Best Scrum Masters Appreciate The Values Of Project Management

A tale about how Traditional Project Management was Agile, before it was cool

A most curious interview

Once, quite a while ago, I was referred by a dear friend of mine for an interview for a Scrum Master role in a renown company in Sofia. She warned me in advance, “Hey, Plamen, whatever you do, don’t say you’ve gotten the PMP certification. Better still, remove it from your resume…”. I was very confused – after all, PMP was the most recognized project management certification in the world, right? How would it do me any harm at an interview for a somewhat relevant position? My friend continued, “…they are all Scrum Masters, you know, and I’ve heard them mocking people who have the PMP certification all the time. Please, take my advice, don’t be too vocal about it and you’ll be alright! ”

At that point, I must had already made my decision that I was probably not going to work for a company whose employees presumably cannot grasp the connection between project management and Scrum. But I decided to go and do the interview anyway – I was more interested than ever to see if these people are truly worth their salt. 

A couple of days later I was welcomed in a pleasant minimalist meeting room, where, not one but four (a red flag, I know) Scrum Masters from the company already waited for me. After the usual smalltalk and introductions, they started with their first question: “Plamen, tell us about a recent achievement of yours. Something you’re proud of?”. It was written in the sky… I could not help it… “Certifying as a PMP”, I said clearly. Their faces changed, their eyes opened wide and we continued the interview in a different albeit still friendly tone – them asking their hardest questions, and me doing my best to give the best answers. And I did answer to each and every question confidently and in detail, with plenty of reference to my working experience at the time. Mind you, to this day I still believe this was my best interview performance ever. 

Then, at the end, it was my turn to ask some questions. I asked some typical ones about issues that most Scrum implementations struggle to solve, due to lack of knowledge and experience, and I asked them to share their current approach. And, lo and behold, they were simply unable to answer. Awkward silence ensued more than once. I swear I could hear crickets at some point… They were pretty interested in the answers, though – I could see in their eyes that they knew the pain points first hand. The solutions they shared were rather naïve and flawed and they knew it – it was clear to me they were just kicking the can down the road.

A couple of minutes after I had left the building, I got a call from their HR. They offered me the job and asked me to get back and collect an offer letter right away!

I rejected politely and headed home.

The Relation between Scrum and Traditional Project Management 

I firmly believe that all methodologies, no matter how agile they might be, raise against the same challenges. In the end, it is all about communication, about establishing some work rhythm, about managing expectations, ownership, visibility, commitments and getting things done. No matter which methodology you choose, you are going to run in these types of problems and you’ll need to find a solution that works for your organization. Traditional waterfall is not a panacea and neither is Agile. None of them solve bad culture.

Those who’ve studied traditional project management know that the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) talks about techniques that are in fact, quite agile, way before agile was cool and popular. Some of the interesting techniques follow. See if you can guess their Scrum (since Scrum is the most popular Agile representative) counterparts:

  • Progressive Elaboration – “Progressive elaboration involves continuously improving and detailing a plan as more detailed and specific information and more accurate estimates become available. Progressive elaboration allows a project management team to define work and manage it to a greater level of detail as the project evolves.“ (from projectmanagement.com)
  • Iterations – these don’t need introduction. I’ll just leave them here.
  • Rolling Wave Planning – “Rolling Wave Planning is the process of project planning in waves as the project proceeds and later details become clearer. Work to be done in the near term is based on high level assumptions; also, high level milestones are set. As the project progresses, the risks, assumptions, and milestones originally identified become more defined and reliable.” (from projectmanagement.com

The new edition of the PMBOK even dedicates a whole new chapter to Agile, but it was all in there for decades for those who read the thing carefully.

But finding “who did it first” is not the point, because as said earlier every methodology has to deal with the same issues. Getting deeper into risk management, stakeholder management, communication, planning, measuring can only benefit a Scrum Master who is serious about his or her job.

Traditional project management does offer a wealth of techniques and tools that could help and give a different perspective when things get real and you inevitably veer off the well-worn path of by-the-book Scrum. That being said, of course, one should still be careful to not turn into a directive and bureaucratic Scrum Master, which is a classic anti-pattern, but it was never exactly a good idea to become such a Project Manager either.

