Scrum is about teamwork

The name was inspired by the scrum formation which is part of Rugby. It’s all about harnessing the combined physical might of the team members. 

Yet far too often teams are all about divide and conquer, assigning each individual to their own product backlog item. If there aren’t any elements of collaboration, swarming, pairing, building ideas off of each other, then you don’t have a team. You have a collection of people assigned to work on the same backlog. 

Image by Kate Baucherel from Pixabay 

A short history lesson. Frederick Taylor invented what’s known as scientific management. He observed that in the factory there were craftsmen that all used different approaches to produce the same thing. Over time he replaced the skilled workers with repeatable instructions, teaching the managers to create the instructions and the workers to only repeat them. This created a huge surge in productivity and out if it the industrial revolution was fueled.

What is Scientific Management? Definition, principles & more | toolshero

However the problems they were solving were not complex, they were merely repeating simple steps.

Somehow however we still have a lot of leaders who believe that scientific management is still applicable to modern work. Instead of swarming on problems we see leaders that want individuals that can do it all on their own. Or only by working with the “manager” when needed.

This style of working is outdated. It’s soul crushing. We know how to do better. We must do better. Harness the combined intellect of your team and you will be amazed.

Are your teams thinking more like Solo or Stark?

Han Solo is one of my favorite characters of all time. I’d certainly love a chance to pilot the Millennium Falcon. Han and the Falcon always find a way out of every difficult situation.

The Millennium Falcon however, as awesome as it is, has a major drawback. It requires at least one amazingly skilled mechanic to keep it flying. Han is an expert at this, he pulls off a tweak here and a bypass there time and again.

I wonder if sometimes as developers we enjoy being a little like Han. One of a few experts that can keep a very complex system up and running while also figuring out how to integrate the latest upgrade or eke out some extra performance right when it’s most needed.

The trouble is that tech debt is a crisis in the software industry. There are too many systems that are barely holding together. They often require teams of top notch developers working at full capacity to even move the needle on features or improve stability. The code is a mess, too complex and tightly coupled to allow for significant changes except at an exorbitant cost. Shiny new systems only exist in dreams for many teams and companies. 

If we’re to combat this successfully we have to do things differently. 

There are many great techniques that can help coders create more maintainable and testable systems. Scrum’s main purpose is to get a product to done. DevOps is all about automating everything possible. Technical excellence is always a worthy pursuit. We’ll save a deep dive on those for another time. For now we’ll stick to fictional inspiration.

As a counter example to Han and the Falcon take a look at Tony Stark. He’s somehow able to create suits that work flawlessly and other people are able to use them intuitively. Instead of being stuck maintaining the same suit all the time, he’s constantly creating and releasing new versions. The pattern is clearly superior. Release a working product and then regularly release better versions. 

I invite all developers to channel their inner Tony Stark. Create simpler designs and cleaner code so that it doesn’t always require a genius like yourself to maintain it. 


On Time & On Budget

Agile development approaches require a fundamental shift in the way we think about, manage, and evaluate projects.

It’s such a shift that often even people working within agile environments may not fully understand it.

For example, it’s amazing how many software management job postings are looking for someone who is both an expert at agile development practices and leading agile teams, and also has a proven track record of bringing projects in on time and on budget. On time and on budget sure sounds great. Especially if you’ve ever been on a project that really went sideways. The problem is, if an agile approach is used, there’s no way to actually know if it was on time or on budget. Because in order to determine those things we’d need to know at the start exactly what we were building (and even then it’s incredibly hard to estimate accurately).

With agile, instead of primarily attempting to deliver a given set of features within a given time frame, we focus on delivering as much business value as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. While maintaining quality at release levels throughout. This approach allows for visibility of actual progress, managing risk at every step, and adapting to changes in the market.  From a project management standpoint it’s much more about visibility than predictability. Though paradoxically, predictability may increase as well under the right conditions.

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The Art of Mastery

Thanks to Daniel Pink and his book Drive, the concept of pursuing mastery has become more popular in modern corporate culture.

The best example I’ve come across of pursuing mastery is an old school one.

George Pocock grew up in England where his father made racing shells for rowers. George learned to row and he learned to build shells. He ended up immigrating to America and eventually setup shop at the University of Washington’s boat house. His handcrafted racing shells were without a doubt the best in the world. Part of it was using better material found in the great woods of the northwest, much of it was his dedication.

