March 2010

Here is Nigel Baker‘s talk on Scrum – “10 things that Scrum Masters should know, but probably don’t” delivered on the “Agile Tuning” micro-conference here in Cracow last Saturday.

Judging from blog posts by other participants Nigel’s talk was definitely a highlight of the conference – many wrote that other talks paled in comparison to his outstanding presentation. In fact I think it is a pity Nigel doesn’t do more public talking on the conference circuit and only participants to his trainings (which we have a pleasure to organize in Poland) had so far a chance to experience his zest for Scrum & Agile.


(I plan to make a high-res version of this available using BitTorrent later on)

Last Saturday I attended a mini-conference called Agile Tuning here in Cracow. Kanban was what was talked a lot about and there was the usual automotive reference: Toyota. There is a lot of fascination with Toyota in the agile community (and elsewhere) and it has always bothered me a bit, but I didn’t really understood why. Somehow this came to me during that event.

You see, there are two problems I have with this “Cult of Toyota”.

First, clearly some of stuff that is inspired by Toyota’s approach to making cars is about how they manufacture them. For example, the whole Kanban system has its roots at Toyota but it was used there to optimize the flow of material to the assembly line and thus the line’s effectiveness. However, software development is not, repeat, not about churning repeatable products from a production line composed of machines and people performing endlessly same tasks. Software development is an inventive process. Therefore we should rather look at similar fields, like product development – we should look at how Toyota designs their cars, not how they assemble them. This whole notion of looking at software as manufacturing is utterly nonsensical and ignores the reality of how software is created.

But, secondly, one thing that is clear to me is that whoever got fascinated with “Toyota way” clearly wasn’t a petrolhead. Toyotas may be reliable and Toyota surely is a great company in business terms, very well organized and managed but their products are anything but fascinating. Toyotas are generally boring small cars and family sedans, not very innovative, not very beautiful, just means of transport to get from point A to point B and not think about it too much. In a sense Toyotas are mediocrity perfected.

I personally would be way more interested in observing and trying to understand how companies that produce outstanding, breakthrough products – or at least products one can be passionate about – work. I would prefer to know how Tesla car came to be than how Toyota Corolla was design. But we don’t have to look at automotive industry for examples – within our own industry we have way lots of creativity and passion. Take Apple. It did produce more innovative, great products people do care about in the last 10 years than Toyota did through its entire corporate existence.

The only problem is that we will have to wait until Steve Jobs dies before management science would be finally able to analyze how Apple works on the inside. Before then his legendary paranoid secretiveness and unending myth-building would, I guess, prevent any serious study of this truly amazing company.

That doesn’t mean, however, that until then the best thing we can do is try to mimic Toyota’s assembly line.

Scrum community is now debating – how Scrum Alliance and Ken Schwaber and certification programs and trainers and all kinds of related stuff will play out or should look like. In the meantime Scrum is in a real danger, which I don’t think is being noticed.

This danger for Scrum and community that grew around it over the years is not in the politics and debates, but in their fallout and the “me-too” frenzy (everyone desperately wanting to write and speak about Scrum and contribute or – more frequently – appear to): Scrum risks being diluted in the babbling of multiple voices each presenting his own version. If anything can be called Scrum and if things ranging from metrics to back rubs can be claimed to be part of Scrum, then Scrum ceases to mean anything.

Why it is a danger? Because Scrum’s biggest advantage over the years has been that it was a very definite, distinct method. Scrum meant three defined roles, three defined meetings (later expanded to four by adding retrospectives), two artifacts and a bunch of rules. There were Ken and Jeff and the organization they created defining what it is, there were trainings available and certificates (no matter how weak) backing them. It was therefore a “product”, something you could take, apply in your company and even check if it was done right.

Figuratively speaking Scrum was standing out like a rock in the cloud of “agile”. Agile is a philosophy, an approach – Scrum is something that is rooted in this philosophy you can take and use without becoming a philosopher.

And that clarity was, I think, the important part of Scrum’s success – the reason why most agile teams use Scrum now (or at least try to). If Scrum looses its focused clarity it would slide back into obscurity and irrelevance, back into the agile “cloud”.

Ken was trying to fight Scrum being diluted with his campaign against ScrumBut, and he is still doing it. Scrum Alliance is, as far as I can see from the lineup for the last Scrum Gathering, sliding towards doing everything agile, even everything “soft skill”. This is what community seems to like, maybe being bored with “pure” Scrum. But it is not what businesses will like when looking for methods to use to improve their processes. Businesses need solutions delivering results, philosophies they are less keen about.

In the meantime PMI is still the winner in the business world because it is still seen as a respectable provider of serious, business centered methodologies – and “fad boys” of the Internet Web 2.0 community are already abandoning Scrum in favor of Kanban or Lean. This may be good in the grand scheme of things, but if Scrum community wants to stay relevant it should refocus on providing the clear cut “product” Scrum was until recently.

To that end healing internal animosities, abandoning “soft skills” (including pure nonsense like my “favorite”: back rubs on daily scrums) and shelving dreams about conquering other industries would definitely help. Scrum practitioners and trainers should focus on helping teams deliver great software using Scrum – focus on what we should be able to do best, on our “core” and make sure we really succeed there.