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Scrum is gaining support across the IT community as a long-awaited and logical evolution from the hierarchical development methodologies of the previous decades. The reasons for its popularity are simple: it empowers the users, the very group of people that will have to live and interact with the results of the system delivery. By enabling this group to actively participate in the design and building of the systems, we allow them to re-define and shape their own reality. It’s all about power to the people, as opposed to the former methodologies, where a small group of technocrats imposed their own interpretations of what users “needed”, then spent months (or years) trying to come up with complex solutions that, more often than not, failed to meet major expectations or even lacked substantial functionality.

Scrum listens to rapidly changing demands, delivers functionality that works, and adapts solutions whenever the situation calls for it. So why not try it in other areas?

Having worked in Switzerland for more than a decade, one aspect of the country has struck me as particularly appealing: the principle of direct democracy. Switzerland is blissfully devoid of that pyramidal structure you find almost anywhere else; a small elite, usually consisting of a few hundred people, defining and enforcing laws and political directions. Instead, the country has a tradition of public votes on all levels of government, ensuring the possibility of the electorate to not only choose their preferred “rulers” but also to participate in the outcome of important political decisions.

Swiss politicians are functionaries more than rulers. If the people, or “users”, signals a thumbs down, the political course is appropriately altered. Based on specific numbers of collected signatures, the “users” can request additional “features”, or cancel existing ones. When the (tax) bill arrives, they can rest relatively assured that the amounts they pay reflects the will of the majority, not a remote elite with sometimes obscure motives.

This bears a striking resemblance to Scrum. In a well-performing Scrum project, developers and users come together to find common ground, and to review progress and project direction. Features that are not needed, or not considered worth paying for, are scrapped or rejected. On the other hand, if the users decide on added or altered functionality, these new requests are taken into account (costs and time allowing). The final product can differ considerably from the early sketches, based on this continuous feedback and consensus-driven input from the major stakeholders – the users.

On the other hand, political top-down systems, or what our rulers love to call “representative democracies”, closely resemble the ancient development methodologies of the past. Political parties set out their directions in stone, finely honing their manifests, with little or no room for dissent. Once elected, they may of course deviate from their own ideologies, usually fuelled by a mix of failing to understand real-world constraints and the need for political concessions in order to stay in power, but one thing remains sure: a government never asks it’s people for any kind of advice. Once election day is over, the government sets out implementing their own ideas of what they perceive the “users” of needing. Not once are said users allowed to actively provide corrective feedback or input in order to alter the political decisions, or even asked our opinion on specific issues – even if the outcome has huge national or local impact.

The result is an evil circle: a set of decisions which more often than not fail to resound with the majority of the population, and a tendency among the electorate to subsequently deride and despise the enforcing politicians. People are faced with a multitude of regulations, rules and laws they fail to grasp and never asked for in the first place, as well as costly projects that only benefits small sub-groups among the electorate, instead of being given the opportunity to provide continuous feedback and changing the features of our “system”. Because of this, we despise and loath the political figureheads for their lack of competence, common sense and inability to connect with us.

Switzerland got it right from the beginning. For more than 700 years, this country has actively pursued Scrum as the fundamental base of it’s political system. Decisions are implemented based on consensus, and the people provide a constant flow of feedback. Granted, this sometimes slows down the implementation, but at the end of the day, the “users” can rest fairly assured that the bill they’re footing is a reflection of what they asked for, not the result of a governmental group of bureaucrats with a fixed idea of what suits them best.

Strange, then, that even as Scrum gains in popularity across the development environment, only the Swiss prevail in using it as a political ideology.

Time for a revolution, anyone?

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  1. Gregory Misiorek
    Hi Trond,

    i had your blog printed out for further reading and writing a comment when you had it originally posted, but didn’t have a chance to do it until i saw your comment about not being active on twitter or not putting much faith into klout.

    i was struck with your comparison between political systems and development approach and somehow made this strange association.

    we all strive for influence and want our voices to be heard and tools like twitter let us do just that. sure, we can get easily overshouted by marketing messages paid for by corporate budgets, but if your tweet strikes a valid point, for a very brief moment you are exercising direct influence on your followers or even on those who follow the topic you are tweeting about. as more and more people get on, we will leave twitter ‘Switzerland’ and enter into more sizable populations (of 100,000,000 twitter accounts?).

    we can also get engaged deeper into our follower communities and create following based on our own merits. those groups will necessarily stay small as we all have our little niches.

    so, maybe if not quite a revolution, twitter is definitely newer medium that is quickly becoming a message. it will not replace any other media, but will definitely complement them.

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    1. Trond Stroemme Post author
      Hi Gregory,

      a very valid comment, and indeed the events of the last 12 months have shown that social media can indeed contribute to change the course of politics.

      My original comment on the klout and social media story was more inspired by what I see as an unhealthy trend within the whole social media sphere. To some extent, reading that original blog was a bit like watching devoted body builders work out at a health studio. Invariably, they will stop and pose in front of the mirror, showing off their biceps’, silently (or not so silently) inviting comments from others. This seems to be as much a driving force for lots of participators in the social media craze as anything else.

      I’m not saying this is the case with neither the blog author or any of the people commenting on his blog, but I fail to some extent to see the real need for Klout. What can it possibly be, if not a parable of the mirror in that body building studio, enabling you to check your social media muscles and compare it to those of others?

      As one other commentator observes, the few real big players swim silently far above, blissfully ignorant of their scores, while the common hordes are relentlessly measuring their social media “influence” and spending most of their spare time building their online egos.

      Sorry, this came out in a more negative way than I really intended. I’ve got nothing against social media, and indeed welcome it and its possibilities, but I tend to feel that the larger part of the blogosphere is fuelled by rather narcissistic principles, as opposed to those who (usually within a political context) put their lives at risk by using the same media as a way to force unlawful leaders to back down or dictators to re-think their abominable abuse of power.

      Maybe these people should have their own evaluation site. How about naming it Kudos?

      Regards,
      Trond

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  2. Greg Chase
    If scrum = good politics then
    Representative terms are short, and project teams are small.

    I’ve yet to hear anyone explain how scrum works in big complex projects. 

    In the US, we explain politics in a big country as “making sausage”.

    The problem the elite have in any system is that they never have enough information to make a good decision, and the information they eventually get is amazingly idealized by their handlers.

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    1. Trond Stroemme Post author
      Absolutely right.

      Funnily, the Swiss government consist of only 7 people. Their terms are 7 years, but these 7 politicians swap the ministerial posts amongst themselves every year. A bit like musical chairs.

      I believe most projects can be broken up into simpler tasks. Not sure about large-scale SCRUM; never tried it…

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