The Best of All Possible Worlds

  1. Posted on July 2, 2013 5:46:PM by John Clifford to Retrospectives
  2. Agile, Scrum

I just finished reading the Scrum Alliance’s 2013 ‘State of Scrum’ report , and was reminded of the joke about how the pessimist and the optimist both believe we live in the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist in me is dismayed at how, more than a decade after the Agile Manifesto and the publication of Schwaber’s little black book of Scrum , so many still don’t seem to grasp the essentials of Scrum… and therefore are struggling for no reason.

Scrum is a simple framework comprised of three roles (Product Owner, Scrum Master, Team Member), four meetings (Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospective), four artifacts (Product Backlog, Sprint Backlog, Sprint Burndown Chart, Release Burndown Chart), and two levels of commitment (the people who actually do the work and are accountable for it, and everyone else). The beauty of Scrum is in its terse elegance; everything you need to successfully manage a project is included, and nothing else. Yet, I am dismayed to see that in the latest ‘State of Scrum’ less than half of the teams surveyed have dedicated Scrum Masters assigned, and only 1 in 6 has received enough training to achieve some level of certification (CSM, PSM, ACP, etc.). Of the reporting companies that are trying to utilize Scrum, 1 in 5 has no Product Owner role. A quarter of the respondents have dispersed Scrum teams (members not co-located, working from different sites); a quarter of the respondents also reported that they do not hold Sprint Planning meetings (I wonder if it is the same quarter!). For 10% of the teams, the person assigned as Scrum Master (or in the absence of the Scrum Master role, a Project Manager) drives work estimates and commitments. And, 40% of the respondents don’t run a Daily Scrum, 25% don’t hold Sprint Retrospectives, 24% don’t use or maintain the Scrum artifacts.

Why is this dismaying? Let’s look at the results (on page 32 of the report). Only one-third of the respondents were reporting consistent success with delivering projects using Scrum; about 40% considered themselves to be failing most of the time despite using Scrum. This really isn’t better than the results illustrated in the Standish Group's 2005 Chaos Report. Have we, as an industry, really gone nowhere in the past ten years? The pessimist in me is feeling a little like an Agile Sisyphus… is the Scrum training industry doomed to keep rolling the Agile/Scrum rock up the hill of software development and project management dysfunction, only to see it slip away from us and roll back down to the bottom?

And then the optimist in me steps up, and says, ‘Look at all of the opportunity! Look at our results!’ It’s no secret to anyone reading this blog: Construx is in the business of helping companies improve their ability to deliver software by advancing the art and science of software engineering and management best practices… and business is good! In the past twelve months we’ve helped companies save millions of dollars in project costs, while bringing tens of millions of dollars in revenues forward due to shipping projects early. One of our clients saw the value of their company increase by hundreds of millions of dollars due to their greatly improved ability to get their projects out on time, with high quality. I am heartened when I realize that the companies we’ve helped truly understand what Scrum is, and how to use it, are truly at the upper end of those utilizing Scrum successfully, and I am proud to say that these companies’ practices and results are not reflected by the majority of respondents to the ‘State of Scrum’ report. That companies want to try something different because their current processes and practices aren’t working is a powerful clamor for change; that companies are struggling is a powerful call for help. I know we can help, because we have helped other companies in the same dire straits understand how to use Scrum and Lean principles and practices to create enduring transformational change.

Scrum is simple and effective, but not easy. Success with Scrum requires adopters to suspend their disbelief, to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom and go where the data takes you. Scrum is a diet for transformation and success, but like any diet it only works if you follow it. The optimist in me knows why I love my job; helping people and companies succeed is both inspiring and fulfilling. The dysfunction is just a reminder that our work here at Construx isn’t done.

If you’re struggling with an Agile adoption and aren’t getting the desired results, it’s time to try something different. Get in touch with us, and let us help you achieve the success you envisioned when you chose to go down the Agile path.

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John Clifford

John Clifford is a Senior Fellow and Agile Practices Lead at Construx Software. John got his first software development job at a startup, while still in college, in the early 1980s. He started and ran a successful software company when he was 23. His career includes almost six years at Microsoft, where he was one of the original developers on the Microsoft Project for Windows and Mac team.

With more than three decades of IT experience, John has developed software across the spectrum of computing environments, ranging from desktop and mobile device applications to low-level frameworks, device drivers, and asynchronous communications protocols. Prior to joining Construx, John’s career included stints as a software development engineer, product feature team manager, group QA manager, group project manager, and development director.

At Construx, John focuses on software development, project management, product management, and team and organizational management practices, with an emphasis on Lean and Agile methodologies. As a manager, and as an external consultant, John has led numerous successful organizational transformations to Scrum and Lean/Kanban. He holds Certified Scrum Master, Certified Scrum Product Owner, and Certified Scrum Practitioner certifications from the Scrum Alliance. John was invited to become one of the charter Kanban Coaching Professionals from the Lean Kanban University, the professional association and standards group for Kanban Method training and coaching. As an adjunct instructor, John also teaches a course on applying Lean and Agile principles and practices for the University of Washington’s Professional and Continuing Education program.

Contact John