Chapter 4: Bringing Order from Chaos

Chapter 4: Bringing Order from Chaos

In software development organizations, chaos often results when a project’s complexity is greater than its managers’ ability to direct meaningful progress toward a goal. Progress might be made in fits and starts, but it is often indiscernible and unsatisfactory. Scrum cuts through this kind of complexity and wrests order from chaos. It does so by enabling a team to organize itself, which allows a particularly productive order to emerge. Let’s visit several organizations to look at them before Scrum, to see how Scrum brought order to their projects, and to then generalize some practices from the experiences of these organizations. In these examples, we’ll see the power of time-boxing to instill the art of the possible and avoid the pursuit of perfection, the practice of incremental delivery to improve engineering practices, and the practice of empowerment and self-organization to foster creativity and worker satisfaction.

The first organization we’ll consider is Service1st, an independent software vendor of customer service applications that was introduced in Chapter 2. Service1st traditionally planned and managed its complex projects using extensive PERT charts. The results were less than stellar: the home stretch of every project was impressively chaotic and was invariably followed by an extended period of employee exhaustion and apathy. The second organization we’ll look at is Tree Business Publishing. Tree’s push to move its trade journals onto the Web coincided with several other big and messy initiatives, nearly paralyzing the development groups and causing extensive schedule slippage. The third organization is Lapsec, a research and development organization that builds proof of concept applications for the U.S. government. In the wake of September 11, Lapsec was called on to rapidly develop new information concerning potential terrorist activities. This project required melding a number of technologies and an untested capability called data fusion, an advanced agent-based form of data mining.

The Situation at Service1st

Service1st’s development organization typically generated a new release of its software at least every year. The last two months of each development cycle were always a fire drill, and the result of each push for a new release was always an exhausted staff and buggy software. The company’s managers had resolved to even out the intensity of the development effort over the six-month cycle, thereby relieving the development organization and improving the quality of each release.

Upon my arrival, the vice president of development took me on a tour of the engineering space. It was absolutely empty and completely still: perhaps one in four offices or cubicles was occupied. At first, I thought that it was so early in the morning that nobody had arrived yet. When I realized that it was already 9 o’clock, I considered that maybe a recent layoff had decimated the ranks. But no—Service1st was a growing and successful software company and hadn’t had any layoffs since it was founded more than 20 years ago.

The vice president explained the situation to me: the company had just finished a six-month development cycle, the last release had gone out three weeks ago, and the staff was still totally exhausted. Developers had spent the last two months working evenings and weekends to complete the release in time. Not only was this bad for Service1st’s employees, but it was also bad for its customers: because of the frantic pace of the last leg of each release’s development, bugs often crept into the software and went unnoticed. The vice president said that he wanted to implement Scrum because he never wanted to put such demands on his staff again and because he wanted to improve the quality of Service1st’s software.

What was the method behind this madness? How had the development staff gotten so overwhelmed? At the beginning of every development release, program managers coordinated with marketing to create detailed work plans for developing new functionality. The functionality list was derived from customer enhancement requests, high-priority bug fixes, performance enhancements, and competitive features. After a plan was established, modifications to the plan were handled through a formal change control process.

The work plans were represented in PERT and Gantt charts, with detailed resource leveling. The work was divided into numerous feature sets with high cohesion and low coupling, maximizing the proximity of work and reducing the dependencies. Anyone working on one feature set was unlikely to interact with someone working on another feature set. The only people for whom this isolated condition was not the case were those lucky souls assigned to work on multiple teams. Members of the development staff were given assignments and instructed to work on them until the release had been completed.

Complicating matters considerably, the development staff was assigned tasks by role; roles included analysis, design, coding, testing, and documentation. This method resulted in a waterfall way of thinking about work. One individual would analyze the requirement, another person would design the requirement, the next person would code the design, and then, finally, someone else would test the code. Rather than working together as a team, developers worked as though they were individuals at an assembly plant, passing the product along the line once they’d made their respective contributions. This method provided no opportunities for collaboration. Furthermore, the sequential nature of the work caused work to start and stop over and over again as people waited for one another to complete antecedent tasks.

Everyone in the development group had a lot to accomplish, so why wasn’t the whole department hard at work at 9 a.m.? The vice president observed that the team usually didn’t feel any pressure until three months before the release date and that members of the team started developing in earnest only during the last two months of the release cycle. Assignments at the task level, assignment of individuals to multiple teams, and particularly the waterfall approach all led everyone to feel isolated from the reality of the release during the first three or four months. During the last two months, the developers tried to make up for what they hadn’t completed in the first four months.

The next release was due April 7 and was to be demonstrated at a user conference in March. Now was only the end of October. The staff was focusing on the upcoming holidays while recovering from the crunch of the last release cycle. Meanwhile, although it was only three weeks into the new release cycle, managers’ anxiety levels were already high. Would the release be on time? Would the staff have to work like dogs again for the last two months? Nothing seemed to have changed, so everyone was expecting the worst.

Application of Scrum

Service1st’s managers asked me to help them introduce Scrum as its development process. The company wanted all of the development organization transitioned to Scrum within two weeks. I started with the team that was working on a complicated piece of code to be incorporated into the next release: workflow capabilities.

Service1st had partnered with another software company and licensed its workflow products. During the development of this release, one team from each organization would work together to determine how the products would interact and figure out how to implement some workflow functionality. Members of the workflow team had been assigned tasks intended to further the design of four workflows. The folks in program management had selected these four workflows because together they represented a cohesive transaction.

