Agile In Education Meet-up Group

Agile in Education: M003 Review, Part 1

The 3rd Agile in Education Community online meet-up took place on Monday 21st September. We were treated to a set of personal reflections from 3 teachers, all from Leysin American School in Switzerland, who have been using agile and progressive thinking to enhance the learning experience in their classrooms.

I will summarise the event in several short posts – in this, the first, I present the highlights from Nicola Cosgrove’s story.

Leysin American School in Switzerland

Nicola began by introducing the school where she and all of the evening’s speakers are based. The family run school is located partially in the Swiss mountains and caters for up to 300 students on a boarding basis. Outdoor activities play a central part in the life of the school – especially during the ski season.

There is also a strong focus on Professional Development among the teaching staff. To support this, the school have established an Educational Research Centre which acts as a hub connecting the school to other organisations.

As a result, there is a conscious effort to move away from traditional methods of teaching, where learning is teacher focused and teacher led, to one with a more agile mind-set, where students have greater choice and the emphasis on grades and deadlines is removed. The teacher supports the students by working alongside them rather than in front of them – this approach results in students possessing greater independence.

Nicola’s Background

Nicola has been teaching Physical Education for 10 years. She was introduced to an agile way of thinking as part of her professional development at the school, around 4 years ago. She currently teaches years 7 to 10. Nicola has also contributed to a chapter of the book “Agile and Lean Concepts for Teaching and Learning”, concerning Teacher-less Observations.

3-Stage Approach to Agile

Nicola’s journey towards agility is on-going and has at times been challenging. She is consequently developing a toolkit to help others make the journey more easily. She has distilled the implementation into 3 stages:

Stage 1 – Visual

A visual device such as a Kanban board allows information to be shared easily with and between students. It enables the teacher to reduce or even remove the dependence that the students have on them. Nicola finds that students are able to begin lessons without her intervention because the plan for each lesson is clearly visible and available to everyone.

Another successful technique is one that she describes as “changing the face at the front”. She provides a safe environment where every student has the opportunity to plan and lead a session or part of one. This has been successful even for students who are ordinarily quiet or lacking in confidence.

Stage 2 – Collaboration

As students become more comfortable with leading small sections of lessons, Nicola encourages them to take a greater part in shaping their learning. At this stage, she works with them to create units together, with everyone collaborating on setting goals, for example to learn Badminton, and deciding what learning steps are required to achieve those goals.

Stage 3 – Reflection

The third stage – perhaps the most challenging of all – is concerned with reflection. Nicola encourages students to consider the learning process and reflect on areas that could be improved as well as on their successes. This stage is not easy – time needs to be specifically set aside to allow reflection to take place. Nurturing an open, growth mind-set and building a safe environment where students feel able to discuss things openly is key to making these initiatives successful.

Take a Leap

Nicola acknowledged that adopting this approach is probably easier within the flexible environment of LAS than it may be in other schools, however, she has some great advice for anyone contemplating a move to a more agile way of teaching:

“What we’re doing is not something new – we’re not taking something new and saying ‘we’re doing agile now’. We’re doing things that we’ve already done before but we’re putting an agile skin or a lens onto it. I would encourage anyone who is listening and hasn’t really tried it before to take a leap. Be agile – implementing it in small iterations and seeing where it goes.”

Nicola Cosgrove, 21st September 2020

A report on the remainder of the meeting, including the extensive Q&A session, will appear here shortly. Until then, the full recording of the session can be found on the Agile In Education Community YouTube Channel.


Agile in Education Community Meet-up M003 – Summary: Nicola Cosgrove

Word Search

Word Searching – How (Not) to Describe Your Passion

I need a new word.

You may have noticed that I’ve changed the url of my website recently. The switch was driven by a need to change hosting arrangements as much as anything else but it’s caused me to think deeply about how best to describe my ‘project’.

The problem is one of baggage.

I’m from the world of ‘agile’. I’m interested in how the power of ‘the agile mindset’ might help improve the effectiveness of education in preparing young people to succeed in the modern world. But the word ‘agile’ carries with it several problems – as hinted by my exuberant use of apostrophes.

Firstly, it’s a word that conceals a mine-field of jargon – much of which is likely to be alien to the audience we’re trying to reach. There’s a danger of triggering a ‘them and us’ divide between business-based agile practitioners and education professionals.

