When (not why) “Agile” and especially Scrum are terrible

This article is a response to “Why ‘Agile’ and especially Scrum are terrible” as posted on Michael O. Church’s blog. He is not so much attacking the agile manifesto, as he he is attacking the reality of “agile”, the way it portraits itself and the excesses.

If you read the comments on Reddit then you find that there are two camps: scrum advocates and scrum haters. The haters complain how scrum leads to bad behavior and the advocates argue that this behavior is caused by doing scrum wrong. In this post I will focus on this behavior that, both parties agree, should be avoided.

1) Being judged personally

You should not be judged on hour by hour productivity as a software developer, because constant daily competition is not healthy. What particular tasks, technical debt or research tasks each developer worked on in a sprint is irrelevant. Peer pressure is the most effective way to keep people productive and looking at individual performance kills peer pressure. If there is micro-management going on, then that has nothing to do with being “Agile”.

Although there may be a high level of transparency, that does not mean that management should be evaluating people’s performance at the end of each sprint. The story points are designed to prevent management from doing this. The retrospective allows for criticizing the performance and effectiveness of people in the team by the team.

Especially web-based “Agile” registration tools must be used with care (or avoided). They are not part of “scrum” as white-boards and stickies are preferred. Also they may add lots of bureaucracy and may be misused to draw conclusions. Conclusion that may destroy the valuable trust relationship between employer and employee as they are more likely to be wrong than right.

If you see “agile” and “scrum” as tools to achieve “accountability” or “predictability” you are missing the point. It is merely a method to talk about work done instead of work to be done.

2) Developers being considered the lowest rank

The “product owners” and “scrum masters” do NOT outrank “team members”. Although they prioritize the user stories, they should not not choose which ones get executed. Also they should not assign tickets. If they feel superior or they are treated (or paid) as such, then something is wrong and not in the last place because good team members are all-round technical experts and these are extremely hard to find.

Team members are stakeholders as well. They can not only choose which tickets to work on (from the top of the stack), but also add stories (often technical debt) and argue why they are important.

One of the goals of agile is to eliminate blame and fear in the workplace. In a good team people do not fear to say “I was stuck with my code all day and got nothing done” during a stand-up. People should understand their pain and instead of blaming them offer some help.

3) Short term focus

Under Agile, technical debt can pile up not being addressed, because non-technical business people decide on priorities. They will not see a problem until it’s far too late or, at least, too expensive to fix it.

This pileup may be the result of  a straightforward application of “scrum/agile” principles. The focus may easily shift to only things that bring business value or “visible features” as I like to call them. These principles might work when imposed/implemented by an engineering team onto itself, but they break apart instantly the moment the management tries to impose them from outside.

There’s no reason why major refactoring can’t be tackled as a story. And having metrics to measure this (e.g. steadily increasing time to deliver features) should make it easier, not harder, to make the business case.

Conclusion

Short term work under high scrutiny is not fun nor agile, avoid it.

One thought on “When (not why) “Agile” and especially Scrum are terrible”

  1. I’m actually a fan of so called “Agile”. It helps me to be more productive in my personal life and it’s indispensable at work. You are right though, when badly implemented Kanban may not be as effective as we want it to. That’s why, at least in my opinion, it’s crucial to get to know very well any agile method before one decides to introduce it. There are a lot of interesting articles on Kanban and Scrumban here: http://kanbantool.com/kanban-library/scrum-and-kanban Also, you can find there a piece of advice on how to implement agile.

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