“Scrum was just another hype”, thought the CIO.
The thought saddened him. He knew that people in the organization thought his attitude towards Scrum was at best skepticism, if not outright cynicism, but that was not the case. He really did believe it could help him change his delivery organization. Scrum was answering such an obvious incoherence in the traditional product delivery practice of sequential development. He could clearly see how the problems he had in his organization were rooted in the very things Scrum was changing. Despite what others believed, he did think Scrum was the right direction to go. But he was also a logical person. He prided himself on the fact that he was able to remain detached from his transformation initiatives, always able to judge objectively if something was working. And this was not working.
He had changed his delivery organization. Scrum teams proliferated, and with a few remaining exceptions, everybody was doing Scrum. When he walked around the delivery floors, all he saw were post-its, taskboards, burndowns, and stand-ups. He attended some of the Sprint Reviews and saw teams showing working software and business delighted by this new way of working. Some of the Agile coaches working for him had asked for permission to present the company as a case-study in Agile conferences (a request he accepted, proudly). He had people from HR showing employee satisfaction surveys where it was clear – people were happier working this way.
Despite all of this, he felt sure about his conclusion. This was all a hype.
He was staring at the numbers in front of him. Their time-to-market had increased marginally, their customer satisfaction also. But the improvement was so slight, he was sure it was just the Hawthorne effect. If the amount of management attention and money they had invested in the Agile transformation had instead been invested in implementing something else, he was sure it would have generated the same short-term, marginal improvement. And then there were the things he couldn’t really measure, but he could feel. The transparency and dedicated teams Scrum brought on did not decrease the biggest waste he felt was hurting his organization – politics. Managers were still engaged in political games and maneuvering. Priority discussions were endless and ended in compromised stalemates that essentially ignored the problem.
He went to his bookmarks and opened up the article one of his Agile coaches had written on infoQ about the Agile transformation in his company. He read it again. When he finished he thought to himself, “I wish the reality I see matched half of the picture painted in that article.” Some of his competitors had approached him after that article to discuss sharing best practices. He knew what they wanted - the recipe. “How do I do the same for my company?”
And he always obliged, trying to give them answers. But he felt like a fake whenever he did that. The Emperor with no clothes.
And as much as he wanted to avoid admitting it, he felt he couldn’t avoid it any longer. He said it aloud one more time, as if doing so would make it more real and easy to accept – “Scrum was just another hype.”
On his way home that evening, he stopped by his regular bar to have a beer with some friends. The Friday ritual. Once there he ordered a whisky.
“Rough week?”, asked Rob.
“Disappointing one,” he corrected Rob.
“Want to talk about it?”
He didn’t. They changed subjects as he tried to forget the issue, at least until Monday morning.
To his dismay, it was not even 30 minutes later when another one of his friends, Gary, arrived and started talking about how he was excited about a potential promotion. Gary was also a top manager (though at a smaller company), and he had managed to improve things so drastically for the product he was managing that the CEO had taken notice. He was sure a promotion was soon to follow.
But the thing is, he knew what Gary was doing. He was also doing Scrum at his company. And so he couldn’t help himself, and mid-way through Gary’s story, he interrupted with obvious sarcasm – “come on, you’re telling me that some post-its and stand-up meetings changed everything?!?”
Gary smiled at the question, and he immediately regretted the tone he used to ask it. He put down the whisky. Gary continued, “problems at work, Jack?”
“Forget it, he doesn’t want to talk about them,” Rob jumped in, “he just wants to drink his whisky and sulk like a teenage girl.”
Oh well, so much for parking the problem until Monday morning. Might as well get it out of my chest now, he thought. “Sorry Gary, I wasn’t trying to rain down on your parade. I’m sure you’ve done great things there. What I’m saying… what I’m trying to say is that if you succeeded, it’s not because of Scrum, it’s because of something else you’re doing. I have my entire organization doing Scrum and I’m still waiting for the promised nirvana to arrive. All I see behind the post-its, open spaces and stand-ups is more of the same. I didn’t want to admit it, but I’ve come to realize it’s a hype, it doesn’t actually change any…”
“Alright, I’m going to get another drink,” interrupted Rob, “I thought you had serious problems, but it’s just more of this Scrum thing. You guys need to get a life!”, and he walked towards the bar. He stopped after a couple of steps, turned around, and asked, “sorry Scrum-dudes, do I need to write a post-it ‘get drunk’ and put my name on it before I proceed?” He laughed at his own joke, turned around without waiting for a reaction, and continued towards the bar.
Gary looked at him and asked, “it didn’t actually change anything?”
“What didn’t actually change anything?”, he asked.
“Scrum,” replied Gary.
“Oh, yeah. Nothing huge. Sure, employee satisfaction is a bit higher, lead time is a bit lower, but… no, nothing earth shattering,” he explained. “I still spend most of my time in stupid political discussions with delivery managers and Product Owners who refuse to agree on the color of grass!”
He picked up his whisky again. Took a long sniff of it, letting the alcohol and smoky wood smell overpower his senses, and took a big sip. He let the whisky sit in his mouth for a bit, warming up, before swallowing. He took a deep breathe afterwards, intensifying all the other tastes in the whisky. When he looked up, Gary was smiling at him sympathetically. Like he had been there before. “Alright Gary, I can tell you’re having a hard time containing your excitement. Go on, tell me why I’m wrong and this is not all just hype.”
“The increment singularity,” replied Gary cryptically.
“Is that the name of your new band?”, he asked.
“That is the answer to your problem,” replied Gary. “We’ve talked shop before, and I told you then that until your teams are delivering a product increment every Sprint, you’re just shaving the yak.”
“But we do! I’ve been to more Sprint Reviews than I care to remember and in all of them, teams are showing working software,” his voice rising again.
“Can they put the ‘working software’ in production after the Sprint Review if the Product Owner likes it?”, pushed Gary.
“Come on, you know they can’t. I work in an organization with over 20,000 people. We manage a portfolio of inter-connected front-ends and backends, and nobody can release independently. Teams are showing the work they did for their part of the product, but they still need to integrate their work with the other teams,” he said.
“You have a weird definition of ‘working software’”, said Gary.
He took a long look at Gary, and then he looked down at his whisky. He finished it off with one swig, put the glass down on the table, and looked at Gary again. Of course he understood what Gary was telling him. And of course, Gary was right. His work wasn’t done. He had put in place all the window dressing, but had failed to change the core. None of this teams could deliver a freaking increment!
Rob came back to the table and brought a beer for Gary and another whisky for Jack and said, “alright gentlemen, no talking shop for the next half hour. After that I’m going home, you guys can talk post-its all you want.”
He looked at Rob, grabbed the new whisky glass with an appreciative nod and said, “you know Gary is starting a new punk rock band? He’s calling themselves ‘the increment singularity’”
Rob laughed, looked at Gary and said, “that might be the stupidest band name I ever heard!”
Gary said, “wait until you hear how bad we sound.”
They all laughed and the night went on.
When he got home he felt tired.
So much work still to do.