Three Things I Wish I Knew Before Jumping

12 January 2010

Pat Guariglia, PMP
Elegant Agile

Like many people trying to implement a Scrum/Agile project for the first time in an organization, I encountered a number of obstacles that were almost project killers. As I write this article today, I keep thinking, “if I only knew that when I started.”

When I started managing my first Scrum pilot project in 2007, I was new to the concepts of Scrum and Agile development. For years, I led projects using traditional project management methodologies common to PMI, i.e. Waterfall. During this time, I was a consultant to a New York State Agency. It was a typical Waterfall shop, with no history of using Agile or Scrum.

Sometimes you can choose the project you want to pilot, but oftentimes the project chooses you. In my situation, the Agency had its back up against the wall and needed to expedite the delivery of a critical project. Agency funding was in jeopardy and critical business dates needed to be met. In my opinion, certain types of projects are good candidates for Scrum pilots, and others are not. The project I led had none of the characteristics ideal for a pilot project; it was not the perfect candidate for a first-time Scrum implementation.

After being assigned to manage this project, I quickly realized that the project would never meet the deadlines within the constricted structure of the organization. It was necessary to break away from the Agency’s normal project management and development methodologies. The project sponsors permitted us to use the methodology of our choosing as long as we met the deadlines. I explored Scrum and various Agile methodologies and made the decision to abandon the normal Waterfall project path.

After one year, the pilot project turned into a program of three projects. Two of the projects used Scrum and the third followed a Scrum hybrid approach for managing a vendor’s customization of a commercial software product. The program was mostly successful, and the projects were delivered on time for all critical dates. The organization was satisfied with the use of Scrum and looked for other project opportunities to leverage some of our Agile best practices.

The first few months were difficult and outright painful as the team learned the practices of Scrum, the variations of Agile development, and the nuances of the customer’s business. Our team had little guidance and no one coaching us on Agile or Scrum methodologies. For months, we worked in the dark to avoid scrutiny and work out the details of our methodology, with only a few people aware of our voodoo methodologies. We had only one clear goal, to achieve the deadlines without failure.

Even though I had moderate success with the three projects, I discovered literally hundreds of things I wish I knew before setting off on my pilot journey. I want to focus on three critical topics for this article, which I believe anyone starting a Scrum pilot project should know. The three things I wish I knew most before jumping into my first Scrum project are: 1) select a project with medium criticality; 2) continuously communicate your chosen methodology; and 3) demystify the voodoo (this one needs some explaining).

These three topics are basic and straightforward, and should be universal to anyone attempting an Agile/Scrum pilot project for the first time. I chose three things that focus on the early stages of a project, but could also be valuable throughout the project’s lifespan.

Select a Project with Medium Criticality

In order to have a successful Agile or Scrum pilot project, it is important that the project chosen has enough importance or criticality to the organization. Projects with low levels of urgency will get brushed off and not given the resources, attention, and critical thinking needed to properly develop a Scrum project. Pilots with high criticality are not good for several reasons. The main reason is that there is little room for failure. If the pilot is not successful, it can be a huge black eye on the face of future Scrum efforts. Also consider that on a project with high criticality there will likely be many attitudes and influences on the project, which could steer it off the Scrum course.

Typically, good candidate projects have medium importance to the organization. It is important to understand this when choosing a pilot, if you are selecting one from your portfolio. An excellent resource on this topic is a book by a friend of mine, Greg Smith, titled Becoming Agile in an Imperfect World. He covers various aspects of a good pilot project in his chapter “Characteristics of a Good Pilot.”

Continuously Communicate Your Chosen Methodology

I cannot express the importance of this topic enough. In the years that I have been a project manager, I have never been able to communicate enough. Just when you think you have covered all bases, there is someone lurking in the shadows not paying attention. According to PMI1, the amount of time a project manager spends communicating is 90%. This holds true for Agile project managers and ScrumMasters as well.

Since I have been using Scrum, I have been both a ScrumMaster and project manager on each project I manage. As a ScrumMaster, I have spent countless hours coaching and deflecting potential issues/problems away from my team. As a project manager, I have spent an inordinate but necessary amount of time reporting status, building relationships with stakeholders, and keeping the projects aligned with the organization’s standards, rules, and strategic goals.

