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Scrum by the Book. Does It Bite?

Published
Warsaw, 19. October 2021
Scrum, the Holy Grail of agile frameworks. Everyone has heard about it, but few have actually seen it in action. Most of the stories we hear are about why Scrum didn’t work, which only serves to make us more skeptical.

Should you really be scared?

In order to start talking about Scrum, we need to look at the issue from several perspectives: that of the team, that of the client, and that of their cooperation.  

We all have similar fears. We are all scared of change – and it’s nobody’s fault. That’s just the way our heads our wired. Our nervous system will always aim to mitigate stimuli in pursuit of harmony. Everything that pushes us outside our comfort zone is perceived as a potential threat, and therefore treated with aversion. But change isn’t everything.

If we were to conduct an anonymous survey, most of us would probably opt for the smallest possible amount of responsibility coupled with the highest possible salary. If someone else could suffer the repercussions of our (knock on wood!) bad decisions, why even worry? However, it’s hard to define this “someone else” when most of us share this mindset.

Another, equally important issue, which I’m going to discuss later on, is trust. Or rather: lack thereof.

Let’s see where these fears come from and whether working with “textbook” Scrum is tantamount to chasing a mythical unicorn galloping across the colorful rainbow of our unfulfilled ambitions.

Teamwork

A good team is like a family. Relatively speaking, we spend a lot of time with them. Sometimes they annoy us, sometimes we don’t understand each other, but we still can’t imagine working without each other. And it’s a well-known fact that the closer people are to each other, the more difficult it is to enforce certain things.

When we are governed by empathy, we’re often afraid to leave behind those members of our team who are not doing as well as others. We adjust our pace to them, thus decreasing our collective potential. Maybe we imagine that this is a more collegial attitude? I think it would be much better to work together on making the lagging member of the team assume responsibility for themselves and try to keep up with others. We’re a team, so we should help each other grow. Even if it’s not always comfortable or pleasant. Spoiler alert: it usually isn’t. But it’s worth it!

Can you give and receive constructive feedback? I sometimes have a problem with that, and I suspect many others do as well. From childhood, we are being raised in a culture that de-emphasizes sharing and receiving opinions. We deftly avoid conflicts because they’re uncomfortable. We’re scared of being judged, and of judging others.
What happens if someone from the team thinks ill of us? Will we stop being liked? There’s a multitude of these fears, so it’s easy to forget that the biggest obstacle on the road to a common goal is the lack of proper communication.
It’s very important that that your company supports teams, encouraging them to communicate openly.

It can also organize training seminars, ex. on nonviolent communication, conducted by qualified people from Human Resources or a People Team. The fact that we can’t do something is not our fault, which is a thought you should get used to. You’re free to ask for assistance at any time, and – even more importantly – you’re also free to let others assist you.

I wonder how many programmers wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night because they had a dream that they had to talk to a client. Talk! To a client! Scrum teams are self-organizing, which means that they can make independent decisions within the scope defined by their organization. Because there is no Project Manager, who used to handle all outside communication, it falls on the developer team to keep in touch with the client (Product Owner).

After all, each of us is a specialist in their field, so who better to explain to the client the details of their portfolio? I know it can be painful, but try to see this change as an opportunity to develop your soft skills. At the same time, maybe broadening your horizons will also help you better understand the challenges faced by your former Project Manager, and therefore appreciate the skills of your other teammates.

Team without Project Manager

Ohno, the Project Manager will be out of a job! Is that true though? Scrum fosters a sense of responsibility and self-organization but, like all processes, this takes time. Secondly, maybe it’s just the fear of losing control over the people and the process talking?

In reality, it is a perfect opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and try on a new role. Or to focus on the elements of your work that will benefit the organization the most. In Scrum, the Scrum Master is needed more than ever. It is he who will have the biggest influence on creating a safe environment in which the team will be able to take on more and more responsibility for their work, and keep raising the bar to become more efficient without losing morale.

Meetings that cannot be replaced by e-mail

None of us like meetings over issues that could be handled by e-mail. Still, some meetings have value – for example, the cyclical events defined by the Scrum Guide:
  • daily Scrum
  • sprint planning
  • sprint overview
  • retrospective

 

Even though each of these meetings has a different agenda, they all have the same goal: to help the team achieve the goals related to creating a quality product. The structure of scrum events facilitates communication, constant feedback, and exchange of updates on the status of various tasks. They also allow teams to quickly identify current issues and, by imposing specific timeframes, facilitate quick decision making.

How many ad hoc meetings can be said to do the same?

Let us appreciate the failures

Fear of failure is a very difficult issue that affects us all. But instead of trying to avoid it at all cost, it’s better to just acknowledge it. The moment our organization gives us space to make mistakes and stops admonishing us for bad decisions, we start seeing potential failures as opportunities to grow an innovate. Maybe instead of crying over spilled milk, it would be better to give your colleague a pat on the back and praise them for trying to create a new type of milk pitcher?