Secondly, it’s rather vague. The term became popular after ‘The Manifesto for Agile Software Development’ was published in 2001 (the authors toyed with the word ‘light’ as an alternative) but it has transformed from something describing a very simple principle into an umbrella covering a fog of wide ranging concepts (see the infamous Deloitte Agile Landscape Map).

There is even far too much debate about how the word should be used – is it a verb, an adjective, a noun or simply a profane expletive?

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, if you type ‘agile doesn’t work’ into a search engine you’re likely to need an extremely long screen for the results.

‘Agile’ has a reputation problem.

The cause is complicated – but in a nutshell, agile transformations are extremely challenging to achieve successfully, resulting in many cases where ‘agile’ can be considered to have failed.

This doesn’t mean we should give up and go back to the old world (instead, we should try harder or perhaps smarter) but this fact does taint the reputation of ‘agile’ and all of the frameworks, tools and ideas that are associated with ‘it’. This reputational damage is so severe that some people get quite angry at the merest mention of the word!

Since the term and concept of ‘agile’ lacks clarity and is rather emotive, I feel there has to be a better term.

Perhaps the obvious choice, which I’ve been using recently, is ‘progressive’. It is at least more meaningful on its own in that it suggests by definition that we are concerned with change, improvement, or reform rather than simply to move quickly or easily. But the word ‘progressive’ is also problematic.

It too is vague and it too has a reputation problem… especially when applied to education. This is perhaps a bigger problem than the reputation issue that exists with the word ‘agile’.

Since ‘the age of enlightenment’ in the 17th and 18th centuries there have been attempts around the world to construct forms of education that are progressive in nature – to move from teacher-led to child-centred learning and away from traditional one-dimensional, academic, exam driven schools to something that embraces the variety of human nature.

However, there are many who believe, quite categorically, that the ideas behind progressive education are fundamentally wrong. A simple search will reveal case studies that claim progressive education has failed generations of young people who, as a result of progressive ‘experiments’, find themselves unable to read, write or carry out simple mathematical calculations.

Despite this, there are still many who believe a progressive approach is the right one. Personally, I think there is a middle (dare I say ‘agile’) way that combines the best of traditional and progressive approaches, but whatever you believe, the term is damaged.

So what next?

I’ve toyed with other ideas, but they all hit problems:

  • Hybrid Education – already used in the EdTech world to refer to a combination of online and in-person learning
  • Integrated Education – used in Northern Ireland in particular, to refer to schools where children from both protestant and catholic family backgrounds are educated together.
  • New Education – too vague and too hippy.
  • Education Reform – political connotations

…I could go on. The truth is, there’s no easy way to clearly encapsulate what I have in my mind without hitting a wall of packing cases.

So, I’ve finally decided. I’m off to my local domain name store to buy myself:
exploring-and-promoting-some-ideas-from-the-world-of-business-that-I-and-others-think-might have-a-positive-impact-on-the-way-young-people-are-educated-to-prepare-them-for-life-in-the-modern-world.com

…but then I really don’t like domains with hyphens!

Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson PhD, 1950-2020

It is estimated that 380 million people from over 160 countries have watched Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 Ted talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

It is a remarkable and powerfully persuasive argument for worldwide educational reform – presented with the wit and delivery of a genuine stand-up comic. It was one of the catalysts that inspired me to create the Agile in Education Community Group and this web site.

I was therefore immensely saddened to hear of Sir Ken’s death last weekend, on the 21st August.

Sir Ken fought throughout his career “…to transform the culture of education and organisations with a richer concept of human creativity and intelligence”. He was a respected advisor on educational reform in the UK, including a period in the 1980s as Director of the Arts in Schools Project. He later went on to have similar influence in the USA and other parts of the world.

He believed that we are facing significant challenges as a result of globalisation and the pace of technical advance threatening our cultural identities – creating a world in which we cannot predict what life will be like in a years time let alone when the current generation of school children leave education. How can we prepare them for this uncertain future?

“We can reinvent school. We can revitalise learning and we can re-ignite the creative compassion of our communities if we think differently when we try to go back to normal.”