When starting a Scrum pilot project of any type, it is of vital importance to communicate your chosen path (Scrum) to everyone you interface with. You should not communicate this path just once or twice. It will be necessary to continuously express, elaborate, and explain Scrum to every stakeholder and team member until they no longer look at you with confusion in their eyes.

After more than a year and a half into my pilot Scrum project, I was talking to a functional manager about our Scrum methodology and how we were using Scrum and Agile development. The manager appeared confused and disoriented by the conversation. This was not the first time discussing this methodology, but the manager reacted as if it were. This reaction is common in an organization heavily framed within a Waterfall methodology.

Typically, few people in traditional Waterfall organizations have been exposed to Scrum. I made the false assumption in the beginning and middle of my pilot project that stakeholders and the accidental support person were familiar with Scrum or Agile development, because I gave several overview presentations to them. This assumption was way off on my part. In order to understand Scrum, one needs to be involved in Scrum. Observing Scrum from the outside can be odd for some, and for others it can be confusing.

After many months of trial and error, our Scrum team finally reached a cadence and became better at estimating and delivering. The people who interfaced with us on a regular basis, who were outside the immediate Scrum team, including support units, infrastructure, and the PMO, began to better understand the Scrum process. If your pilot project is progressing successfully, it will become easier to communicate your process because everyone will want to know how you are doing it. On the contrary, if your project is lagging or plagued with issues, it will be hard for you to find an audience that you can convince that Scrum is the way to go.

Communication on any project is the most important part of a project manager or ScrumMaster’s job. The sooner and more frequently you communicate what you are doing the better off you and your project will be at surviving the first Scrum attempt.

Demystify the Voodoo

In my attempts to “demystify the voodoo” of Scrum to the outside observer, I have realized that this is not always an easy task, and is one that requires frequent attempts at demystification. When I first started using Scrum and Agile it was painfully obvious that others in the organization, including some stakeholders, were uncertain about my methodology and had a preconceived notion about Agile and Scrum. This misconception was something I continuously confronted throughout my project, as it was an impediment to my progress.

The reason voodoo becomes an impediment is mainly due to the reasons mentioned above in the communication section. It is important to communicate the methodology, which means define, describe, demonstrate and illustrate, thereby demystifying whenever possible. Most of the voodoo comes from not understanding the methodology or having the wrong information. Agile and Scrum are demystified every time one communicates or explains their pros and cons to the outside observer or reluctant stakeholder.

Unfortunately, as a project manager and ScrumMaster, it is possible to contribute to the voodoo perception. Performing Agile “in the dark” or “under the radar” can sometimes make the methodology even more taboo or misunderstood. Performing this style of clandestine Agile can be beneficial for a short period while the project team is getting up to speed and processes are being defined, but continuing too long in this mode will eventually be counterproductive. Stakeholders want to understand how the project is being managed. At some point, it is necessary to communicate the methodology before others begin forming their own opinions of what you are doing.

Using examples of public success stories also helps to demystify Scrum. After articulating various definitions of Scrum and Agile development processes to my stakeholders, I looked for examples of successful implementations of Scrum in both the private and public sectors. Illustrating how a CMMI2 level 5 company can successfully put a Scrum project into place certainly got the attention of some of the stakeholders. I showed quantifiable results from Systematic, a CMMI 5 company who measured productivity and quality before and after they implemented Scrum. Their overwhelmingly positive results put many of my stakeholders finally at ease.

Wrapping Up

Though there are many things I learned along the way, the few that I have described here are the ones that would have been the most helpful at the start of my Scrum/Agile experience. If you have any choice in the matter, remember that when starting your first Scrum pilot project, it is important to pick the right project. Also, communicate your methodology, risks, and plans continuously. And finally, provide accurate and substantive information to support the use of Scrum and Agile in your organization, which in the long run will demystify the aura of Scrum.

Scrum is not a cookie-cutter mold that you can throw your project into. Scrum is adaptive and can be customized to some extent to fit the unique situations and conditions of your environment.


1 PMI – Project Management Institute
2 CMMI – Capability Maturity Model Integration

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