February 2010

Ken Schwaber announced a new certification program, the Professional Scrum Master, and blogs/discussion groups are now full of posts about Scrum, Scrum Alliance and Ken.

Some of the discussion is highly political and I feel some prospective from outside of the “club” is really due. Seen from where I live (Cracow, Poland) it looks like this:

  • Back in 2008 there is Scrum Alliance, led by Ken Schwaber, all Scrum gurus are together and everything goes fine, everyone wants to be a CSM. However, some point out this is a phony certificate, because to get it you just have to sit through a two day class and don’t be visibly asleep.
  • To address that there is talk of introducing an exam. By October of 2008 the exam is ready to be rolled out, participants to Stockholm Scrum Gathering can take the “test version” of the exam and report what they think of it. Exam is expected to become official pretty soon (January 1st if memory serves me well).
  • Then, exam implementation date is pushed back – I was back then told unofficially by “someone close to the Scrum Alliance”, that the reason was some CSTs sold classes promising CSMs without exams and were threatening to sue for lost revenue if exam is implemented.

    Whatever was the reason the exam implementation date is pushed back again and again through 2009, which looks bad – Scrum is supposed to be an effective project management method, however the organization behind it is unable to roll out a simple exam and keep its public commitments.

  • Finally, the final date for exam introduction is announced to be October 1st. Then there is an announcement from the Scrum Alliance posted on September 12th that the exam won’t be introduced until 2010 (the pretext this time is supposed need to translate the exam into other languages), then it disappears from site, then on September 15th Ken Schwaber disappears from Scrum Alliance. Then Scrum Alliance announces the exam-that-is-not-an-exam – the exam is introduced, but everyone passes (so calling it an exam is, well, not exactly true) – a true pearl of corporate-style wisdom.
  • Then comes the first real test for Scrum Alliance’s leadership – the Munich Scrum Gathering which is not an exact success for the board. None of the hard questions or real problems are met with clear answers then and since. Lack of leadership is clearly visible. Seems no one has not only vision and skills, but above all time and will to push Scrum Alliance forward. Enthusiasts like Tobias Mayer join in, stuff like “innovation games” is taking place, so there is some hope for the future – but overall Scrum Alliance stalls.

Amidst all that Scrum as such looses clarity and edge. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon now that it is seen as a clear winner – and everyone wants desperately to contribute, publish, write, record YouTube videos – anything, just to be known.

Some want to introduce Scrum in all industries, some want to dilute Scrum and agile into some soft-skills bag of tricks (as exemplified by this guy who proposed – apparently seriously – that members of Scrum Teams should offer one another physical affection and backrubs – link, link to prove I’m not making this up).

That leads to much noise about Scrum entering the Net – which, in turn, leads to a lot of ScrumBut. Thanks to all those “experts” who write and write and Tweet tirelessly about what they think Scrum is confusion increases, and with confusion come problems. And indeed voices appear that Scrum is failing in teams where it was introduced.

Clearly, something is wrong with the way Scrum is implemented – and that can indicate a problem with the way Scrum is taught and promoted. Maybe CSTs “club” doesn’t work all that well after all (I know, most CSTs do a great job, but “some trainers” clearly do not)? Maybe some “method creep” between trainers coupled with lack of exams makes CSMs inadequately prepared to implement Scrum?

Ken Schwaber’s Professional Scrum Master tries to address this. There is a body of knowledge (“Scrum Guide”), there is an exam already, there are clear rules as to both becoming a Scrum Trainer (as opposed to CST) as well as rules to retain that status (to ensure there won’t be “creep” of what is being taught) plus the course content itself is updated. Finally, there is clear focus on software development.

Now, I know there were hurt feelings etc., but from my prospective back here I welcome Ken’s initiative. While others were talking Ken simply moved ahead, created something new that tries to address the problems. If it is the right solution – we’ll see, but at least it is a move forward.

Having said that the best next thing that could happen to Scrum is some form of reconciliation between Ken and the Scrum Alliance. Last five months have shown that without Ken at the helm the SA drifts, but it would be a terrible mistake to waste all the enthusiasm and work invested by so many involved in that organization.

Someone has sent me a link to a quite emotional but interesting article by Tim Bray on why the world of enterprise systems delivers so many failed projects and sucky software while the world of web startups excels at producing great software fast. Tim makes some very valid points about technology, culture and approach to running projects. It is true that huge upfront specs, fixed bid contracts and overall waterfall approach are indeed culprits behind most failed IT projects, and that agile, XP and other key trends of recent years can help.

However, I don’t think they can really cure the problem, because we are facing a deeper issue here: the overall overcomplexity in our civilization.

Main drivers of this overcomplexity are bloated states and economy dominated by corporations. Both states and corporations have IT systems today – and the complexity of those IT systems has to reflect the complexity of organisms and processes they try to cover.

The IT system for a national health care system or a state run compulsory social security “insurance” is a very good example. It must be a complex mess because what it is trying to model and run is a complex, overbloated mess – in most cases a constantly changing mess. And it can’t be launched early because it is useless unless it covers the whole scope of what it is supposed to do: because most of what it covers is regulations and laws you can’t deliver a system that meets half of the regulations or 10% – it can’t be used. By the very nature of the domain the system has to be launched as a finished whole.

Plus, on top of all that, comes the scale. If you can imagine a completely privatized health care no system will ever cover all citizens – each doctor, hospital, insurer etc. will cover just its clients, a subset of the population. A system like NHS has to handle all of the UK’s population by design.

Same problem with corporations, especially those that have been around for long (by long I mean decades, not years): scale and mentality. You just can’t manage 75 thousand people easily, especially if they are spread around the globe, in a simple and agile way.

Just think of all accounting requirements global corporations have to handle with their IT systems – but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Whole world economy floats in a sea of legislation – legislative diarrhea of the last decades produced a legal swamp which is a nightmare to understand let alone model a system to comply with it. For a global corporation multiply that by all the countries it is in and stick some international regulations on top of this. This is something corporate systems have to cope with.

What is also important – much of that overcomplexity is computer driven: it would not have been possible if not for the existence of IT systems and computers that run them.

Take VAT tax – it is so complex I always wonder what idiots gave the Nobel prize to the moron who invented it (well, I used to wonder about that when Nobel prize had any credibility). Clearly, implementing it is completely impossible without computers & systems everywhere.

Same about the legal diarrhea I mentioned – I think it can be largely attributed to Microsoft Word. Ever wondered why the EU Constitution (now disguised as “Lisbon Treaty”) has hundreds of pages while the US Constitution is simple and elegant? Well, they couldn’t have possibly written a couple hundred page document with a quill pen which forced them to produce something concise.

But going back to the key issue of whether the corporate IT systems can be better: they can, but a deeper shift in thinking is needed. Instead of creating huge, complex systems corporate IT should rather be a cloud of simple, small systems built and maintained to provide just one simple service (exactly what web startups are doing – each of them provides simple a service, together they create a complex ecosystem). However, this shift would have to occur on the organizational level too – large organizations with complex rules should be replaced with small, focused entities with simple rules for interaction between them.

But to get there we would need a world-wide “agile adoption” reaching well beyond IT. But that means a huge political change, that is nowhere on the horizon. Unless, of course, one other enabler of our civilization’s overcomplexity fades: cheap, abundant energy.