…real social change comes from the ground up through people cultivating the grass roots. It’s a mistake to believe that we just need to wait ‘til some enlightened politician comes along and shows us the way.

“My thoughts to the Call to Unite”, Sir Ken Robinson, May 7th 2020

He argued that the majority of the education systems around the world have their roots in the industrial revolution and are focused on a narrow sense of intelligence which stifles creativity. He believed that this is preventing us from being innovative – a critical skill for the modern world. He suggested that we build education systems based on diversity and individualisation – valuing and nurturing traits of curiosity and creativity within our young people.

“The real power is with the people and connecting people…is the key to this – getting people to share ideas, to collaborate, to work together to see future possibilities and to bring them about through joint projects and through the joint support that comes from compassionate collaboration.”

“My thoughts to the Call to Unite”, Sir Ken Robinson, May 7th 2020

As a master of communication it is no surprise that his web site at http://sirkenrobinson.com is simple, efficient and eloquently presented. If you’re interested at all in the subject of progressive educational reform or just want a better world for the young people of today – and for all of us, then I urge you to spend some time there absorbing his wisdom.

I am sure his legacy will live on and if enough people listen to his message, then one day…

 
Sir Ken Robinson – 2006 Ted Talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Agile In Education Meet-up Group

Agile in Education: M002 Review

We held our second Agile in Education Community meet-up session on Monday 17th August. The meeting gave everyone an opportunity to discuss potential activities of the group in more detail.

After a brief recap of the first meeting we divided into breakout rooms to discuss a choice of topics as follows:

Room 1:

“We’d love to see more teachers join us. How do we reach out to them while being sensitive to the pressure many are under and while respecting their expertise?”

  • consider a ‘personality’ or figurehead to front a campaign (Willy Wijnands, for example)
  • assemble a collection of resources
  • include the full range of agile, progressive thinking rather than focusing on a single approach
  • approach schools and head teachers (as well as individual teachers)
  • consider connecting with existing elements such as careers & skills based learning
  • what are teachers already doing that is agile?

Room 2:

“Let’s organise a festival to celebrate agile and progressive thinking in education around the world!”

  • aim to increase awareness of possibilities
  • collaborate with other institutions e.g. partner with universities to host events
  • global focus
  • involve children/students
  • interactive; workshops
  • a festival/celebration ‘vibe’ is preferable to a conference
  • involve businesses – combine with careers (for older students)
  • consider appropriate language – familiar/meaningful terms rather than those from business
  • e.g. critical thinking and problem solving are already concepts that exist in curriculum
  • there is a set of soft skills and a set of values – a mindset – that underpin agile; this is tricky to sell compared with a tick-box approach
  • involve governors and parents
  • consider an ‘un-conference’ or ‘party’ approach
  • look at other festivals and how they have been arranged
  • link with other events such as Brett
  • how to market?
  • the term ‘agile’ may put people off

Room 3:

“I am new to Agile – I’m here to explore the basics.”

A huge thanks to David Michel for assisting with the logistics of the evening and for volunteering to lead the discussion in room 3.

A recording of the session can be found on the Agile in Education YouTube Channel:

https://tinyurl.com/agileined-videos

Thank you to everyone who attended – it’s great to have such a wide variety of backgrounds represented.

At time of writing, it is intended that the September meeting will offer an opportunity to hear from teachers who have been using progressive approaches in their classrooms. If you are interested in speaking at the event, please get in touch.

Who the Hell Does This Guy Think He Is?

Who the Hell Does This Guy Think He Is?

I wanted to tackle this matter early in my ‘Agile in Education’ journey.

I’ve been a trainer earlier in my career, both in the business world and in adult education and many members of my immediate and extended family are or were teachers. However, I am not and have never been a school teacher.

So what gives me the right to waltz into schools, colleges and the world of education demanding that everyone change the way things are done?

Nothing gives me that right. But either way, it isn’t what I’m trying to do – in any sense.

I have genuine respect for teachers and those working to help educate our young people. It’s a vitally important, immensely challenging and often exhausting, thankless role to play. I would never wish to tell anyone in education how they should do their job. There are many people far wiser and with far better credentials for orchestrating reform than I.

However, I do believe that the system does not properly prepare young people for a rapidly changing world which bears no resemblance to the one that existed when the system was first established. This belief is based on my experience as a parent, on discussions with people who are involved in education and on observing articles, reports and debate in media around the world.

