaching the Development Team in self-organization and cross-functionality;
  • Helping the Development Team to create high-value products;
  • Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress;
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed; and,
  • Coaching the Development Team in organizational environments in which Scrum is not yet fully adopted and understood.

Scrum Master Service to the Organization

The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including:

  • Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption;
  • Planning Scrum implementations within the organization;
  • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact Scrum and empirical product development;
  • Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team; and,
  • Working with other Scrum Masters to increase the effectiveness of the application of Scrum in the organization.

I took the liberty to copy directly from the Scrum Guide because I consider this to be important stuff.  (Another good resource is the 42 tasks).

A careful review of this role description hopefully makes it obvious to the reader the vital nature of the Scrum Master role in Scrum.  If you currently serve in the role of a Scrum Master, what does your self-assessment look like taking into consideration the Dunning-Kruger effect? Be honest with yourself. Did you understand what empirical product development was (before you googled it right now)?

I posit that one of the big challenges to Scrum in the industry is the inability of many Scrum Masters working in different organizations to be effective. I might be wrong about this but after working with a lot of Scrum Masters, interviewing many more and participating in online discussions, I believe there is some truth to this.

So why is this the case? There are few reasons in my opinion and yet today I just want to look at three that focus largely (surprisingly) on the individual. (There are organizational factors that contribute to the low degree of skill and ability as well, but those will be addressed in a subsequent post.)


The Scrum Master Certification

For a handsome fee and a two-day training session, you can become, wait for it, a Certified Scrum Master. The Scrum Alliance says that: As a CSM, you will be able to fill the role of Scrum Master or Scrum team member.

I am yet to understand how a 2-day training session equips anyone to effectively perform the services required of a Scrum Master (except they were already a practitioner).  I would love for someone to bring clarity around this statement. People tell me that they are going to take the class so they can act in the role. Recruiters present candidates that are CSM’s. Managers look to hire CSM candidates. The services are entrusted into the hands of people who are not qualified to perform the role (but they are certified).

The way the CSM certification seems to have been positioned leads people to believe that just taking the class qualifies them for the role and that there is really nothing much to it. This may not be the intent of the Scrum Alliance, but it is definitely (at least) an unintended consequence. Your CSM trainer might even be good enough to stress what is needed to be really effective and yet I’m not sure that makes a difference to many people. I suppose I could be wrong. My interactions would suggest that I’m not.

As Rob Myers and I discussed the other day:


Shallow Commitment to Craft

What’s sad about this point is that I encounter many Scrum Master’s that are more committed to enforcing myths in Scrum (as I pointed out in my last post) than they are to improving their craft and growing in their knowledge. They are victims of a “little learning”. As I asked in my last post, when is the last time you as a Scrum Master reviewed the Scrum Guide? Do you know that the Scrum Master doesn’t actually have to attend the Daily Scrum? How about the Agile Manifesto? What’s the last “people coaching” book you read? How about the last dialogues you participated in on a Scrum forum? How much time are you investing in growing your ability?

Scrum Masters that do not continually evolve their capability actually retard the adoption of Agile in the organization. Facilitating events is only the tip of the iceberg. There is more to the role than meets the eye.  Go back and read the role description again.

If you’re really serious about being a Scrum Master then the Certified Scrum Professional certification may be something you would want to look into.


Poor Examples

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying the following:

Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.

I find that many people feel they can be effective Scrum Masters because of the examples of other Scrum Masters they see around them on a daily basis. Examples that are extremely poor. Examples that suggest that one can perform the role after a two-day training session. Examples that suggest that the role is only about facilitating meetings and removing impediments. Examples that suggest that the role is just another flavor of a project manager (or release manager or…well you get the point).

I’ve focused on the Scrum Master role here because Scrum is talked about quite a bit. I do need to point out however that these observations are not exclusive to the domain of Scrum. I find them quite applicable to Agile (as a value system) and any of its methods and frameworks that are being used today. Hence, this post is not just focused on Scrum and the Scrum Master role.  Its scope includes all Agile Team Leader-type roles.

At the beginning of this post, I presented 3 reasons why Scrum may not work in a particular context. Interestingly enough, an ineffective Scrum Master will not be able to identify reasons 1 and 2 presented above. It disastrous having people who don’t have the requisite skill guide Agile adoption. I’ve encountered many certified Scrum Masters who want to make every thing they do fit into the Scrum framework. For them, they have a hammer and everything is a nail. The inability to take a step back and look at things through the eyes of the system is severely lacking. Sometimes, Scrum is not initially a fit and it’s in the best interest of the teams and organizations to evolve so that Scrum does become a fit. At other times, something else (instead of Scrum) needs to leveraged. The ability to discern and then influence appropriately is critical and yet I find those skills to be significantly lacking in many Agile Team Leaders.

