Looking backward and forward – Scrum in 2009 and 2010

I read an article on DZone today http://agile.dzone.com/articles/agile-2009 in which several members of the agile community reflected on agile in 2009 and made predictions about 2010. There are many great observations but what struck me the most was Mary Poppendieck’s 2010 prediction – “I expect that in 2010, more people will realize that software development, and the methodologies that support it, are not the thing to worry about. Software is part of a much bigger picture, and thinking about software development in isolation has been a big part of the “Software Problem” in the first place.”  I couldn’t agree more. So based on Mary’s thoughts and the great conversations I’ve had this week with our clients about 2010, I would like to do reflections and predictions of my own.

Most organizations would have to agree that 2009 was a year of reckoning.  If in previous years, developing a more effective organization seemed like a nice thing to do, in 2009 it became a matter of survival. For most of my new contacts, this year was about identifying problems and figuring out possible areas for improvement while experienced Scrum teams worked on tightening up their practices and expanding their knowledge to associated teams. This year I heard clients say they could tighten their belts no further without “cutting off their nose to spite their face.” Working cheaper and harder hasn’t been enough in 2009 – and companies are realizing they must work smarter (yah, we’ve said that before, but it finally seems to have sunk in). Procurement agents, HR staff members, corporate training managers and other non-software folks are getting smarter about planning transitions and considering value more than ever before. “Change or die,” was certainly the mantra of 2009 but for most software teams, it seemed to be more a year of figuring out what is wrong than in taking action to do things better. I think that’s what 2010 will be about.

After a year of paralysis and analysis, I believe 2010 will be a year of great polarization in the technology community. At one end of the spectrum, we will see businesses which understand what Mary is talking about – that thinking about software development in isolation is the source of many of our business problems.  These organizations will begin forming cross-disciplinary teams of professionals not just on Scrum software teams, but throughout the organization to collaborate on business value delivery to customers.  These “feature-focused teams” won’t just be shipping usable code but rather fully functional products.  Members will not sit with their functional groups but will rather report back to working groups made up of their functional peers while working day to day with their cross functional teams.  At the other end of the spectrum will be organizations that refuse to change their traditional cultures and management paradigms and will adopt agile and Scrum practices only enough to put the labels, agile, Scrum, Lean, Kanban, AUP, or iterative, on the same processes and power structures that have always been in place. These organizations will continue to attempt to tighten their belts, outsourcing work in ways that don’t make sense, and burning through their most valuable capital: their best employees. They will continue to experience failure but will also have an opportunity to again assess their practices and make changes.

Successful companies in 2010 will:

  • Educate their HR and management teams to enable their use of empirically-validated management approaches.  These will be supported by psychological research on motivation, team dynamics, fostering intellectual curiosity, and encouraging openness and transparency.
  • Focus on the output of their teams rather than the inputs of individuals.
  • Help employees find passion, meaning, creativity and intrinsic rewards at work.
  • Encourage employees to stretch their skills, giving them permission to fail and allowing them to learn from their attempts, ultimately becoming more competent professionals.
  • Support employees in their efforts to take care of their physical and emotional well being.
  • Grant employees of all levels, clear objectives and the maximum amount of control possible over how their work is performed.
  • Consult their employees on the best way to solve problems directly affecting their day to day lives.
  • Foster a learning organization (if you don’t know what this means, ask Michael James)
  • Stop calling employees “resources” (Ok that’s actually not part of my prediction but could you all stop doing that in 2010, please?  You are not a resource.)

Notice that these are big steps – “Epics” rather than user stories.  These are “organizational capabilities” that if done well, can result in success and if done poorly, will become fodder for movies like Office Space. Imagine for a moment, “So ummm Peter, we’re trying out this empirically-validated management technique. So um, I’m going to need you to think about your outputs and be more passionate about your work – stretch your abilities a bit.  Take a walk around the block and breathe deeply. I’ll give you this list of objectives, to be clear but you need to figure out how to do it.  I’ll give you this week to try and fail before interfering. Please do some research and learning.  Do you understand? Grrrreat… and I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday.” We relate to movies like Office Space because we have all been in organizations that were trying to strive for something better and ended up with Hawaiian shirt day. Successful companies are going to need a system that allows them to adopt these new organizational capabilities at the deepest levels of their culture and operations.

Great organizations in 2010 will need both experts and experience using empirical management techniques and clearly documented visions and goals. Regular feedback loops that allow for evaluation of work and reward of success and creativity will need to be established.  Teams will need committed time boxes that allow them to solve problems, collaborate, fail, learn and try again. These time boxes will also allow them to focus their efforts more and make room for taking care of their physical and emotional needs.  Successful companies need a system for soliciting the authentic, uncensored feedback of employees from various levels of the organization, on tangible, current challenges. Finally, these organizations will need to encourage learning and the development of employees to satisfy their intellectual curiosity and then allow their staff to apply that learning and reward its application.

There are many good arguments about what agile paradigm is best for individual software development teams.  Indeed, Lean, Kanban, XP and AUP all have important practices that are particularly useful for various teams. For example, I can’t imagine a truly agile software team that’s not using engineering practices from XP.  However, when we consider what agile paradigm provides a foundation for the kinds of deep organizational changes successful companies will need to make in 2010, there is only one answer and that’s Scrum. Scrum provides the necessary timeboxes, space, feedback loops, regimentation, scalability, and reward for output that successful companies will use to make major organizational transformation happen in 2010. Happy New Year everybody!

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