Even if you don’t agree with this point of view, it would be hard to convince me that we should not look for ways to improve the system whenever we can – however effective we think it is.

So what am I trying to achieve by creating the Agile in Education community and this blog?

During the last couple of decades there has been a revolution in the way that many businesses operate – set to the backdrop of a planet that is changing at an ever-increasing rate. That on its own should demand a fresh look at the way we prepare young people to contribute to this exciting, challenging world as adults.

While there are many examples of businesses struggling to implement agile thinking (it is not an easy, quick fix and it requires a fundamental shift in mind-set that if absent, will invariably result in failure) there is at the very least, the potential that some of the concepts could have significant benefits in the classroom as well as in the office. In support of this theory, there is a growing collection of cases where scrum based frameworks and other progressive ideas are being adopted in schools around the world.

My personal aim is to explore this potential; to help others become aware that there are important, exciting things happening (within businesses but increasingly within education) and to encourage debate. I believe the time is right to give these new ideas serious consideration – especially on the back of CV19 and the experiences of global lockdown.

During my personal Agile in Education journey, I hope to learn a great many things and expect to have my views challenged – but if I can help open others eyes to new possibilities along the way then I will consider my mission a success.

Whether you are curious, excited, sceptical or horrified about the idea of agile thinking in education please get in touch. I’d love to hear your story.

Agile In Education Meet-up Group

Agile Education: Extraordinary Video Footage Uncovered!

Publication: The Daily Scrum
Date: 13th July 2035

15 years ago this week, at 19:00 on the evening of Monday 13th July 2020, a group of 16 progressive thinkers and educators met in cyberspace. Their mission was to consider how they could revolutionise the education systems of the UK and the world from the ground up, by exploring and promoting the adoption of agile thinking and practices within schools and colleges.

This is a well known tale, but what really happened on that famous night, when the community that was to become so influential was born?

Legend has it that self-confessed geek and agile fanatic, Andy Bleach, hogged the microphone, refusing to allow anyone else to talk – but was that true?

What was the real story behind the creation of the now famous Pressure Parsnip Theory of Education that some claim was first revealed at this meeting?

What was said that was so profound it spurred the creation of a community and a movement that slowly but steadily spread the progressive mind-set into the educational establishments of the UK and the world?

Well we here at The Daily Scrum are now able to reveal, exclusively, exactly what took place. After many months of dedicated investigation, we have uncovered the long-lost video recording of the entire event.

The session began with a short introduction from Andy about why he decided to start the community, followed by an exercise that allowed the members of the group to get to know one another a little.

Then, it is clear that Andy did indeed hog the microphone for half an hour, in which he revealed, in detail, his view of education and how he believed agile thinking could make a big difference to the education of young people.

Here are the key points from his talk:

Education

Observations on the current education system
  • the roots of the education system lie in the time of the industrial revolution
  • the world is a radically different place now and yet education remains unchanged
  • are the current methods the most effective ways of preparing our young people for the modern world? For example:
    • formal classroom layout supporting teacher led learning
    • knowledge transfer from expert to pupil
    • subject based; segregated subjects
    • school years organised by ‘Manufactured Date’ (ref: Sir Ken Robinson)
    • intelligence measured solely by academic success
    • remedial action to ‘repair’ children who are ‘broken academically’
    • focus on exams – major source of stress
    • when was the last time you used something you learned to pass an exam?
    • when did you last have to take an exam?
  • the UK, and other countries have a fear of failure
  • but failure is good – it is how we learn and become better people; modern, successful, agile businesses recognise this
  • the current system generates pressure on young people, sometimes with fatal consequences
  • the system creates two types of person – academically competent and ‘the rest’
  • are either group prepared effectively for functioning in the modern world?
  • the problem is with the system rather than the teachers
  • but that should not stop us all from questioning every aspect of education to see if there is a better way