So for Scrum Masters or for those intending to be Scrum Masters (or similar Agile Team Leader roles), take a few minutes to understand the significance of the contribution you are supposed to be making within your organization. Identify where you have gaps and make a conscious effort to address them. Find someone in your organization or the Agile community who can be your coach or guide. Join Twitter and follow some Agile thought leaders. Join one of the Agile groups online. Engage in conversation, debate and learning.

Don’t be the reason people say something is wrong Scrum or Agile.

The Traditions of Men

December 30, 2015

Ye leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.  Mark 7:8 (ASV)

I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would ever write a post  “defending” Scrum especially considering that I’m not a Scrum advocate (ask the folks I work with, I think they’ll confirm that🙂 ). Then again, Scrum definitely doesn’t need me to come to its defense and yet I’m compelled to share a few thoughts down – at least for posterity’s sake.

Every week I come across a post indicating why Scrum did not work for a team and how they switched (or evolved as some describe it) to something else.  (I come across similar posts on diets and soccer formations as well). First of all, I’m happy that the teams found something that worked for them.  I hope that if they wanted to work in Agile-based manner, their new approach allows for that.  After all, “we are uncovering better ways…” aren’t we?

However, I find it irresponsible for these people (and other Agile thought leaders) to blame Scrum for certain things that occur especially when these things are really not Scrum things.  It’s important to remember that Scrum is a framework that needs to be filled out if software is actually going to be developed and delivered.  Scrum, via the Scrum Guide, doesn’t provide much (explicit) guidance on how to actually develop and deliver software.  It provides a framework for managing the software development process.

Before you begin to debate this with me, let’s simply agree that the Scrum Guide is the official definition for Scrum.  In my opinion, any other text on Scrum is the author(s) description of how the framework was implemented and what additional techniques or practices were found beneficial as the framework was leveraged. Unfortunately, some of these techniques (promoted by Agile and Scrum thought leaders) have over time become characterized and adopted as Scrum rules when they are really techniques used with Scrum.  They are traditions.  Let me provide a few examples.


Scrum currently says nothing about how estimation should be done and yet it would seem that Story Points estimation is considered THE Scrum estimation approach.

Delivery Cadence

Scrum requires that a “potentially releasable product increment” be created by the end of the defined time-box.  I don’t see anything in this requirement that prevents a team from releasing sooner if both they and their customer can handle it.  I also find this supposed limitation to be a bit hilarious.  I mean, it wasn’t it but a few years ago that many organizations were struggling with delivering software more than one time a year!

User Stories

Is this in the Scrum Guide?

Daily Scrum

These days it’s become quite chic to state that instead of focusing on the individuals doing the work, we should focus on the work itself.  In other words, focus on the baton, not the runner.  The criticism of the Daily Scrum then is that every day, it’s the same (paraphrased) three questions that are asked:

  1. What did I do yesterday?
  2. What do I intend to do today?
  3. What impediments do I possibly have?

Unfortunately, these three questions (while represented in the Scrum Guide) are removed from the larger context for which they are a part of. Here are the first two lines of this section in the Scrum Guide:

The Daily Scrum is a 15-minute time-boxed event for the Development Team to synchronize activities and create a plan for the next 24 hours. This is done by inspecting the work since the last Daily Scrum and forecasting the work that could be done before the next one.

In fact, if you are interested, take the time to read that section (and the entire Guide) on your own.  Tell me where it requires you to “stand up”!

These are a few examples of things I often read people say “Scrum made them do…”  So is this a post to convince you to use Scrum?  Nope.  First of all, I don’t believe it’s always a fit for the type of work a development team might be doing.  Secondly, context matters and depending on your context (of which I have no idea of), something else might be better. However, I will challenge you to read for yourself what the rules of Scrum are so you can separate those rules from the traditions of men and make informed decisions.  Study to show thyself approved.

When I have these conversations in social settings, its suggested that the Scrum Guide has changed over the years.  When did change become a bad thing?  What happened to inspect and adapt?  Show me a method or framework that doesn’t evolve and I’ll show you a dead method or a dead framework.  The real problem is that many (maybe even most) Scrum Masters that I interact with don’t evolve beyond what they may have learned in their 2-day CSM course 7 years ago.  Ask them the last time they actually looked at the Scrum Guide or how many Scrum books they have read. The answer is often quite disturbing and disappointing.  (By the way this point extends beyond Scrum and into Agile (as an approach to software delivery).  The cargo-cult behavior of people who promote “inspect and adapt” can be quite disappointing).  Don’t even get me started on managers who try to impose Scrum (or any other Agile approach for that matter) in their organizations without having a clue.

Scrum is a framework that your team can leverage (if it’s a fit) to develop and deliver products in an Agile manner. It’s not perfect because nothing really is. There is no silver bullet and that includes your new approach as well.

Respect, Show Some More

December 28, 2015

I’ve recently spent a lot of time thinking about the notion of respect and its importance in social settings.

How would our interactions be different if respect was present when we engaged?  For example, if we intended to respect all the participants in a meeting, would we still dominate the meeting with our own opinions or would we share the floor with others?  What if a team member wasn’t performing at a high-level?   Would we take the time to try and understand what was getting in their way?

