Monday, March 23, 2009

What's Wrong with Sucking Less?

At the Agile 2008 conference in Toronto, David Douglas & Robin Dymond discussed their concerns that the majority of companies who adopt agile (and by “agile”, effectively meaning Scrum) practices were falling short of complete adoption. The companies that they were working with were satisfied with 1.5-2x performance improvements in quality and time-to-market gained by effectively cherry picking from the key agile, incremental software development practices. The authors were concerned that most, if not all companies adopting agile were content simply “to suck less” rather than transforming their businesses.

This was further explored in December of last year in a StickyMinds column “Little Scrum Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf” by Michelle Sliger, who expressed her concern that

“Indeed, many companies are refusing to view agile as anything other than a set of engineering practices.”

That surprised me. I thought that this was, in fact, the point of agile software development: for people to adopt more effective software engineering practices.

What is especially confusing is that Scrum, in particular, is really a project management approach and provides very little in the way of software engineering practices. It is intuitive and obvious and easy to implement, maybe too easy, which is why most agile projects today are based on Scrum: its strength, and weakness, is that it provides an effective framework for organizing and managing software projects by breaking them down into time boxed increments, but does not force the team to adopt specific engineering practices and disciplines, unlike other methods, and especially XP.

Martin Fowler of ThoughtWorks, one of the leading thinkers in the agile (in this case, XP, however, rather than Scrum) community, raises the concern that this lack of software engineering discipline can lead to Scrum teams building a lot of sloppy software, however quickly.

Back to the “Three Little Pigs” – the author goes on to express her dismay that

“They have not adopted the value system that is the underlying infrastructure of all agile approaches.”

and that companies who are simply interested in adopting good practices from scrum and XP, but who don’t buy into the complete philosophy and value set, therefore lack vision and lack commitment; and are at risk of failure.

I find the argument to be both elitist and dogmatic, and awfully awfully unclear. The author suggests that there is something hidden in the agile manifesto, that by surrendering to this mystery you will find the one true agile path to success in software development and anything less is conceding defeat, or at the least condemning yourself and your organization to mediocrity.

But what is this mystery, this ineffable something or somethings that organizations refuse to, or are somehow unable to, accept? Perhaps it is delivering working software incrementally, following a timeboxed approach – no, this can’t be it, this is a well understood engineering practice, one of those mere disciplines that the author suggests is insufficient for success. Maybe it is “continuous attention to technical excellence and good design”. That can’t be it: I don’t see why any organization would not accept this as axiomatic when building software. Or is it the emphasis on simplicity? Or that the team should have a good working environment and the trust and support of management? Or that developers and customers should work together? Or maybe that we need to create self-organizing teams? Just what is it that these companies, who are “teetering at the edge between mediocrity and high performance”, are failing to do?

Douglas and Dymond concede that there are too few real agile success stories: they point to Nokia and BMC Software and PatientKeeper of course; a small number of companies (very small, after 10 or so years of evangelism) who have had noted success in adopting Scrum in a fundamental way. But I would argue that there are a lot of success stories – all of those companies who are “sucking less”, who have started on a path to building better and better software: every day, working hard to suck less and still less and less and so on.

While there is a negative connotation to the term, I don't see what is wrong with "sucking less". With being practical, goal-focused, and incremental in improving software development practices. With delivering good, working software in time boxed, iterative releases. With building a stronger development team, and a better development environment. With following good engineering practices and management methods, and stopping bad ones. With constantly reviewing your failures and successes and finding new ways to improve. I don’t see this as building a “house of straw” – I see this as what we all have to do to succeed: constantly, ruthlessly get better and better together.

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