Scrum Project Teams

I am always on the look out for new and interesting metaphors for the use and benefits of Scrum specifically and an agile approach to delivery in general. As a keen and almost-able musician myself, the title of Mike Cohn's recent article, "Leader of the Band," got me thinking more about the parallels between agile and music: both in its composition and its performance.

Creation

I do not profess to be skilled in composition or arrangement of music. I can, however, imagine how a composer visualizes a piece of music before it has been completed. Before he has written a single note, a music composer must have an idea of the style, structure and mood of the piece he is about to create. He starts with that vision. So, too, must a Scrum project begin with a theme or picture of what ultimately will be delivered.

In music, this vision comes from many different sources. Compositions can be written to mark a specific event, reflect a particular emotion or experience, or to convey a particular mood in a play or movie.

Historically, many classical compositions have been written to mark specific events. For example, Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (1880) was composed to commemorate the unsuccessful French invasion of Russia in 1812, a major turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. Tchaikovsky's clearly had the intention of building a classical masterpiece that portrayed the increasing magnitude and frenzy involved in the final stages of battle. Other pieces of classical music have been written to encapsulate a composer's own thoughts, experiences or emotional state. The Symphony No. 9, From the New World, popularly known as the New World Symphony, was composed by Antonin Dvořák in 1893 during his visit to the United States from 1892 to 1895. In an article published in the New York Herald (December 15th, 1893) Dvorak explained how Native American music had been an influence on his vision for this symphony:

I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral color.
– Antonin Dvořák

In some cases, composers are asked to write a movie soundtrack that encapsulates the themes of the motion picture. Good examples are the iconic works of John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, Superman) and the more sedate film scores of James Horner (Titanic, Braveheart, Apollo 13). In these cases, the film director has a great deal of input as to which parts of the soundtrack are added to the film structure to improve the final product. He must work closely with the composer to ensure that his own vision is realized, in most cases working with only the movie's script, rather than the visual elements of the motion picture. In all of these instances, a clear project vision gives structure to what the composer will create. The project has a purpose: deliver something that will make people feel, remember or understand a particular mood, experience or event.

In software development, the vision usually comes to the team from someone like a film director: a product owner. The product owner gives a clear picture of his goals and writes, or helps to write, stories that describe the things he'd like to have in the final product. Working collaboratively with the team throughout the project, he guides the team toward the creation of a product that fits his, or the organization's, needs.

Playback

I also see the emergence and development of musical piece as a distinctly agile practice. Picture a composer sitting at a piano, armed only with blank manuscript and a vision. The ideas in the composer's head are translated into sound using the piano. The sound provides instant feedback as to which melodies, harmonies and chords combine effectively; in other words, the composer is testing and integrating while the piece develops. In most cases, a musical creation starts small: a simple melody or sequence or chords from which the composer can choose to overlay harmonies and counter melodies. Through simple playback and constant rehearsal the composer can quickly identify problems or imperfections in the product. Working with this integrated product allows the composer to add depth to the music against a solid, tested foundation.

These simple common sense practices translate directly to the quality engineering practices that underpin a Scrum development project. A test-first approach always minimizes the risk that our software "music" will not integrate at the end of a sprint.