We don't do "pure" Scrum here

"We don't do 'pure' Scrum here"

Unfortunately, I have heard this all too often in recent weeks while setting up a new scrum team.  Other parts of the organization are having good and long term successes with scrum, but a different team manager has shown some resistance.

While reading Richard Hundhausen's book "Professional Scrum Development with Microsoft Visual Studio 2012" I found a great analogy for just this attitude:

"You can think of Scrum as being like chess.  Both have rules.  For example, Scrum doesn't allow two Product Owners just as chess doesn't allow [a player to have] two kings.  When you play chess, it is expected that you will play by the rules.  If you don't, you are not playing chess.

It is the same with Scrum. Another way to think about it is that both scrum and chess do not fail or succeed. Only the players fail or succeed.  Those who keep playing by the rules will eventually improve, though it may take a long time to master the game."

and those who do not play by the rules will never master the game.  and in fact are playing a flawed game, at best an untried, patchwork game of rules that are cherry-picked with no evidence or experience of their effectiveness.

in short, there is no "pure" Scrum.  You either Scrum, or you do not.

The Scrum Master

Recently, I have been enjoying reading "Professional Scrum Development with Microsoft Visual Studio 2012" by Richard Hundhausen.

One important thing that he reminded me of, about being a scrum master, was the servant leader attitude, eloquently encompassed by the words of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching:

"When the master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists.  Next best is a leader who is loved. Next is one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.  If you don't trust people, you make them untrustworthy. The master doesn't talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say "Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves!"

How Agile sets up teams to be Excellent

Agile is an excellent framework for organizing a team to produce work. But it says very little on how to make that team excellent at what they do. And that is one of Agile’s strengths – it allows a team to find its own way to excellence without imposing rules.

Actually, Agile says *almost* nothing – but it does say this:

-      The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams
-      Agile processes promote sustainable development.
-      Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project
-      At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

NB: taken from the Agile principles

These principles are still somewhat vague: we have to look at Agile Methodologies, like Scrum, to see how these can be done.  Scrum introduces the Scrum Master with guidelines to promote sustainability, daily working, and reflection in retrospectives.  But the Scrum Master is a servant-leader to the team, and from here Scrum is silent on how to ensure the team is behaving as an excellent team.  Or rather, Scrum, and Agile as a whole, leave the door open for excellence to take hold.


Here excellence is the art of doing things easily, even if they are difficult. It’s maximizing the amount of work NOT done, when you can reach your goals with the minimum of effort, stress, complication. This could have been taken straight from the book of Lean, Occam’s razor - climbers know this as "flow".

Many examples of excellent teams are all around us: A medical team performing open-heart surgery, fire-fighters, an IT support desk, Air-traffic controllers.  In sport: an F1 pit team, a yacht crew, and of course, a rugby scrum. Even in the animal kingdom you can find Wolves, whales, bees and ants whose teamwork is excellent.

Excellent teams are recognized as being excellent by the following characteristics

-      They have a positive outlook with drive and purpose
-      They Communicate well, are Friendly, and even have Fun!
-      They are Supportive, they Share and Learn together
-      They are inclusive, they Trust and Respect each other, are Open and Honest with each other

How then does a team gain these characteristics?

Firstly through awareness: Be aware of when you are excellent, as an individual and as a team. Notice how you get things done, when work is easy, when the team ‘Gels’, or when it delivers. Don’t focus on the negatives – this is practicing to fail. Better to enhance the positive and use the ripple effect to raise all round ability.

Next is buy-in.  Ask the team how they think an excellent team behaves, how work should be done, what it would be like to work in an excellent team. Ask them what actions they could take to encourage that behaviour. Since it comes from the team itself, they will be more receptive to start acting this way.

Ask them what the benefits of excellent teams are? to the team itself, their department, the organization, their customers. The potential alone can be a great motivation.

Finally, make time for the team to update the issues in retrospectives and other discussions, issues such as obstacles to excellence, how to give each other support, and how to build on current successes into areas still below par.

These concepts and tools can easily be combined with Agile methodologies while still preserving the responsibility and synchronicity of the team, and also helping them on the way to discover their own excellence.

