Jul 9

I’m happy that there are apparently still people writing articles about Scrum that are not ranting and venting about how agile sucks: Colin Higgins explains that Scrum is not our saviour. It basically boils down to the old no silver bullet saying:

No, SCRUM, or any of the other agile methodologies will not just magically fix your throughput problems after you adopt every facet of them religiously. These methodologies will just show you how badly your development practices suck.

I agree completely. But there are some agile development practices or tools which can help you. Go look up extreme programming (XP) and what it urged developers to do. CI/CD, TDD and pair programming are by now widely accepted development practises which can help, because they aim at bringing up problems way before they end up in production.

However, there is a boundary to what these tools alone can offer. A lack of knowledge of the technologies or a general lack of problem solving skills are fundamental issues which you can overcome only by learning and gaining experience, if at all. Another quote from the linked article:

Agile process alone won’t fix your development problems, you need technical excellence for successful projects. The two are necessary for a continually successful organization.

I would agree in principle, but there are two important issues here:

1) “A fool with a tool is still a fool” and “technical excellence” are the two extreme ends of a large scale. It’s the same as with car driving: most developers like to see themselves among the top 5% of drivers developers, but as we all know there is not enough room for everyone within the 5%. Still, too many developers would shrug the call to technical excellence away, because they believe they are so great or they have no idea what technical excellence actually means. For these developers, there is always someone else to blame.

2) Requiring the proverbial “rock star developer” is — for reasons discussed above — in my opinion not a viable option. In other words, while Scrum might not be a saviour, we’re not doing anybody a favor if we instead declare “technical excellence” as the silver bullet that can lead to success. Yes, we should strive for technical excellence and do our best to improve our capabilities (technical and otherwise). This is what the article rightfully demands of developers: do the best you can and try to continuously improve. But there still needs to be a middle ground, where it’s possible to run projects / products successfully with the people you currently have. Agile helps with that because it makes clear what is realistically possible and it aims for continuous improvement, e.g. with retrospectives. To repeat the quote from above: “These methodologies will just show you how badly your development practices suck.” That’s a great starting point. It’s a learning opportunity. Go use it.

Note that this is important not only on a personal level, but also on an organizational level: Scrum Masters should try to change the company culture to value learning. This requires room for experiments and for failures, where room translates to time and safety (i.e. support). On the sprint level, this might translate to using spikes, but on an organizational level it might involve things like prototypes, split testing and other ideas from the lean startup camp.

Posted by Holger Schauer

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