Why the Informality of Scrum Works

January 7, 2011

Software development is all about people solving complex problems, and we’ve been making use of Agile/Scrum development as our preferred approach to software development for close to five years now. I personally like Scrum because it contends with the challenges of delivering a successful software development project while creating a motivating work environment for those individuals who are performing the work.

While simple in concept, Scrum actually covers a lot of ground:
  • It defines how work is organized and brought into the team.
  • It defines how the team manages its work and the accountability for that work.
  • It supports change throughout the course of a project.
  • It is a transparent process, with clear indicators of progress.
  • It supports continuous improvement.
And Scrum accomplishes all of these things using low-tech instruments like white boards and sticky notes that keep the work casual in appearance. It might seem counter-intuitive, but informality works.

Informality enforces the notion that Scrum is a framework, not a rigid process. Granted, some compromises must be made in terms of approaching work for people to collaborate effectively, but mandating and enforcing the use of rigid processes can lead to ridiculous extremes where following the process becomes more important than delivering value. With Scrum, delivering value comes first; how the team delivers it remains flexible. The team can optimize its approach based on the specific needs and circumstance of each project.

Informality enables continuous improvement. Formal processes tend to get locked down. Things get labeled as “best practices,” and if it’s “best,” change becomes an uphill battle. And for large organizations, change to a global process means that the change must work for everyone, another hurdle. This combination leads to little or no experimentation with changes that should drive continuous improvement and performance improvements, the very thing that organizations desire!

When it comes to managing knowledge workers, highly formalized processes are motivation-killers. Knowledge workers (such as those on software development teams) need space to be highly effective. They have knowledge about their work and how to go about it. They understand their work and their own learning styles better than you (as a manager) do. People are more engaged when they have control over their own work – autonomy builds engagement.

Informality reinforces Agile/Scrum development’s concept of embracing change. There is a product backlog, but the work is managed informally, so that change can be accommodated with minimal disruption. Priorities can be shifted, with work on the backlog that hasn’t started easily moved around. No more project plans tasked out months in advance, with dependencies “resources” pre-allocated, giving a feeling of permanence and extra overhead involved with continually adjusting the plan.

Informality, however, does not mean undisciplined. Scrum teams are comprised of professionals who can and should be seeking to provide the greatest value possible in the shortest – realistic – time frame. Professionals should understand their profession, and they should be seeking to continually improve themselves and their team. Professional discipline exists within the informal Scrum environment.

Scrum strips away the meaningless and focuses on what is truly needed and valued. And while the work casual in appearance, it is tightly focused on delivering value, using teams of disciplined professionals. Scrum’s informal, casual appearance is deceiving when you first encounter it, but there are very valid reasons for this.


Agile Scout said...

Well said. I'm glad you put in that informality, does not mean undisciplined. There needs to be a certain discipline when working in an informal environment... or chaos could ensue!

January 9, 2011 at 7:12 PM
Dave Moran said...

@Agile Scout: Thanks! And to add on, the discipline must come from within. Formality (IMO), is in part an external driver of discipline; teams and individuals must learn to take this on or -- as you note -- chaos could emerge!

January 10, 2011 at 6:11 AM

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