In Practice

PMBOK tells about the Hybrid Approaches which combine techniques from different methodologies. Hybrid is what I’ve seen working best in most cases.

Imagine a couple of teams – one creating an API, and the other – the team of a customer, who in parallel, develop their business application that will heavily utilize this API. Both teams want to work with Scrum, but they’re over 20 people in total and when they try, everything becomes a mess. They cannot agree on sprint length, on rituals, on framework for scaling. Putting a traditional frame around the project makes everyone’s life easier. Procurement do their work and the project managers/scrum masters and their teams agree to milestones and overarching designs on both sides. Then everyone goes happily about their day, uses whatever methodology sails their boat and in the end they deliver the solution without stepping too much onto each-others’ shoes.

Now imagine a team that works with Scrum, but they want to organize and do a hackathon at some point. The hackathon becomes a mini-project that gets organized while the team continues to iterate. The mini-project has a mini-plan, an owner (who could be a team member), it’s own rhythm and reporting.

In my experience, it turns out that specialists always tend to meet in the middle – you either do waterfall on top, with iterations inside it during the execution, or you do Scrum and iterate, but then use techniques to improve ownership, planning and continuity between sprints for bigger initiatives and features.

This is why I believe the best Scrum Masters all have some project management background or at least good working knowledge of traditional project management. 

So here is a heretic thought – Arguments between Agile and Traditional camps are just silly and they only show lack of understanding on both fronts. Project Management and Agile are the two sides of the same coin. They are not mutually exclusive – in fact, it’s quite the opposite – they often complement each other and they did for decades in well-managed projects. Getting to know both as a Scrum Master (or a Project Manager) is a very good idea… And no, Scrum is not dead, neither is any other approach of organizing software development work that delivers good results.

Scaling Scrum with LeSS: Lessons Learned

If you are not familiar with LeSS, you may have hard time reading on. If that’s the case, I’d suggest checking out the website first or watching a couple of videos about how LeSS works.

More than couple of years ago, we had to split a big Scrum team of 18 people into two smaller teams. We had been growing rapidly and the team had become far too big to be effective by any Scrum standards. After all, Scrum recommends 5+/-2 people per team to keep things smooth and efficient.

We didn’t want to create some artificial division line between the newly formed teams, based on product specialization or function for a number of reasons – flexibility, knowledge retention and redundancy to name a few. Eventually, we set out to look for ways to scale our Scrum implementation in a way that was going to keep team competencies balanced. 

Why LeSS?

We did some research on the most popular frameworks – LeSS and SAFe. Based on it, we promptly decided to go for LeSS because it seemed like a very straightforward and minimalist framework. It fit our idea of splitting the team without forcing specialization, and it wasn’t going to change too much of what we were already doing at the time. After all, we did not want to introduce “more“ process, and we were looking for something leaner. 

Overview of LeSS

We’ve been using LeSS successfully for a couple of years now and in this post I’ll be sharing some lessons learned and some challenges we faced. As with any methodology or framework, complexity still hides in the need for coordination, communication and ownership. Here are some thoughts of what worked and what did not, based on my experience.

Lesson 1: Backlog Refinement (Grooming) meetings will get messy

Grooming is by far the hardest ritual to pull off properly in any Scrum implementation because it requires good facilitation and an experienced team. But sometimes, when you have close to twenty people in a room trying to estimate a complex story, things are bound to become counterproductive. You need to establish a common understanding and let newer team members get used to estimation before introducing rotation, as LeSS suggests.  Unfortunately, there is no easy way around this – it just takes time and effort.

Here is what could be done:

  • By all means do not rush into introducing rotation – people need time to get used to grooming and you cannot do much to shorten it. It is the price you pay to grow.
  • When eventually you start rotation, make sure you have representatives from both teams, from all key functions and if possible- seniorities. Reducing the meeting to 7-8 people would make it work just fine.
  • Preparing in advance is key. Ask the Product Owner to share stories to groom a couple of days in advance, so everyone can spend some time to prepare and understand all the stories. This also prevents rejection of badly-written stories at the meeting, which you want to avoid anyway, because it’s often preceded by a lengthy and painful discussion. 
  • Introducing a separate regular pre-grooming session for collaboration between top seniors and PO gives venue for discussing strategic ideas and brainstorming. It also helps keep the grooming session focused mostly on stories and their scoring.
  • Strong facilitation is even more important with LeSS. Make sure you have someone experienced to keep the meeting on track, at least initially while you still have everybody-and-their-uncle in the room.