Because I’m actively involved in Twitter dialogue, I’m often saddened by conversations that become “insult parties” when people cannot agree.  As I recently tweeted:

Respecting each other doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything and anything.  In fact, that would probably be unhealthy.  For example, there are a few people in my Twitter circles who have suggested that we redefine Agile or move beyond it to something more “modern”.  I disagree with some of these thoughts (and that’s substance for a subsequent post) and yet I still respect them and respect the fact that they have that view even though I don’t agree with their opinion.

Respect (in my humble opinion) is even more critical when an individual is involved in cultural change (change management) initiatives.  As an Ibo boy growing up in a Yoruba community, I learned at an early age that taking the time to understand the differences in the cultures was an important form of showing respect.  If I wanted to be able to influence, I needed to respect (even if I didn’t agree). Later on in life, I was introduced to the famous Stephen Covey maxim:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

(What should we do when we’ve totally lost respect for an individual or group of individuals?  I’m curious to get your thoughts.)

Being respectful of others can be especially challenging in certain circumstances. Let’s keep trying.

Dual-Track Agile, Why?

November 27, 2015

It’s amazing how the most innocuous statement can get the mind racing. One of my teammates went to a Lean Coffee meetup here in town and when I asked how it was she simply gave me the phrase “dual track Scrum”.  It had been a while since I’d heard someone mention dual-track Scrum or dual-track Agile. Hearing it again got me thinking about its implication to Agile software development. (Thank’s Rose).

In case you are not familiar with the concept, read Marty Cagan’s article on the subject.  For the record, I’m a big fan of a lot of Marty’s stuff.  In a nutshell, dual-track Agile is characterized by a Discovery track and a Delivery track that run concurrently. The Discovery track is focused on generating good backlog items (probably meeting teams definition of ready) while the Delivery track is focused on developing and releasing software.  The output of the Discovery track is input for the Delivery track.

Dual-track Agile is implemented by many Agile teams in many different ways.  Some teams just have a single role on the team creating validated backlog items; others employ an approach similar to the “3 Amigos” where multiple prepare the next set of backlog items to be worked and some scaled Agile approaches have a completely separate team responsible for creating validated backlog items.  My least favorite approach is the approach that has been popularized by some scaled Agile frameworks.

So why do teams practice some form of dual-track Agile?  It’s to prevent the delivery track from spinning on backlog items that are to be worked on next.  I liken it to a scout or advance team going ahead and preparing a campsite for the rest of the team so that when the rest of the team arrives; it can focus on setting up the camp (instead of clearing brush, fetching water or getting firewood).

Agile Principle #1: Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

Agile software development is characterized by regular feedback from customers (stakeholders) as feedback guides the team on what to work on next based on what has everyone has learned from what has been delivered.  This is why principle number 1 is so important.  Often people see it to be important only from the perspective of getting something into the customer’s hands.  This is true but incomplete in my humble opinion.  An additional reason why we want to deliver valuable software early and continuously is so that we can learn what really needs to be done next.

If our backlog is largely ordered independent of customer feedback then our team is not exploiting all that Agile software development has to offer.  Our goal has become to get through our backlog as quickly as is possible – some may consider this to be a project.  Value has largely been predetermined upfront.  Some may argue that Agile doesn’t make sense for us if we’re working in this manner while there may be some truth to this, I wouldn’t advocate abandoning everything Agile if a team finds itself in this situation. We may just need to make the best out of the situation while realizing that there is a huge aspect of Agile software development that is not present in the way we work.

The output(s) of the [Sprint] Review (or similar practices) are supposed to serve as meaningful input into the [Sprint] Planning process subsequently guiding the team on what it should work on next.  For example, the Scrum Guide states the following:

  • The entire group collaborates on what to do next, so that the Sprint Review provides valuable input to subsequent Sprint Planning;
  • Review of how the marketplace or potential use of the product might have changed what is the most valuable thing to do next; and,

If your teams [Sprint] Review do not serve this purpose then [Sprint] Planning is largely pre-determined based on other factors that most likely do not include customer feedback on what has been delivered.

If as a team we are pretty sure on what we will work on next before completing what we are currently working on, dual-track approaches might prudent.  They will probably reduce (what is correctly classified as) waste in the process and improve our cycle times.  However, there is the danger of operating in a “waterfall-like” manner with handoffs especially if another team is responsible for creating validated backlog items.

So here is my question for us.  If you are thinking of using dual-track Agile, why do you think it will work?  Is frequent customer feedback guiding what the team works on next or do you have a backlog of items with the order of delivery largely predetermined and the team is just making its way through the list as fast as it can (showing progress as it goes)?  Is this what it should be? Is this the best it can be? What do you think it should be?  How do you intend to change things?  Can you?

Remember that “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. Progress is dependent on the unreasonable woman or man.


Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast

September 24, 2015

Recently I was featured on the Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast.

Check it out:


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