Agile

The origins of the Agile 'movement'
  • in the 1970s and beyond, most software products were built using the waterfall method – this has many inherent weaknesses including:
    • identification of bugs and design issues are primarily identified during the test phase requiring rewind of the process
    • value is only delivered at the end of the project – often months or years after the start
    • there are many unknowns that make planning inherently inaccurate and unreliable
    • the approach generates numerous pressure points, great stress and often results in overrun, overspend or even cancellation
  • something had to be done – in 2001, 17 IT professionals gathered to create an agile manifesto
  • from many inputs and ideas, Scrum has emerged as the dominant framework
  • much of agile thinking is based on empiricism – the theory that knowledge comes only from sensory experience
  • frameworks such as Scrum replace the waterfall approach with a combination of evolutionary delivery and continuous improvement using small, self-organising, multi-disciplined teams to deliver increments of useable product in short 1-4 week ‘Sprint’ cycles

Progressive Mind-set

A selection of progressive thinking frameworks, techniques and concepts
  • there are many ‘progressive’ techniques and approaches that could have far reaching benefits in education, including:
    • Scrum/eduScrum
    • Kanban
    • Lean
    • Visual Thinking
    • Design Thinking
    • Liberating Structures
  • we also need to consider nurturing of the appropriate mind-set and values to ensure success
  • these are not easy, tick-box solutions – progress will be challenging

Opportunities

A vision of what we might achieve through agile, progressive thinking in education
  • if introduction of agile, progressive thinking is successful, the benefits are far reaching – young people will potentially become:
    • engaged and motivated to learn
    • natural collaborators
    • less stressed
    • able to reach their full potential
    • courageous enough to give and receive feedback
    • in possession of a healthy attitude to failure
    • comfortable with change
    • creative thinkers
    • happy
  • teachers will be able to focus on supporting their pupils to unlock their full potential, through mentoring, coaching, facilitating
  • families will be less stressed and happier
  • schools will have the flexibility and mind-set to fail fast – becoming better equipped to serve their students, businesses and their local communities in a rapidly changing world
  • businesses will be served by a pool of young people who have the skills and confidence to contribute effectively from the start, already comfortable with agile approaches

An International Challenge – Already Underway

A sample of the spread of agile thinking in education around the world
  • Scrum is a generic framework which has been applied in many situations other than software development
  • eduScrum is an education friendly version of Scrum developed in the Netherlands by Science Teacher, Willy Wijnands
  • interest in eduScrum is exploding, having reached 30 countries to date, including China, India and the USA
  • almost 1000 teachers have been trained to use eduScrum in Russia
  • another Agile approach has been introduced into 200 schools in Australia
  • there are one or two agile based initiatives in the UK

Then Andy finished with the now famous statement that summarises the ethos of the community so well:

I believe:
  • we need to update our education system to make it suitable for the modern world
  • we should explore the potential of embracing an agile or progressive mind-set within education
  • we don’t need to wait for a directive from above
  • we can take small steps ourselves… and see what happens…

The final part if the session gave attendees a brief chance to discuss what they thought the community could achieve over the coming months. The discussions were promising and it was agreed that the debate would continue in subsequent meetings, the first of which was held on Monday 17th August 2020 (reference: https://www.meetup.com/agile-in-education-uk/events/271923929)

If you wish to re-live the experience in its entirety – and discover the origins of the Pressure Parsnip Theory of Education – the video recording of the entire event can be viewed here:
https://tinyurl.com/agileined001-recording

So what is ‘Scrum’? Part 3 – Mind-set and Values

So what is ‘Scrum’? Part 3 – Mind-set and Values

In the final part of my introduction to Scrum, I look at the mind-set and values that are central to making Scrum work.

‘What?’ not ‘How?’

The Scrum Guide specifies the necessary elements of the framework but does not dictate how they should be implemented.  This is left up to the Scrum Team to decide for themselves and the implementation often emerges and evolves through the cycles of continuous improvement.

For example, the Scrum Guide talks about the PO role and his or her responsibility for maintaining the Product Backlog. The guide does not, however, stipulate what method or criteria the PO should use to generate and order the backlog or how and where the list should be represented and stored. (Should you use an online system or paper? It doesn’t matter.) This allows for flexibility so that local and organisational context can be taken into account in the implementation.

Mind-set

This flexibility is one of the reasons that makes Scrum so powerful but the simplicity and lack of specific implementation directives makes it challenging to master and is perhaps one reason why there are many examples of Scrum implementations failing.

