OpenAgile is not (just) Empirical

September 26, 2011
4 minute read

A few weeks ago, David Parker and I had a conversation about some of the differences between Scrum and OpenAgile.  We hit upon one really interesting thing: Scrum strongly emphasizes that it is a purely empirical approach to doing work… and OpenAgile does not make that claim.  In fact, OpenAgile, while it includes empiricism, is definitely not an empirical process framework.

Ken Schwaber has long been adamant about empiricism with his phrase “Inspect and Adapt” which is the core of Scrum.  All the artifacts, meetings and roles of Scrum are meant to be supportive of the inspect and adapt approach in a product development environment.  A Scrum self-organizing team inspects and adapts on the product it is building.  It inspects and adapts on the obstacles that arise as it does its work.  It inspects and adapts on all the organizational processes, technical tools, team dynamics,… everything!  This is Good.

But Scrum, in its pure empiricism, also lacks something.

OpenAgile has components of Scrum’s empiricism.  Certainly, OpenAgile owes a great deal to Scrum.  The concept of “Systematic Learning”, one of the foundations of OpenAgile, is similar to Scrum’s empirical framework.  The process structure of OpenAgile is also similar to that of Scrum with short cycles of work delivering value on a regular basis.  The main difference comes from a simple concept: Guidance.

In OpenAgile, guidance is a critical component of systematic learning.  Guidance allows someone outside the team to intervene.  This might be a manager, a stakeholder, a family member… anyone who sees things from an “outside” perspective.  It might also be someone within the team pulling in guidance: asking for advice, doing a web search, reading a book, or even meditating in the hope of inspiration.

In Scrum, there are some very strong boundaries around outsiders providing guidance.  No changes mid-sprint.  All requests for work go through the Team’s Product Owner.  The ScrumMaster “protects” the team from outside interruptions.  “Chickens” cannot participate in the Daily Scrum.  The team self-organizes with individuals volunteering for specific tasks.  Team members discard all organizational titles when working within a Scrum team.  All of these boundaries support a pure empirical approach to working.  They also provide a form of safety for the team.  This safety is deemed necessary with the implication that stuff from outside the team is dangerous.

In OpenAgile, guidance comes to the team through the conduit of love.  Yes… love.

The team develops a love for its work.  This love then opens the team members to guidance.  Think of the opposite: if I hate my work, I’m not likely to be interested in taking any advice about how to do it better.  If I love my work, I will always be seeking ways to improve it.

Of course, love is not binary.  It’s not on or off.  In that continuum, the more an OpenAgile team loves its work, the more receptive it will be to guidance.  The more receptive to guidance, the more sources of guidance will be “safe”.  And the less reliance on pure empiricism will be necessary.

Let’s be frank: pure empiricism, in its most extreme form, means that Scrum teams would re-invent things that may have already been invented many times before.  In the Scrum community, the most obvious example of this is the Agile engineering practices that come from Extreme Programming.  Scrum teams seem remarkably resistant to adopting these practices at the outset… despite the fact that eventually most Scrum teams working in software succeed or fail based on their eventual adoption of these practices.  Scrum teams are often left without the guidance that XP practices can help them.  Instead Scrum teams seem expected to re-discover XP practices on their own.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Scrum is fatally flawed.  In fact, I think that in some environments, where teams truly are unsafe, where people tend to hate their work, where dysfunctional bureaucracy is deeply embedded in the organizations culture… in these environments Scrum is actually the right place to start.  Scrum is great for product development in high-crisis situations: save your product with Scrum!

OpenAgile, by accepting guidance into its framework, allows teams to progress rapidly when they can leverage other people’s learning.  Scrum does not dis-allow this, but it sets up an environment where the team culture tends towards the “Not Invented Here” syndrome.  OpenAgile puts teams on the other path: the path of allowing for greater and greater learning from others.

Berteig Consulting

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Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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