Perhaps the time has come for a new methodology. The old methodologies are showing their age as they are gradually incorporated and transformed by the large organizations of the world. There are many who feel that scrum today is but a pale shadow of what it used to be. One mediocre “transformation” after another has watered it down to functional irrelevance. Perhaps it’s inevitable that any method that you develop will eventually lose its vitality once it reaches the mainstream. Sooner or later you always sell out to The Man. That’s OK though, there is always a new young buck waiting to take up the mantle of The Next Great Development Process Breakthrough. What if it was Swarming?
If you were going to work on a team that used swarming as it’s only development process, what would it look like? This hypothetical team wouldn’t use any other processes, not scrum, not kanban, and certainly not waterfall – just swarming. It’s a pretty radical idea. Like many of the other methods, maybe we should start with the values. Values are the bedrock upon which we can build our new method. So what values would a swarming team have? Why don’t we start with these:
That seems like a nice set of values, but what does it mean? Why would these be values that a swarming team would hold most essential? Let’s examine them each in turn:
Passionate Engagement – When you look at swarms in nature, from flocks of birds to nests of ants, one thing becomes apparent very quickly: each individual is completely and utterly focused on their task. Bees don’t simply ‘like’ honey. No, honey is much more important than that. To a bee, honey is life and death. Bees don’t ever take a coffee break. Similarly, we want teams that are equally passionate about what they are working on. We want them to believe that it is important, in fact it is absolutely the most important thing that they could be working on. Passion like that is infectious. Other people are attracted to it and soon you will find them working with you side by side just as passionate as you are.
Radical Transparency – Mobilize everyone to look for and manage team threats and opportunities. Share accountability, so that everyone can have the same responsibility for success and failure. All project information should always bet available at a glance on the walls, on dashboards, on my mobile phone, even at home. Access to information needs to be ubiquitous. Anywhere you look it can be found.
Natural Rhythms – A lot of the environments that we work in today don’t honor natural rhythms. Just ask anybody who works swing or night shift. On a swarming team, we want to make sure that we use the cadences of nature where ever possible. Our attention and focus have natural limits, so we can break up the day into smaller chunks. If we are happy and passionate about our work, does it really matter if its a Wednesday or a weekend? The norms of industrial society do not apply to a swarming team. They take their weekend whenever they feel like it.
Simple Rules – Use simple protocols to help enable the highest possible functionality of the team. We need to have simple rules of engagement that enable us to rapidly uncover disagreement and help us to promulgate learning as quickly as possible. Using simple rules requires conscious attention to their maintenance and upkeep. The team needs to keep their rules clear and disciplined in order for them to function well and not decay into disorder. Everyone in the flock needs to have the same signal for turning left.
Abundant Alternatives – Swarms thrive best in complex environments. There need to be an abundance of alternatives to explore, because that’s what swarms are really good at. When swarms find themselves in an environment characterized by scarcity, then they move on to more fertile ground. The same should apply to our teams, if they are working in an ecosystem that is rich with complexity, then they are probably well suited to it. If not, they move on.
These are what I would propose as values for a team using swarming as a development process. These ideas are what support and enable the kind of environment where swarming can happen. The tools are all there, we just need to be bold enough to use them.