The ingredient that is so often missed is one of mind-set. It is not sufficient to implement Scrum as a series of tick-box exercises. It takes time and perseverance for a team and an organisation to discover how best to implement Scrum in their specific circumstances.

Values

The Guide addresses this mind-set through 5 values that it identifies as critical to its success. Promoting, encouraging and embeding these within a team can help to ensure the appropriate mind-set is adopted.

Commitment – each team member personally commits to achieving the goals of each sprint

Courage – each team member has the courage to do what is needed and to tackle tough problems

Focus – everyone in the team focuses on the work and goals of the sprint

Openness – everyone agrees to by open about their work and any challenges that they face

Respect – the team members respect one another as “capable, independent people”

To underline their significance, it is worth quoting directly from the guide:

“When the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect are embodied and lived by the Scrum Team, the Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life and build trust for everyone. The Scrum Team members learn and explore those values as they work with the Scrum events, roles and artifacts.”
https://www.scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html#values

In many ways, the 5 values are the most important elements of Scrum. Without them, the framework is unlikely to succeed. With them, it can become a powerful force that has the potential to revolutionise the way goals and desired outcomes are achieved.

References:

A look at agile values: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/values-agiles-toughest-challenge-andy-bleach/
scrum.org: https://www.scrum.org/
Scrum Guide: https://www.scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html

So what is ‘Scrum’? Part 2 – Core Elements

So what is ‘Scrum’? Part 2 – Core Elements

In this second post of three looking at the basics of Scrum, I introduce the core elements as described in the official Scrum Guide.

The Scrum Guide: The Key Elements of Scrum

The Scrum framework is described fully and eloquently in a relatively short document called the Scrum Guide. It outlines a number of elements:

3 Pillars:

  • Transparency – information is shared openly using a common language
  • Inspection – the scrum team frequently inspect their progress to identify areas for improvement
  • Adaptation – the process is routinely adjusted to optimise performance

3 Roles:

  • Product Owner – responsible for maximizing the value of the product via the product backlog artefact (see below)
  • Scrum Master – promotes and supports Scrum, helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values
  • Development Team – the team of professionals who do the work of delivering the ‘potentially releasable product increment’

5 Events:

  • The Sprint – a time box of 1 month or less during which a useable, ‘potentially releasable product increment’ is created
  • Sprint Planning – a time boxed session for the whole sprint team to agree on what will be delivered during the sprint
  • Daily Scrum – a time-boxed event for the development team, held at the same time every day, in which they update one another on the status of the sprint
  • Sprint Review – a review by the Scrum Team and other stakeholders of what has been done during the sprint; the Product Backlog (see below) is then amended where appropriate
  • Sprint Retrospective – an opportunity for the scrum team to inspect itself and plan improvements to the next sprint

3 Artifacts:

  • Product Backlog – an ordered list and single source of everything that is known to be needed in the product. Maintained entirely by the Product Owner
  • Sprint Backlog – subset of product backlog items selected for the sprint
  • Increment – the value delivered from all previous sprints plus the product backlog items completed during the current sprint

All of these need to be present if Scrum is to be implemented correctly (without all of these, it is technically not Scrum).  But Scrum is an intriguing, multi-faceted beast. It is designed quite intentionally as a light-weight framework which is in essence very simple to understand, however, the guide states clearly that it “…is not a process, technique, or definitive method.”

In my next post I look at the extra ingredients that are necessary to make Scrum work effectively.

References:

The Scrum Guide: https://www.scrumguides.org/

So what is ‘Scrum’? Part 1 – The Origins of Scrum

So what is ‘Scrum’? Part 1 – The Origins of Scrum

In this first post of three looking at the basics of Scrum, I introduce the Scrum Framework and where it came from.

Origins

Scrum, according to the official guide, is “…a framework for developing, delivering, and sustaining complex products.”

It was created specifically for software development teams as an alternative to the more traditional waterfall development methodology but it is increasingly being used within the wider business world and beyond – including in education.

Scrum was developed by Jeff Sutherland and formalised, with Ken Schwaber, in 1995.  It was built upon a wide range of ideas and influences, not least of all on a paper written in 1986 by two Japanese academics, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, while they were Visiting Professors at Harvard Business School. They inspired the choice of name for the framework when they likened recent trends in development practices in Japan and the US to the game of rugby and the scrum formation in particular.