The vice president thought that Scrum might be particularly effective with the workflow team because it was dealing with so many unknowns. He had scheduled a time for me to meet with the team so that I could get a feel for what they were doing and what progress they’d made thus far. I thought this would be a good opportunity to help the team understand a bit about Scrum; to that end, I conducted the meeting as a Daily Scrum.

The team members described their situation to me. Some of them told me that they were investigating how the two products could work together. The interaction between the products was intricate and complex. The team was struggling to determine how a single login could be used. Some were concerned that the security and authority schemes of the two products might be misaligned because each product had security mechanisms that were invoked based on user authority established at login. The team reported that although it had been working on this problem for three weeks, it could make only limited progress because the people who’d been assigned analysis work were still trying to determine how the products would be integrated in the first place. The people doing analysis were stuck, and so the other members of the team were sitting and twiddling their thumbs. They were spending their days redesigning their screens and databases to match the latest results from the people doing integration analysis.

I came away from this Daily Scrum meeting with the impression that this team didn’t own its work. Someone had told the team what to do, and it was dutifully following instructions. I decided that a Sprint planning meeting would help the team focus its efforts on a small set of pressing problems and allow it to achieve some concrete results. I determined that I would ask the team to make the two products work together just enough to support one transaction that used workflow functionality. I asked the team to set aside the next day for a Sprint planning meeting, explaining that during this meeting we would figure out whether over the course of a 30-day Sprint we could build something that demonstrated integration of the two products.

We began work the next day at 9 a.m. by listing tasks the team was working on. We then wrote down the requirements for the four workflows from which tasks had been derived. After some prompting, the team members decided that the top priority was credit initiation workflow. They pointed out that work on the other workflows couldn’t begin until the credit initiation workflow was complete. I questioned them about nonfunctional requirements that had to be addressed to support the workflow. We came up with the following list of requirements, both functional and nonfunctional:

  1. Credit initiation workflow login

  2. Credit initiation workflow startup

  3. Consistent unified product appearance

  4. Consistent security through both products

  5. Seamless and scalable operation

I explained to the team the concept of the tracer bullet, introduced by Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas in The Pragmatic Programmer (Addison-Wesley, 1999). Someone firing a machine pistol in the dark is unable to aim it. But adding luminescence to every fiftieth bullet enables the person firing the gun to see a trail that can be used to adjust aim. I asked the team to build a tracer bullet of functionality through the system to demonstrate the path for all other functionality. Could the team build part or all of the login and credit initiation workflow operating through both products and meet all of the nonfunctional requirements identified in the Product Backlog prior to Workflow 2? And could the team complete this work in a 30-day Sprint?

The team members were intrigued and excited. All they had to do was develop a small piece of functionality that served both products in such a way that the customer could perceive only a single product. The team would be building demonstrable functionality in just a month. The team would have to design only a few screens to demonstrate this capability, so it wouldn’t have to waste time designing and redesigning numerous screens and database tables. The team was going to accomplish something concrete within a short period of time. Team members could almost taste their own success. They wouldn’t have to wait through the end of the release for a feeling of accomplishment.

Managers would benefit from this arrangement, too: they would learn early the degree to which the two products could interoperate. Using this knowledge, they then could revisit the question of what functionality to incorporate in this release. The first Sprint would remove uncertainty and permit managers to focus resources on areas of real possibility. The workflow integration team was helping managers make decisions based on certainties instead of hunches and speculations. By introducing iterative, incremental development driven by a single Product Backlog, Service1st could produce a solid foundation of functionality upon which it could base the rest of the release cycle.

Lessons Learned

We can see from the example of Service1st the difficulty of trying to figure out everything in advance in a complex project. The interaction of the two products was so complex and so unknown that the tasks managers had planned at the beginning of the release cycle were obsolete soon after they’d been assigned. Just a moment after the team began work, the project slipped. Planned tasks couldn’t be completed and dependent tasks were put on hold indefinitely. Team members struggled to reconcile the work they needed to do with the work that had been assigned to them.

We can see that the sequential nature of the tasks divided the team. The people who analyzed the situation and set requirements were not the same people who would design the solutions that met these requirements. The people who designed these solutions were not the same people who would code the solutions. The team was fundamentally divided. How did this divided team manage to communicate and collaborate? Not very well: after each task had been completed, team members had to produce a document detailing the work they’d done.

We can also see that the team didn’t feel that it was making progress toward release. But what other choice did this group have? Only when the last two months arrived and the urgency set in did management give up on its plan and allow the team to do what it needed to get the release built. But by then there wasn’t enough time, so the team would have to work nights and weekends. The developers never had enough time both to build functionality and to debug it, so the releases were bug-ridden and customers wasn’t as happy as they ought to have been.

By focusing on increments of functionality, the team makes orderly progress toward completing the release. Since each increment is tested as it is coded, the number of bugs never overwhelms the project. Scrum’s iterative incremental practices provide the team with a sense of accomplishment and an awareness of where it is in the release cycle. Scrum’s requirement that each increment of code be potentially shippable requires the incremental removal of defects and minimizes ongoing bugs.

Scrum is an empirical process. Rather than following outdated scripts, Scrum employs frequent inspection and adaptation to direct team activities toward a desired goal. The Sprint review inspection is particularly powerful because real functionality is being inspected. When they use Scrum, teams are empowered to find their own way through complex situations. This freedom, along with the creativity that results from it, is one of the core benefits of Scrum.