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Pitfall of Scrum: Focus on Scrum Tools

Many organizations try to find an electronic tool to help them manage the Scrum Process… before they even know how to do Scrum well! Use team rooms and manual and paper-based tracking for early Scrum use since it is easiest to get started. Finding a Scrum tool is usually just an obstacle to getting started.

The culture of most technology companies is to solve problems with technology. Sometimes this is good. However, it can go way overboard. Two large organizations have attempted to “go Agile” but at the same time have also attempted to “go remote”: to have everyone using electronic Scrum tools from home to work “together”. The problem with electronic Scrum tools is three-fold. They

  1. prevent the sharing of information and knowledge,
  2. reduce the fidelity of information and knowledge shared, and
  3. delay the transfer of information and knowledge.

Scrum Tools Prevent Information Sharing

Imagine you are sitting at your desk in a cubicle in an office. You have a question. It’s a simple question and you know who probably has the answer, but you also know that you can probably get away without knowing the answer. It’s non-critical. So, you think about searching the company directory for the person’s phone number and calling them up. Then you imagine having to leave a voice mail. And then you decide not to bother.

The tools have created a barrier to communicating. Information and knowledge are not shared.

Now imagine that the person who has the answer is sitting literally right next to you. You don’t have to bother with looking up their number nor actually using a phone to call. Instead, you simply speak up in a pretty normal tone of voice and ask your question. You might not even turn to look at them. And they answer.

Scrum tools are no different from these other examples of tools.  It takes much more energy and hassle to update an electronic tool with relevant, concise information… particularly if you aren’t good with writing text.  Even the very best Scrum tools should only be used for certain limited contexts.

As the Agile Manifesto says: “The most effective means of conveying information to and within a team is face-to-face communication.”

Scrum Tools Reduce Information Fidelity

How many times have you experienced this? You send an email and the recipient completely misunderstands you or takes it the wrong way. You are on a conference call and everyone leaves the call with a completely different concept of what the conversation was about. You read some documentation and discover that the documentation is out of date or downright incorrect. You are using video conferencing and its impossible to have an important side conversation with someone so you resort to trying to send text messages which don’t arrive on time to be relevant. You put a transcript of a phone call in your backlog tracking tool but you make a typo that changes the meaning.

The tools have reduced the fidelity of the communication. Information and knowledge are incorrect or limited.

Again, think about the difference between using all these tools and what the same scenarios would be like if you were sitting right beside the right people.  If you use Scrum tools such as Jira, Rally* or any of the others, you will have experienced this problem.  The information that gets forced into the tools is a sad shadow of the full information that could or should be shared.

As the Agile Manifesto says: “we have come to value: individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Scrum Tools Delay Information Transfer

Even if a person uses a tool and even if it is at the right level of fidelity for the information or knowledge to be communicated, it is still common that electronic tools delay the transfer of that information. This is obvious in the case of asynchronous tools such as email, text messages, voice mail, document repositories, content management systems, and version control. The delay in transfer is sometimes acceptable, but often it causes problems. Suppose you take the transcript of a conversation with a user and add it into your backlog tracking tool as a note. The Scrum Team works on the backlog item but fails to see the note until after they have gone in the wrong direction. You assumed they would see it (you put it in there), but they assumed that you would tell them more directly about anything important. Whoops. Now the team has to go back and change a bunch of stuff.

The Scrum tools have delayed the communication. Information and knowledge are being passed along, but not in a timely manner.

For the third time, think about how these delays would be avoided if everyone was in a room together having those direct, timely conversations.

As the Agile Manifesto says: “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”

Alternatives to Scrum Tools

Working in a team room with all the members of the Scrum Team present is the most effective means of improving communication. There are many photos available of good team rooms. To maximize communication, have everyone facing each other boardroom-style. Provide spacious walls and large whiteboards. Close the room off from other people in the organization. Provide natural light to keep people happy. And make sure that everyone in the room is working on the same thing! Using Scrum tools to replace a team room is a common Scrum pitfall.

Scrum Tools - Labelled Team Room Photo

The most common approach to helping a team track and report its work is to use a physical “Kanban” board. This is usually done on a wall in which space is divided into columns representing (at least) the steps of “to do”, “in progress” and “done”. On the board, all the work is represented as note cards each with a separate piece of work. The note cards are moved by the people who do the work. The board therefore represents the current state of all the work in an easy-to-interpret visual way. Using a tool to replace a task board is another variant of this common Scrum pitfall.

This article is a follow-up article to the 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls written back in 2011.

* Disclaimer: BERTEIG is a partner with a tool vendor: Version One.


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5 thoughts on “Pitfall of Scrum: Focus on Scrum Tools”

  1. While I agree that the methodology should be understood before the tool selection or technology adoption – I believe the you are missing a solution for teams that are already remote or geographically distributed. For them, index cards simply won’t cut it. In that case, I have spent a few weeks with 1-2 meetings each talking about Scrum and Agile principles, and then introduced a tool that uses language similar to what we’ve been discussing. All three times, it’s been a success.

    1. All three times, it’s been a success.

      I can’t dispute that, but I can ask: what do you mean by “success”? Do you mean that the team was able to function? To deliver? Did you have baseline information about their performance to compare before and after? I’m very curious about these situations since many people claim to have distributed teams that “work” or are a “success”, but whenever I’ve come in to coach those teams, all I see is a huge mess… compared to what I see with co-located teams. Obviously, for a distributed team, having tools like telephones and email and so forth to communicate is better than not having those tools. But for many organizations, distributed teams are a sub-optimal solution to a real business problem. I could write a lot about this… and yet I also have to acknowledge that there are also variations in goodness/badness of the “Agile tools”. For example, in my evaluation of these tools (and checking with many colleagues who have tried various Agile tools), JIRA is by far the WORST tool to use for a Scrum team. Tools like Rally and Version One can be better in important ways. However, one of the best tools I’ve ever seen used is also one of the simplest… and unfortunately no longer exists. It was called Cardmeeting.com (now the site is under construction). Trello and Agile Zen are close, but are adding unnecessary complexity. Target Process, PTC’s Integrity, MS TFS, all basically suck, but are better than JIRA. Short version: if you’re using JIRA, I really feel bad for your team.

  2. This is quite common claim by Agile trainers that physical board is the best. For collocated teams this is a good solution. And only when people are travelling, work in distributed team and for whatever reason are away from the board you quickly loose all the benefits. I was trying to solve it in a different manner – how should the online tool look like, so it does not cause problems compared to a physical board. The idea is to remove all collaboration features from it. No comments, no discussions in the tool. You can check how it look @ https://alldone.io

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