Empiricism

The core philosophy behind Scrum is the theory of empiricism – that is, making decisions based upon what is known.  To explain this a little further, let’s take a look at one of the key issues with the old way of doing things.

At the start of a large and complex project there are many unknowns, for example:

  • What is the real-world capacity of the teams involved in delivering the product?
  • How will that vary over time as team members get used to working with one another?
  • How will it be impacted when individuals join and leave?
  • What will be the impact of unforeseen technical challenges, which inevitably occur in any complex project?
  • How will delays and issues in one area of the project impact other areas?
  • How well does the customer understand what they need from the product during the initial planning stage?
  • In what ways will the world and consequently the customer’s requirements change during the life of the project?
  • What overheads are required to manage the many different parts of the project?
  • What is the most efficient way to communicate between the different areas of the project?

In the old-fashioned waterfall approach, the project planners either ignore the potential issues or they attempt to estimate their impact. Because every project is different, these estimations are effectively guesses, leading to a plan that fails to predict anything useful. Consequently, projects, if they are delivered at all, are frequently delivered late and over budget – often failing to provide anywhere near the value that was promised at the start.

Rather than trying to understand the entire mountain up-front, Scrum minimises the impact of the unknowns by taking on the challenge in small chunks (called ‘sprints’ – lasting between 1 and 4 weeks). After every sprint, the team, the customer and other stakeholders learn something new about the product, the environment and the performance of the team, allowing for corrective adjustments to be made. This leads to a cycle of continuous improvement.

Realisation of Value

Another big advantage with Scrum is that it’s capable of delivering a working, useable product to the customer almost immediately or soon after the start, whereas waterfall projects typically only deliver something at the end, which can be many months – even years after the project begins. During these long projects, investment becomes tied up and only turned into value for the business when everything has been completed. Scrum allows the business and its customers to realise the value of their investments much sooner.

Also, if a ‘wrong turn’ is taken during a Scrum sprint, the impact is small (typically no bigger than the sprint size) and the resolution quick to apply. In waterfall, errors can go unnoticed for long periods of time and their correction can have significant negative impact on the plan and the budget.  

In the next blog I look at the main elements of the framework as defined in The Scrum Guide.

References:

Origins: https://www.scruminc.com/origins-of-scrum/
scrum.org: https://www.scrum.org/
Comparison to Rugby: https://medium.com/serious-scrum/scrum-s-connection-to-rugby-597405fed5ec
Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka’s Harvard article: https://hbr.org/1986/01/the-new-new-product-development-game

Ski Lift

So what is ‘agile’?

In this post I take a not entirely serious look at the origins and catalyst of the agile ‘movement’, born in the exciting and daredevil world of software development.

Ski LiftIt was deep into the evening of February 13th 2001. The wind pummelled the cables and towers of the ski-lift, creating an eerie, semi-musical cacophony of creaking metal and whirling wires. The icy snow rattled against the shutters. Behind them, inside ‘The Lodge’, the debate – which at times had raged almost as violently as the storm outside – came to an abrupt halt. The silence lasted a full minute as each of those present grappled with the implications of what they had created. One by one, they realised that the world would never be the same again…

Well I’ve no idea if this was how it really happened, but the date and location and possibly the bit about the raging debate are true, for it was on this day (or thereabouts) that 17 representatives (or “organizational anarchists” as they describe themselves) from a variety of technical disciplines and backgrounds created a “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”. And yes – it has changed the world.

A great many threads, influences and elements were fed into the cauldron during that meeting but probably two things, rightly or wrongly, have emerged from it to dominate first the world of software development and increasingly the wider world of business, over the subsequent two decades: the word ‘agile’ and the framework known as ‘Scrum’.

I will defer the debate about the word ‘agile’ until another post perhaps, but it is worth pointing out that for some at least, agile and Scrum are the same thing.

They aren’t – the former is a state of mind; a way of viewing the world and the latter is a framework – but it is easy to see how that belief persists due to the dominance of Scrum, which I will cover in another post. Throughout my blogs and other activities I consider ‘agile’ in its widest sense, as an umbrella covering a collection of varied principles, practices, philosophies, frameworks and techniques that fit in with the agile mind-set.

