Scrum and Agile Adoption: Backsliding into Waterfall Habits


It’s very common, when an organization is in the Shu level of learning Agile or Scrum, for it to fall into old, bad, waterfall habits.  Today I’d like to talk about two bad waterfall habits:  tracking so called ‘individual velocity,’ and tracking actual effort expended on a task or story.

First, tracking some sort of metric like “individual velocity” is probably an excellent way to completely sabotage your project/product and it’s also a great way to kill your Agile adoption.  A key concept in the Agile Manifesto principles, as well as in Scrum, is team work and “self-organizing” teams.  Self organization is generally the ability for a team to create and execute their own plan of work(Sprint Backlog), as well as decide “How” to do their work.  Whenever there is a single entity (individual on or off the team, department, etc) who strongly influences or makes unilateral decisions for how a team works, there is, by definition, no self organization.  Tracking individual velocity, or any similar “individual incentive” (this can include raises, performance reviews, awards, etc) does not encourage team work at all.  In his book, Agile Estimating and Planning, Mike Cohn says it this way:

“If I am forced to choose between finishing a story on my own and helping someone else, what incentive does measuring individual velocity give me?  Individuals should be given every incentive possible to work as a team. If the team’s throughput is increased by my helping someone else, that’s what I should do. Team velocity matters; individual velocity doesn’t. It’s not even a metric of passing interest.”

Tracking actual effort expended is another really bad waterfall habit.  Tracking estimates and actuals is just another example of where Common Project Management Metrics Doom IT Departments to Failure.  Mike Cohn, an Agile and Scrum thought leader, and a former project manager himself, says this about tracking estimates and actuals:

“On a project, it is far more useful to know how much remains to be done rather than how much has been done. Further, tracking effort expended and comparing it with estimated effort can lead to ‘evaluation apprehension’ (Sanders 1984). When estimators are apprehensive about providing an estimate, the familiar ‘fight or flight’ instinct kicks in, and estimators rely more on instinct than on analytical thought (Jørgensen 2004).

Tracking effort expended in an effort to improve estimate accuracy is a very fine line. It can work (Lederer and Prasad 1998; Weinberg and Schulman 1974). However, the project manager or whoever is doing the tracking must be very careful to avoid putting significant evaluation pressure on the estimators, as doing so could result in estimates that are worse rather than better.

Additionally, keep in mind that variability is a part of every estimate. No matter how much effort is put into improving estimates, a team will never be able to estimate perfectly. Evidence of this is no further away than your morning commute to work. There is an inherent amount of variability in your commute regardless of how you travel, how far you must go, and where you live. If you drive to work, no amount of driving skill will eliminate this variability.”

In a later post on the ScrumDevelopment Yahoo Group, Mike summarizes it this way:

” I’d say you shouldn’t do it because it doesn’t add value commensurate with its cost. Don’t argue with your bosses that it ‘adds no value’ because
comparing what you originally thought a task would take with what it did take can help make you a better estimator.

But, it can be time-consuming to track actuals, especially for a full team where some on the team are probably already decent estimators.

Because Scrum already has solid mechanisms for monitoring whether all the work gets done in a sprint (high team commitment, daily burndown charts, daily scrum, and so on), Scrum does not have the same reliance on early and accurating estimating that a predictive or waterfall approach does.

So–the cost to gather actuals is the same in Scrum or waterfall. The benefit in Scrum is greatly reduced.”

So, be very careful when backsliding into old waterfall habits.  It usually happens in small doses, which is why many Shu level adoptions don’t notice it, especially if they don’t have a skilled Scrum Coach or highly experienced Scrum Master around.  The other thing to keep in mind is that, even if you do have someone skilled around, this old adage still applies:  “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make ‘em drink.”

What kind of backsliding into old waterfall habits have you seen?  What do you suggest be done about them?  Sound off in the comments below!

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