Lesson 2: Planning in two stages has some side-effects

Planning with LeSS is actually more complex as it’s carried out in two sequential sessions. One general, for both teams, and then separate ones for each team.

Every once in a while, an item that got optimistically picked in the first planning session, might not fit during the second (team-specific) planning session. This is mainly because in the second part of the planning team has more time to analyze in detail and decompose the story into tasks. When this happens, the item would pop-out of the sprint backlog of the team in question and this might become a bad surprise for the Product Owner unless communicated well.

Here is what can be done: 

  • Thoughtful preparation for planning always pays off and the team must make sure they know in advance their recent velocity, capacity, any leftovers and dependencies. Having some stories in your mind to pick prior to the planning session helps avoid the issue.
  • The Product Owner must be aware that stories might sometimes pop-out in the second planning when examined in detail and decomposed into tasks. Setting clear priorities for the team will make sure they will leave the right story out if this occurs. Final commitment for the sprint must be done after the team-specific planning sessions to make sure everything fits.

Lesson 3: You will still need some time and effort dedicated to synchronization and communication between teams

To compensate for lost communication bandwidth when you separate teams, you can introduce some additional meetings:

Communities of practice keep specialists from both teams on the same page. (Management 3.0)
  • Overall Retrospective – these are actually recommended in LeSS and you should make sure you don’t skip them after the Team Retrospective. They might feel redundant at first, but they make great venue for teams to address interesting accomplishments and common challenges, or just recap on how their common goals and roadmaps turn out.
  • Regular discussions between Scrum Masters, Team Managers, Product Owners. These short meetings help capture, discuss and handle issues on a higher level for both teams. Team retrospectives and the overall retrospective often generate some items for discussion on this level.
  • Form Communities of Practice (CoPs) – this is another Management 3.0 practice that I highly recommend implementing, especially when scaling Scrum. Communities of Practice cut across projects, teams and initiatives and give the opportunity for practitioners to synchronize, share their knowledge and challenges and develop their expertise further. In our case we’ve been doing regular QA and Dev syncs to keep the respective sub-communities in sync. This resulted in many complex challenges resolved within each domain and has been helping us immensely in reaching our team goals. People committees and social committees are also CoPs worth considering, especially if you want to emphasize on a culture of self-organization and freedom.

Lesson 4: Executing bigger initiatives that span both teams at the same time is still tricky 

LeSS does not recommend introducing coordinators for initiatives, but nevertheless in my experience this works when done in moderation. It helps with complex features and ongoing initiatives that span multiple sprints and even quarters.

Here is what can be done:

  • Assign a reporting person (owner) to emphasise on authority and responsibility to report, drive and deliver on a particular major initiative. This makes sure the initiative doesn’t die off and has someone pushing it forward.
  • Form “virtual” teams committed to specific initiatives. They have their own communication, pace and rhythm, which is separate from the ongoing LeSS cycle, but they still take part in all LeSS rituals.

I know that in a way all of the above might sound like imposing some Waterfall on top of Agile. Even so, you still need to find a way to ensure continuity between sprints and keep the big picture in mind for bigger initiatives. This, of course, could ideally be done by the Product Owner, but if you want to create autonomous teams (and who doesn’t?) it is alright to delegate some of it to team members. Apart from that, using some techniques from traditional project management might often prove beneficial.

In conclusion 

I’d say that LeSS proved to be a success for us as we got a bare-essentials process that allows us to deliver at twice the capacity. We did manage to scale up, and we are still Agile. Our teams can swarm up on a bigger story or even a feature if needed, which provides a great deal of flexibility.

LeSS also helped us maintain proper knowledge distribution between team members. Developer and QA sub-communities exchange knowledge and good ideas naturally flow between teams. Last, but not least, LeSS enabled us to have a common idea about what a Story Point is, which in turn makes our Product Owner’s life much easier, because he can work with a common measure of scope, size and complexity. 

I hope you found this useful and I’ll be happy to know about your experiences when scaling Scrum with LeSS and other frameworks.