To understand this mind-set, and specifically why it has had such a significant impact on the business world, we need to delve a little further back in time to the bad old days of missed deadlines, blown budgets, disappointed customers and… waterfalls.

Once upon a time – before agile – most software products were developed in a sequence of phases using a methodology known as ‘Waterfall’. It went something like this:

Phase 1 – Requirements Analysis

The customer for whom the software is to be built is interrogated under the glare of powerful arc lights to reveal their inner most desires, which are written down in infinite detail to form the sacred “requirements document” – a tome often so large that entire forests are culled to supply the paper.

At the end of this phase, the customer is whisked away to a secret location until the start of phase 4, typically two or three years later, without any means of communication with the team developing their software.

Phase 2 – System Design

The analysts who conducted phase 1, pass the sacred document to a new group of analysts and return to their basement, for their job is done. This new team pore lovingly over the texts, extracting meaning from it all and writing new documents; sometimes embellishing their words with diagrams of great complexity and inner beauty.

When done, they too retire to their corner of the basement, leaving the new sacred ‘design document’ behind. The original sacred requirements document is carried carefully via a trusted cohort of anointed interns to a secure storage facility deep underground and is never looked at again.

Phase 3 – Implementation/Coding

In phase 3 the magicians are summoned. It is their job to mysteriously transform the sacred design document into code. Millions upon millions of lines of code. In fact it is believed that the greater the number of lines of code, the greater the quality of the finished product.

When the entire sacred design document has been transformed, the code is transferred to a special environment for the grand ceremony of User Acceptance Testing. Tradition has it that this milestone in the project should always happen at least 2 months behind schedule – often considerably more. By this stage the budget for the entire project should already have been spent. Twice.

Phase 4 – User Acceptance Testing

At this stage, the customer is brought back from their exile and presented with a partially functioning system. They are expected to remember what it was that they wanted at the start of the project all those years ago and to be wise enough to know how they should test it. Often they cannot remember the original intent, but either way, they have changed their mind anyway. The world is a different place now.

There is no time or budget to fix anything so the things that are most broken are ripped out.

Phase 5 – Operations

In this phase, a new group of technicians with no prior knowledge of the product attempt to install it (in whatever state it is in), into a new ‘production environment’.

The end users for whom it was built are then told of its existence for the first time. They play with it for a short while then spend the next six months generating a long list of suggestions about how it could be made into something useful, after which the machines upon which it runs are turned off and the process begins again.

Ok – to be fair, I am of course exaggerating – many will argue that in some situations a waterfall approach is a sound and effective way to develop software. It does have some great benefits at least on paper but joking aside, there are significant flaws in the concept.

The group of techno-anarchists who met at the Ski Lodge in Utah during the winter of 2001 managed to distil the essence of a new way of thinking that had been bubbling away in various places. They called it ‘agile’.

This essence is about many things but at the core is a set of values and principles that encourage flexibility, reflection, honesty, courage, trust and above all an in-built obsession with continuous improvement. All these things are achieved by replacing the huge, complex, heavily documented monolithic projects with a continuous stream of small steps, each of which deliver something of value to the end user.

These deliverables are released quicky and frequently so that everyone involved can learn about the product, therefore improving the effectiveness of the next small step (or increment) and ultimately delivering a more effective product or service. Due to the small steps, when things go wrong – and they do – the cost is small and the resolution is rapid.

When executed ‘properly’ this process has benefits for everyone concerned. The customer sees value almost immediately and receives a product that meets their real needs even when those needs are changing on a day to day basis. The timescales for delivering significant value are reduced considerably as are the budgets. The developers are empowered and trusted to ‘do what is best’ and to continually improve in all dimensions of their role, resulting in an improved quality of working life.

The only downside is that achieving the necessary agile mind-set, especially in larger organisations that are still organised with an industrial, ‘command and control’ mentality, is challenging and especially difficult to sustain. But the rewards are immense. I believe there are similar challenges facing adoption of an agile way of life in education but there is a similar scale of potential benefits. Potentially even greater.

I will explore this educational potential in further posts – but until then, why not join the Agile In Education UK Meet-up Group at https://www.meetup.com/agile-in-education-uk? You will be most welcome.

References:
The Manifesto for Agile Software Development: https://agilemanifesto.org/