Nokia Demise: More Proof that Agile and Scrum Are Merely Tools, NOT Solutions

Yesterday’s dramatic announcement (link at Engadget) of layoffs and R&D cutbacks by Nokia (which has been leaking out for months) should be a sobering reality check for Agile and Scrum advocates who have exploited Agile mythology by packaging Scrum and Agile into lucrative “solutions” that can be easily purchased for those willing to whip out their check books.  For those that missed the news, Nokia is laying off hundreds (more likely thousands before it’s over ) of R&D workers and abandoning their own software platform in favor of Microsoft Mobile 7.   There’s irony dripping from the announcement with respect to Nokia’s decision to partner with Microsoft, but that’s for another blog post.

Today I want to call out the Scrum community who continues to promote the bankrupt idea that managing and building software oriented products and services will automatically be somehow “saved” or “revolutionized” by fostering the adoption of Scrum across both core development teams as well as the rest of the organization.  Really?

If ever there was a poster child for Scrum it’s Nokia.  For several years Nokia (among other companies) has passionately promoted and adopted Scrum across larges parts of its product development organization. It was so ardent in its adoption that it even used the “the Nokia Test” developed by practitioners at NSN (Nokia Siemens Network, not to be confused with Nokia the parent company – Mea Culpa to Bas Vodde and Craig Larman for pointing out my attribution error in my original blog post).  The test was intended to “prove” how well its internal and external development partners were faithfully executing the Scrum framework.  The belief among the Scrum/Agile zealots was simple… if you’re not practicing all the tenets of Scrum you can’t be successful..  Funny how history has a way of undermining those so certain of the future.

So what is/was the Nokia test that so many in the Agile community have used as a yard stick for Scrum authenticity?  Here are the highlights:

  • Iterations must be time-boxed to less than six weeks
  • Software must be tested and working at the end of an iteration
  • Iteration must start before specification is complete
  • You must know who the product owner is
  • There must be a product backlog prioritized by business value
  • The product backlog must have estimates created by the team
  • The team must generate burn-down charts and know their velocity
  • There can be no allowance for project managers (or anyone else) disrupting the work of the team

The simple checklist above is excellent advice and guidance for any software development activity.   Here’s the problem… This list is promoted by many in the Agile community as the savior of software and product development and the organizations these software teams serve.  If that’s so, how’s it working out for Nokia?  In what way did the Agile/Scrum transformation help Nokia thrive?  In what way did remarkable improvements to Nokia’s on time delivery and low defect rate contribute to advancing their market share?  In what way did “listening to the customer” help Nokia build products that preserved their once lofty market position?

I know some will be seething at my comments and defend Scrum by mentioning how Nokia didn’t do this or that properly and that associating their demise in any way with Scrum is irresponsible.  Really?  Then quit selling Scrum and Agile as a panacea, OK?

I’m not trying to pick a fight with the Scrum crowd… at Gear Stream we routinely teach and advocate Scrum in many client circumstances, but we do so after thoughtful discovery and consideration for other tools.. believe it or not, there are many compelling alternatives and hybrid approaches to managing software and product development that  can and often will produce better results for an organization than “Scrum by the book”.

For those who see Scrum as THE answer, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee… Agile and Scrum are merely TOOLS, they are NOT solutions.   Most importantly, good tools are no substitute for authentic leadership, effective product and organizational design , bold action and last, but not least, good fortune.   The Nokia Test?  I hope you’re not expecting to graduate just because you passed.

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