This blog was inspired after attending the Technical Excellence course from Meta.  Many thanks to Jo and Di for their insight and support.

When to estimate in Story Points and when in Hours?

Yes, you do need to estimate twice, but at different times and for different reasons: 

Stories should be estimated in story points as soon as they are found. As soon as the PO adds them to the Product Backlog, they should be given to the team for estimating. This can be done in a an ad-hoc way e.g. after daily stand up, or at a regular story-pointing workshop. Doing this allows the PO (and everyone) visibility on the total size of backlog, and allows effective release planning. This also allows the team some visibility of future stories and give input to the PO on options, issues and possible designs. 

So that means in sprint planning, the PO and the team can know pretty accurately what stories will be in the sprint, based on their previous velocity. Planning is split into two parts. First the PO presents the next priority stories, the team discusses them and validates the story point estimates. They do this until they have enough to stories in the sprint. This is the Sprint Backlog. 

The Second half of the meeting is about taking the Sprint Backlog stories and breaking then down into tasks for the team to carry out. Each task should be small so as to be easily understood and carried out. They should also be estimated in (ideal) hours. This has several uses: 
1. Tasks shouldn't be larger than 12 hours (my measure). This keeps tasks small and simple and will highlight problems quickly 
2. It gets the team really thinking about how they will implement the task 
3. When the team starts the task, they know the time it should take and can raise an issue if they cant meet it. 

And of course the team can get another measure of workload against capacity using the total number of hours available to the team, versus the total number of hours for tasks. 

So both types of estimates are necessary for different reasons, but doing both in planning is too late for release planning, and makes the planning meeting very long.

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Vertical: the Agile Approach to feature break-downs in a cross-functional team

Horizontal Vs Vertical.jpg

Its vertical, not horizontal

Very often, the way that requirements - usually described as stories or features - are broken into tasks is along a horizontal paradigm.  But in an agile context, this is the wrong way to promote flexibility, efficiency and teamwork- in short, agility.

by horizontal, I mean in the sense of layers of an application, an architecture that works in separating the presentation, business logic and data handling parts of applications.  But should you create a breakdown of a story into tasks along these layers?
For example, a story "as a customer, I want to register on the website to gain access to personalized services"  registration data might include name, address, phone numbers, email address, passwords, marketing preferences, etc. Breaking the story horizontally would get the following:



  1. write page HTML
  2. write JavaScript form validation
  3. write business level logic
  4. write database queries
  5. Write test cases
  6. execute tests

 The problem is, we have just broken this down in accordance with waterfall.  You cant start working on the validation, before the HTML, and you cant finish the business layer until the database work is complete.  But worse,   you must complete the first four tasks before doing any testing.  So by breaking this along layers we have introduced a mini waterfall.  If each story is treated in the same way, this will lead to terrible issues with dependencies, throughput and team "silos"
This is a situation that can often happen, because it "seems natural" to do it, and is what developers and testers can easily identify with.  However, this is a trap.



Instead, stories should be broken down vertically!

A vertical breakdown is where tasks include all necessary layers of the application to complete a tiny peice of functionality, including testing (and any other phase).These tiny pieces are worked on and delivered by several members of the team at once - i.e. when the designer is building the html, the developer can also code the business logic, and the tester can write test cases.  So a vertical breakdown might look like this:



  1. register name
  2. lookup address
  3. validate email address and password
  4. save marketing data


here are the advantages:

  • The team can really start working together, rather than just working on bits of the same thing - no more silos
  • The team can now start on the first tasks together - designer, coder, tester. 
  • These tasks are small, short-lived so they can soon be into the test phase, shortening the build-test cycle.
  • if delays in the sprint happen (i.e. due to underestimation, sickness, priorities) work can stop on the story after any of these tasks and the work done until now is still deliverable.

 It can be a difficult change to a team's way-of-working, as they may have to go against years of training and thinkng in this way, but not doing so will doom the team to stay at a low level of agility and efficiency. But it ca also be a sig of a team;s maturity that they can start working together on the verticals.