I have been asked at least once whether I would describe Scrum as a process. My answer was something like “it’s a framework” a “very high-level process” but I don’t think that was helpful. It occurred to me recently that a more helpful explanation of the distinction between Agile processes and some other development processes would be to use the definitions of Business Practices and Business Procedures.
Most business processes focus on “procedures,” with an emphasis on predictability, automation, standardization, quantity and control to produce a clearly defined outcome. Qualities of a procedural process are
• Need to cover every possible decision
• Procedural process flows are handed over from one department to another.
• Procedural process flows tend to be linear
• Procedural process flows are inflexible
• In procedural process flows the process controls the process.
But there are exceptions to these procedural processes which are often referred to as cases.
These cases are performed by knowledge workers. Knowledge workers are individuals who are valued for their ability to act and communicate with knowledge within a specific subject area. Knowledge worker processes
• Are driven by events or goals
• Involve collaboration, flexibility and creativity
• Have a high level of uncertainty without a definitive path or known outcome
• Adapt to changing circumstances
If knowledge workers have no process
• Efficiency improvements are difficult to make
• Effectiveness is determined by who performs the work
• Change is difficult to make if the practices are not understood
• There is a lack of visibility due to the use of un-integrated media and systems
However, it is difficult to assign procedural process as outcomes are uncertain and collaboration, flexibility, agility and creativity are constrained.
The alternative is business “practices”. These are goal-centric and guided, rather than controlling. If the work requires something special, or a variation from the standard, knowledge workers can exercise their judgement. The focus targets knowledge, process awareness, flexibility, creativity, and quality. Features of a business practice are
• Complex decision are made by people (within constraints)
• Often involve cross-departmental collaboration
• Can be non-linear or iterative
• Can respond to changing circumstances
• A person (or people) controls the end-to-end process
A classic example is a medical Doctor. A patient will consult the Doctor with an ailment. He has chest pains. The Doctor decides to send him for a chest x-ray and a cardiogram (non-linear). The patient goes to the x-ray and cardiogram which is conducted following a step-by-step process. The results return to the Doctor who decides that the results are inconclusive and suspect it may be a stomach ulcer. He sends him for more tests (iterative). When these return the Doctor consults a specialist (cross-departmental collaboration) and they concur he has heartburn (complex decision) and prescribes appropriately and he closes the case (owns the whole process).
The cardiogram and chest x-ray were processed following a set of defined steps which is necessary as known-precise-consistent output is required. The Doctor is less constrained as his ability to act based on knowledge cannot be replaced by process – there are just too many permutations and an unclear outcome. Of course the Doctor is constrained. He has guidelines to which he must adhere like patient confidentiality, but these guidelines do not preclude the human element.
It occurs to me that the distinction between Agile development and more traditional “Waterfall” development is that Agile is more of a Business Practice and “Waterfall” is more of a Business Procedure. Which is better? It can depend, but I think the question you need to ask is whether you consider yourself a knowledge worker or not.
There are software applications that support Business Practices called Dynamic Case Management tools. EMC's Documentum xCP is such a tool. In 2011 Forrester rated Document xCP as a "Leader" in Dynamic Case Management. To find out more go to