In Praise of Process

Process has been much maligned by the Agile community, beginning with the Agile Manifesto line: (We Value) Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools. Not that this is altogether a bad thing. At the time the manifesto was created it was the individuals and interactions that were maligned, and this was a way to right the balance. But if process is thought of simply as “what we do” then process itself can be a force for change.

There is a well known saying, attributed variously to Aristotle, Bill Wilson and Millard Fuller, among others: “You can’t think yourself into right action but, you can act your way into right thinking”. Scrum requires this*. When presented with the simple framework of Scrum many balk. It seems ridiculous, it’s far too simplistic, and it can’t possibly work. And yet it does. Scrum implemented well can lift a struggling company to actually deliver high quality work to customers, and it can inject new life into dispassionate, frustrated workers. We can’t convince people of Scrum through presentations, case studies, or other “evidence”. People need to experience Scrum to truly understand it. Many won’t even start.

When I teach Scrum I tell people very clearly that Scrum is not a process (and certainly not a methodology). Scrum is a framework of values, principles and meta-practices, that when embraced will allow a process to emerge that is suited to the context—to the people, products, interactions, and rhythms of the organization. At the same time, there is always process. There is always The Way We Do Things.

Implementing Scrum means beginning by doing different things. Sometimes these things are counter-intuitive, e.g. stopping work every day for fifteen minutes, and engaging in conversation. Yet in some ways Scrum is merely a formalization of what we do anyway. We have ideas, we makes plans, we do work, we get feedback. The trouble most often is length of the cycles we use, the lack of rhythm, the constant context-switching, and the relay race mentality embedded in our patterns of control, where hand-offs and milestones become the measure of success.

Scrum is about release, it is stripping away the nonsense, the waste, and creating space for people to think for themselves, to create new rhythms, new forms of collaboration, to confront and explore rather than comply and execute. A core principle of any Agile method is learning, often framed as inspect/adapt. If we don’t begin by doing things, however clumsily, we’ll have nothing to inspect.

We already have process. It won’t go away. What we need is better process. And we need to value process equally with people and interactions—each depends on the other.

* Kanban requires this leap of faith to a lesser degree. It is more logical, more easily explained in terms of metrics. Kanbanites contrast the difference in terms of revolution (Scrum) and evolution (Kanban). Personally I prefer the chaos of revolution as I believe it generates energy and creativity—it changes hearts and minds.

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