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Scrum Works Best When …

Scrum and all Agile methods work best when:

  1. Team members are co-located
  2. Team members are together through the entire work day
  3. Information is radiated visually
  4. Every member of the team is 100% on that team with no responsibilities outside the team
  5. All work is done in pairs of team members
  6. The team has a large suite of automated unit tests
  7. The team practices continuous integration of work
  8. The team is skilled in refactoring and has a large, maintained regression test suite

The first 2 items (team members are co-located and team members are together through the entire work day) address the importance of face-to-face communication. This is because all human language is imprecise. We make up for the imprecision through body-language, tone of voice, and emphasis on some words over others.

We lose all of those advantages when we use written communication, and therefore we lose meaning.

With telephone, we lose body language and have the added problem of possible noise on the line or words that are dropped in transmission, and therefore we lose meaning.

Video conferencing would appear to solve all these problems, but it is only as good as the clarity of the connection and how much the camera is able to see. Even with video conferencing, we lose the meaning of what others are saying.

Item 3 (information is radiated visually) is important because putting team information in an online tool inhibits the transparent sharing of information. If I have to open some software and browse to find the information I want, there is a barrier to me getting the information. If the information is posted on a wall in my team work area, then that information is instantly available to anyone in the area. Including me and my team mates.

Item 4 (Every member of the team is 100% on that team with no responsibilities outside the team) addresses the importance of reducing interruption. Study after study has proven conclusively that human beings do not multitask well. I don’t care what people choose to believe, the proof is overwhelming and it is true for every generation. Young people don’t multitask any better than mature adults.

Study after study has show that switching between tasks takes time, and the more complex the tasks are, the longer it takes to unload one from your brain and load the second one in. When a knowledge worker (writers, analysts, designers, coders, architects of all kinds) is working on two projects, approximately 20% of that person’s available work time is lost in switching between tasks. This is bad enough, but the problem only grows worse as more projects are added.

Item 5 (all work is done in pairs of team members) gives at least two benefits. First, by pairing the work, you always have more than one person who knows what that work is and who can explain it to others. Second, if someone has to be out of work for a few hours, then their partner can quickly catch them up-to-speed on what has happened on the project during that time. This greatly reduces the time to switch between work and the outside world. Pairing is also an effective way to quickly get a new team member up-to-speed.

Finally, items 6-8 (the team has a large suite of automated unit tests, the team practices continuous integration of work, the team is skilled in refactoring and has a large, maintained regression test suite) address the uncertainty of software. We will almost never get it completely right the first time, and so we need mechanisms to help us make continuous small improvement (kaizen), trying and testing until the software is what it needs to be. We are not looking for perfection, but quality and value. We get the quality and value quickly by writing small amounts of code, then testing it and getting it right before writing the next small amount of code.

This stuff works when you do it. If you want to pick and choose just the things you like, you will never get the full benefit of Scrum and Agile practices.


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Radiate Information

If you walk through a mature Scrum team’s workspace, you will see a lot of things on the wall. Why?

We radiate information visually, on the walls or whiteboards or windows, to transparently share that information with anyone who happens to be in the area.

Many people think that is not very important.

I once worked on a large project as an assistant Project Manager and lead Business Analyst. The Project Manager asked me to provide a weekly status report of everyone’s work. He had a formatted spreadsheet that I updated every week. Being a believer in radiating information visually, I asked this Project Manager if I could post the information as a task board on the wall. He said he did not see the benefit.

I did it anyway.

About a week later, the Project Manager wandered through the work area and noticed that task board. “What’s that?” he said. “It’s our tasks and statuses”, I replied. “What is this bit over here with no names?”. “Those are the tasks we have not started yet”. “And the colored dots?” “Those tell the status of the task”. “So John is working on task such-and-such, but no one is working on this other task.” “Right”. “That other task is more important. Please ask John to switch to that. Are you giving me this information in the weekly status report?” “Yes”. “Hmmmm”.

A few days later the Project Manager came through our work area with some other Project Managers and proudly showed off “his” task board.  He stopped asking for the weekly spreadsheet.  I started seeing task boards on the walls by other teams.

The power of posting information on the wall is hard to explain, but once you have tried it, you will appreciate how the information is instantly available by just lifting your head and looking at the wall.

Of course this assumes that the information is posted in your work area (it must be) and that it is kept up-to-date (Scrum ceremonies in front of your radiators – especially the daily standup – are a great time to update this information).

Any useful information can be radiated. A data architect I know wanted a large team of developers to review his work. No one was looking at it online. He printed the data model out on large sheets of plotter paper, put it up on the wall, and asked everyone to feel free to mark it up. Throughout the weeks of the project, whenever a developer had a question about the data model, he or she could be found in front of the wall examining the model. And when a problem was found, that person would mark it on the paper, and usually walk over to the data architect’s desk to get an answer right away. The data architect loved how the process worked, and the data model improved very quickly.

A large team I know had some problems. One unhappy person was sabotaging code, but pretending to be helpful and friendly to everyone. Once that person was discovered (and removed from the team), the whole team started to question each other and their trust in each other was hurt. I suggested they post photographs of times when they had done things together as a team and were having fun (picnic, softball game, Christmas party).  This visual wall of photos reminded everyone that they really did like being a team and dramatically improved their relationships in a very short time.

So try posting team information on the wall (rolling white board, windows, presentation pad, etc.) in your work area and see how much easier it is to communicate that information to the team and your stakeholders.


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