Flaccid Scrum

29 January 2009

There's a mess I've heard about with quite a few projects recently. It works out like this:

  • They want to use an agile process, and pick Scrum
  • They adopt the Scrum practices, and maybe even the principles
  • After a while progress is slow because the code base is a mess

What's happened is that they haven't paid enough attention to the internal quality of their software. If you make that mistake you'll soon find your productivity dragged down because it's much harder to add new features than you'd like. You've taken on a crippling TechnicalDebt and your scrum has gone weak at the knees. (And if you've been in a real scrum, you'll know that's a Bad Thing.)

I've mentioned Scrum because when we see this problem, Scrum seems to be particularly common as the nominative process the team is following. For many people, this situation is exacerbated by Scrum because Scrum is process that's centered on project management techniques and deliberately omits any technical practices, in contrast to (for example) Extreme Programming.

In defense of Scrum, it's important to point out that just because it doesn't include technical activities within its scope should not lead anyone to conclude that it doesn't think they are important. Whenever I've listened to prominent Scrummers they've always emphasized that you must have good technical practices to succeed with a Scrum project. They don't mandate what those technical practices should be, but you do need them. After all projects get into trouble for poor internal quality all the time, the fact that a lot crop up under Scrum's flag may be more due to the fact that Scrum is so popular at the moment then anything particular to Scrum. Popularity and SemanticDiffusion tend to go together.

So what to do about it?

The scrum community needs to redouble its efforts to ensure that people understand the importance of strong technical practices. Certainly any kind of project review should include examining what kinds of technical practices are present. If you're involved or connected to such a project, make a fuss if the technical side is being neglected.

If you're looking to introduce scrum, make sure you pay good attention to technical practices. We tend to apply many of those from Extreme Programming and they fit just fine. XPers often joke, with some justification, that Scrum is just XP without the technical practices that make it work. Sniping aside, the XP practices make a good starting point - and are certainly going to be much better than doing nothing at all.

I always like to point out that it isn't methodologies that succeed or fail, it's teams that succeed or fail. Taking on a process can help a team raise its game, but in the end it's the team that matters and carries the responsibility to do what works for them. I'm sure that the many Flaccid Scrum projects being run will harm Scrum's reputation, and probably the broader agile reputation as well. But since I see SemanticDiffusion as an inevitability I'm not unduly alarmed. Teams that fail will probably fail whatever methodology they mis-apply, teams that succeed will build their practices on good ideas and the scrum community's role is to spread these good ideas around widely.

Many people are looking to Lean as the Next Big Agile Thing. But the more popular lean becomes the more it will run into the same kind of issues as Scrum is facing now. That doesn't make Lean (or Scrum) worthless, it just reminds us Individuals and Interactions are more valuable than Processes and Tools.