Scrum co-inventor: Agile can lower risk, but it won't tell you how to code

Ken Schwaber recounts the invention of scrum and compares it to reading a book about chess

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InfoWorld: What makes agile projects go wrong?

Schwaber: It's very hard for an agile project to go wrong. It's very easy for it not to deliver what you expect. If you want to learn the game of chess, I teach you how to play chess, and you go to play someone, and you might not be skilled enough yet to play against that player. It's going to take you years to really gain the skills to do it. Agile processes don't guarantee you success. All they do is set up a short cycle, like every two weeks, [in which] you try to build the most important thing you can.

Let's say you want to build Obamacare. You would try for two weeks to build the most important functionality you could. And you built them and you might try three or four two-week cycles in a row, and at the end of two months you might have learned that this is going to be so complicated it's going to take you six years and $17 billion to do. You might then say, "OK, This is getting too expensive for us." Now at that point, it's not scrum or agile that failed. You discovered that it's going to cost too much. It's a way of controlling risk through short-cycle development. You never commit to doing anything more than one short cycle.

InfoWorld: Would you say that agile is the dominant mechanism for software development these days, or are development shops still relying on waterfall or maybe a hybrid of waterfall and agile?

Schwaber: They don't hybrid well at all. But many organizations -- I think a Forrester survey said 90 percent used agile, so scrum primarily, and there were some 60 percent that still used waterfall in some ways. There you have to think about large banks, large insurance companies, they have systems that are 30 years old. They're not going to change the way they approach or touch those.

InfoWorld: Are they stuck in the waterfall method, or can they move to agile?

Schwaber: They mostly stick with short-term waterfall. They might set up enhancements or things that they have to do to meet legal requirements and do them in a six-month cycle, and they'll use waterfall.

InfoWorld: These days, you're talking a lot about evidence-based management. What does evidence-based management bring to the table as far as business decisions, software development decisions, and the like?

Schwaber: In software development and in IT organizations, you have to establish some baseline trends of the value that they produce. Let's say an organization has a budget of $200 million and it wants to then do something differently. What we're doing is we're saying -- measure the value that you've produced now for the business, then when you change something like adopting a new methodology, a new approach, a new set of tools, measure the change in value you produce to make sure that continues, gets better, and justifies the cost you're spending on doing things differently.

InfoWorld: With evidence-based management are you only applying it to software development, or does it extend beyond that?

Schwaber: It comes out of the medical field, but what I care about is software.

InfoWorld: How important is ALM these days?

Schwaber: It's absolutely critical for building high-quality software rapidly. However, you have to really strongly invest in upgrading the knowledge of most workers who use it. The problem is if you don't, all you've done is bought this really fancy bunch of software that no one knows how to use.

This story, "Scrum co-inventor: Agile can lower risk, but it won't tell you how to code," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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