Partnership With Clients

Is grass truly greener on the other side? Let’s examine the problems faced by our clients.

Being a Product Owner, i.e. the person working to make sure that the product offers the best possible value to its end users, taking into account the interests of all the stakeholders, is a big responsibility. However, it isn’t the only challenge faced by people in this role. Getting involved in a project and working hand in hand with a team takes time… a lot of time. When we say that we don’t have enough time for fear of being saddled with additional responsibility, we often forget that the key to success is transparent communication, and its benefits very quickly become obvious. By communicating directly with team members, we avoid communication lag and misunderstanding. This allows us to make a better product based on a vision shared – and understood – by everyone involved.

Another challenge faced by Product Owners is the need to make tough decisions quickly. Most of us have a problem with that, for a number of reasons – and clients are people just like us, except they’re on the other side of the looking glass. Fear of making the wrong decision and suffering its consequences can paralyze anyone. But hey… isn’t that what adult life is all about? The good news is that every wrong decision can be fixed in the next iteration.Besides, mistakes are there so that you can learn how to do better.

Why “time & material”?

Let’s talk serious business now – i.e. money. Clients are still very reluctant to agree to the time & material model in which remuneration is based on actual time spent working. It is, also in Scrum, not only the most desired model, but also the most profitable one in the long term. Many people would probably assume that the team would use this solution to maximize profit. But the biggest benefit of Scrum is delivering a good product to the end user, so the best solution would be… to trust your partner.

Both the client and the team should assume that neither side is going to abuse the available resources. Thanks to an iteration-based approach to work, insufficient growth – understood here as a noticeable lack of progress in realizing the project – is going to be evident very quickly. Therefore, there is little room for abusing the system, and I don’t think any team would jeopardize their whole relationship with the Product Owner just for a quick buck.

Is Scrum expensive?

Speaking of finances, Scrum is perceived by many clients as an expensive solution. However, it doesn’t take a whole lot of complex calculations to arrive at the conclusion that the waterfall model is far more expensive in the long term. Why? Over a project’s lifetime (let us assume a year, for example) the world outside and consumers’ needs can change dynamically enough that by the time the product arrives on the market, it is completely worthless. What does this mean? More changes, more alterations, more time and… more expenses, covered by the client.

So in the long term, wouldn’t a more agile approach save the clients, the stakeholders, and the team both money and stress?

Time matters

Let’s not forget that time is also money. A scrum team can qualitatively plan their work two weeks in advance (two weeks being the most popular sprint length). However, it’s not exactly an ironclad commitment to a final deadline, which is influenced by business considerations.

What does this mean to a client? Mostly fear and anxiety, because the bosses want to know when the product will arrive on the market. Here, once again, mutual trust is required. Working in Scrum doesn’t mean a complete free for all – it does however inure you against a situation we all know from experience. Let he who ever saw a project meet the initial deadline cast the first stone. Even TV psychics can’t cast their astral gaze far enough to anticipate all obstacles along the way.

Every finished sprint, every delivered functionality, yields quantifiable results

Quantifiable results allowing the Product Owner to gauge the team’s speed and progress. Based on the first sprints, which should be used to estimate the complexity and demands of the project, the team will be able to more effectively gauge the time needed to complete individual functionalities and, based on that assessment, provide a projected date of delivery of the finished product. In a situation where the deadline and the budget are dictated by the stakeholders, Scrum will allow you to precisely gauge what part of the product the team can feasibly complete within that deadline. And if certain parameters are negotiable, the team will be able to precisely determine how many additional developers must be hired in order to deliver the finished product with all functionalities included.

Cheers to communication

I’ve already mentioned that communication is the foundation of well-organized work. Without it, not even the most talented team can achieve its goal. Every one of us, no matter our role, can encourage others to engage in honest and open communication. If our team includes people who usually avoid talking, we can collectively make sure that everyone is given space to express their thoughts and needs. Even something as simple as alternating the person who facilitates scrum events can yield many benefits and help the more introverted people on the team open up. The possibilities are endless, all it takes is some will and perseverance to make them reality.

To the End of the World and Beyond

I have touched on many issues here, but the question remains: how do you make it work?

Try. Make mistakes. Fall down, get back up, dust yourself off and… keep trying.

Scrum is a process, and in an organization like SYZYGY we allow ourselves to make mistakes, because we believe that it’s the only way to grow. Add to that transparent communication that builds trust for the organization and between members of our team, and… ah, but I’ll talk more about teal management some other time.

In SYZYGY I have Agile Facilitator & Backlog Master roles, among others…