If you haven’t read The Boys in the Boat, I highly recommend it. It provides deep lessons on dedication, perseverance, leadership, and teamwork. And it’s an exciting story of triumph too. In the book, George Pocock is a secondary figure. However, he’s my favorite character. He was a true craftsman and a poet.

What lessons can we learn from his example?

George Pocock believed in the power of concentration, deep thought, and extreme caring.

“Growing up and learning his trade from his father at Eton, he had used simple hand tools-saws, hammers, chisels, wood planes, and sanding blocks. For the most part, he continued to use those same tools even as more modern, laborsaving power tools came to market in the 1930s. Partly, this was because he tended strongly toward the traditional in all things. Partly, this was because he believed that the hand tools gave him more precise control over the fine details of the work. Partly, it was because he could not abide the noise that power tools made. Craftsmanship required thought, and thought required a quiet environment. Mostly, though, it was because he wanted more intimacy with the wood-he wanted to feel the life in the wood with hands, and in turn to impart some of himself, his own life, his pride and his caring, into the shell.” – The Boys in the Boat page 136.

This quiet, thoughtful approach is so different from our modern world full of interruptions, distractions, and noise. How many teams work in shared spaces? Open floor plans where there is no chance for audio or visual privacy? How often do we allow email, text messages, or social media notifications to interrupt our concentration?

More importantly, mastery requires a level of caring that is rare and precious.

“Pocock paused and stepped back from the frame of the shell and put his hands on his hips, carefully studying the work he had done so far. He said for him the craft of building a boat was like religion. It wasn’t enough to master the technical details of it. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had a left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart. He turned to Joe. ‘Rowing,’ he said, ‘is like that. And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.’” – The Boys in the Boat page 215.

It’s worth considering, which parts of our lives we should pour a piece of ourselves into. If none are worthy of that, it’s time for a change.

Seth Godin argues that we should all be artists. I also believe that this concept of being an artist is something we should all pursue. No matter the medium, pursuing mastery is an art form.

“In fact, George Pocock was already building the best, and doing so by a wide margin. He didn’t just build racing shells. He sculpted them.

Looked at one way, a racing shell is a machine with a narrowly defined purpose: to enable a number of large men or women, and one small one, to propel themselves over an expanse of water as quickly and efficiently as possible. Looked at another way, it is a work of art, an expression of the human spirit, with its unbounded hunger for the ideal, for beauty, for purity, for grace. A large part of Pocock’s genius as a boatbuilder was that he managed to excel both as a maker of machines and as an artist.”

– The Boys in the Boat page 136.

Scrum Power

Scrum is a framework used to develop complex products. It describes roles, artifacts, events, principles, theory, and most recently, values.

Overall it’s a powerful framework to help software development teams work together more effectively.

The roles are critical and provide everyone the opportunity to do their best work.

Scrum Master – Guardians of performance and quality

Product Owner – Maximizes the value created by the team

Development Team – Produces working software every sprint by self-organizing into a functional team

The cadence of the events provides useful stages of planning, working, and reviewing. The foundation of transparency helps reveal all important challenges and problems. The frequent inspect and adapt cycle allows for fitting the process to meet almost any challenge. There is power in these mechanics.

What I’m coming to believe in most strongly, however, are the values. That’s where the power of scrum truly resides. Commitment, focus, courage, openness, and respect.

There’s a beautiful analogy of planting a high performance tree with these values acting as the roots of the tree. With strong roots, a healthy and productive tree will form and grow into something capable of withstanding extreme weather and producing valuable fruit.

The most challenging aspect of developing software is usually the people and not the technology. Getting people to align, collaborate, and support each other is tricky. Using the scrum values, the people can grow together like a band of brothers to more fully enjoy their work and produce things of value for the clients or organizations. It’s a more elevated form of working together.

When people are, by their own choice, committed to the team, things will run better.

When team members have the opportunity to focus on their work and often reach a state of flow, good things will happen.

Teams with members who have the courage to voice their concerns or share their innovative ideas, will experience more learning and will produce better products.

Teams that are open about what’s happening will be able to recognize and overcome their problems.

Respect between peers will go a long ways towards improving the feelings of the team members and when that happens, teams can become capable of almost anything.

If you’re involved with scrum, I highly recommend focusing first and foremost on the values.