A Commons View on Scrum

2019 09 01 head

Agile approaches encourage common ownership of artifacts during product development. Historically, the commons is the term used for shared resources. Can we apply the commons learnings to agile and Scrum approaches?

Interestingly, economists were kind to state common ownership is doomed to fail through the theory published at the end of the sixties [1].

Thirty years later, Elinor Ostrom showed that commons can indeed work well if you follow a small set of rules. She found century-old examples scattered around the world. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for her findings in 2009 and dissipated the previous fake news.

The picture shows a Suone in Wallis, Switzerland. The constructions bring water to arid regions and are built and maintained by communities. It is an example of commons in place for hundreds of years and is one of the concrete implementations studied by Elinor. Mountain pastures are also managed as commons in Switzerland. You will find a drawing of Suone on the hundred Swiss Francs note.

A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.

Elinor Ostrom identified eight design principles of stable local common pool resource management through the world. These principles have a wider range of applications than common resource pool groups. They are relevant to nearly any situation where people - such as Scrum teams - must cooperate and coordinate to achieve shared goals.

Below the eight principles are presented with a mapping to Scrum aspects.

A clear definition of the contents for the common pool resource and effective exclusion of external unentitled parties

The Scrum teams define the artifacts and processes exclusively owned by the team. Teams take ownership of items such as source code, Scrum board, pull process. Other items, such as a refactoring process, incident tickets produce more infighting. You can measure the maturity of your team accordingly to the clarity, which resources they own exclusively. The first step shall often be collective ownership of source code and common coding style.

The appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions

Agile teams own commons resources such as * Collective ownership of source code, * Definition of Done DoD, * Sprint Backlog, * Coding Guidelines, * Team rules and work techniques.

The work techniques often limit common resources in inexperienced teams. They ask the product owner if they could refactor a class or invest a few minutes in clean code techniques. They do not own the internal quality of the product. More mature teams are able to make the transition with the support of their Scrum master and the organization. They truly own the source code and its quality.

Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process

Scrum or LeSS have quite a few platforms to support the decision-making process

  • Daily Scrum,

  • Retrospective,

  • Review,

  • Backlog refinement,

  • Planning.

The decision-making process works only if the organization grants psychological security to their teams. In my experience, it takes years until an organization discards command and control reflexes and delegates responsibility and accountability to the Scrum team members.

Daily Scrum events are often reporting meetings. The developers report either to the Scrum master, or the product owner, or a manager. The events are seldom a platform to collaborate, discuss options and experiment with variants.

Consensus or consent approaches are widely more successful than majority decisions is one of the findings of Elinor.

Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators

You have to monitor your commons to know if they are healthy. You can

  • Pair program or review commits with pull requests.

  • Automate static metrics and test coverage.

  • Implement continuous integration, delivery and deployment processes.

  • Try zero bug policy.

I regularly state monitoring is the first commitment of team members to be publicly accountable. Often it is painful to realize how difficult transparency is.

A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules

Rules are only respected if sanctions are implemented upon violations of the agreement. Scrum teams can rule that

  • You must repair the broken build.

  • You must immediately correct your coding violations.

  • You lose your source code management system check-in rights.

  • You are excluded from the team.

Most teams need counseling before they can tackle the concept of sanctions. As a Scrum master, you must gently empower them to sanction. If this rule is not implemented, you will always land in the tragedy of the commons and utterly fail in your agile journey. Worse, your product will probably also fail.

Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access

Conflict resolution shall be fast, cheap, and timely. Scrum provides excellent approaches:

  • Automated checks on the source code and executable application,

  • Daily Scrum,

  • Review and retrospective.

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

— Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review
Norm Kerth

The automatic checks are worth the effort as an effective, neutral, and cost-effective to detect violations and automatically block the offender. The Scrum events are platforms to discuss and resolve the discovered violations. The Scrum master must facilitate the discussion until the team members have developed their own conflict resolution instruments.

Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities

Self-determination works only if recognized by the overall authorities and organization. Here we leave the team level and need department recognition - for a LeSS approach - or company level recognition - for example to have ownership to remove a team member -.

  • Self-organizing of the Scrum team,

  • Ownership of internal quality,

  • Ownership of estimations.

Scrum master shall coach and counsel the organization and the team. It takes time until management understands the dependencies between delegation, accountability, ownership, and autonomy. You shall remember Larman’s Laws

Culture follows structure.

— Craig Larman

You will as a change agent change together with leaders the structure of your organization. Please be gentle and patient.

In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization is in the form of multiple layers for nested enterprises. Small local CPRs at the base level.

Scaling agile practices at the organization level requires multiple levels.

  • Transparency through Scrum board,

  • Definition of Dome as a contract between a team and their organization,

  • Visibility of source code, continuous integration, delivery and deployment of artifacts,

  • Scale to product level using LeSS.

If you are ready to scale up to the company you could consider Beyond Budgeting Round Table. BBRT and Sociocracy approaches and tailor them to your specific needs.

I rediscovered the commons rules through a presentation of Craig Larmann at the LeSS conference 2019 in Munich. He inspired us to look at agile approaches through the commons' lens.