Scrum Beyond Software: How local NGOs inspire human values and principles

Laura Puttkamer
· 10 min read

Human interactions provide fertile soil for modern, dynamic approaches like Scrum and other means to bring agility into our environment. We can very well rediscover the foundations of human interactions as they have been around for nearly as long as humanity itself — they were not just born in the context of advanced project management.

Looking at the values and principles of Scrum after a recent trip to Colombia, it becomes clear that software developers and project managers should look to informal settlements, where large “teams” are able to work by these processes. As in Scrum, they seem to take their strength from frugality, which is a trigger for innovation. Limited resources and complex situations can lead to even more resourcefulness, better self-organisation and continuous adaptation of solutions.

To deepen this theory, we will look at the urban area of Ciudad Bolívar, which is part of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. Ciudad Bolívar is going through an interesting urban renewal phase, which merits attention and offers many lessons for Scrum.

In one of Bogotá’s poorest urban areas, Ciudad Bolívar, light-weight solutions to transport, to building stairs and to receiving electricity are being applied. They can teach practitioners about Scrum.

Understanding the Framework

The Scrum mindset is based on values (Focus, Openness, Courage, Commitment, Respect), principles and practices. Specific Scrum rules are based on the Agile Mindset, which is a set of guiding principles for iterative approach, originating in software development.

The Scrum framework is lightweight on purpose and consists of roles, events, artifacts and the rules that bind them together and engages the team for self-organization by elimination of hierarchies and formal processes.

The idea of Scrum in its current incarnation is to provide a comprehensive framework that enables groups of people (or communities) to learn and improve by use of the three pillars of empiricism (transparency, inspection, adaptation).

Building complex products (or solving complex problems) in complex environments is the key application of Scrum and the idea is that uncertainty is inevitable in a world full of change.

The only approach is to embrace the unknown by failing early, fast and smart at the same time to learn early and along the way and ensure for a balanced and fitting solution to a problem (or environment).

So how does that relate to a specific context in practice?

Ciudad Bolívar: A Blueprint For Agility In Bogotá, Colombia

Most of the 1 million inhabitants of the informal settlement Ciudad Bolívar on the outskirts of Colombia’s capital city certainly do not know the Scrum theory behind the software development process, but they do follow it in their daily activities by using lightweight approaches, transparency, adaptation and learning by doing.

Colombia’s war has only officially been over for a few years. Although a peace agreement between the government and guerrilla groups like the FARC was signed in 2016, there are still many perilous and shady activities going on. Citizens of the country’s capital, Bogotá, still look to the marginalized suburbs and imagine crime, insecurity and poverty.

However, residents of these “complicated” areas (as many Colombians politely put it), are now taking matters into their own hands. If we look at it through the Scrum lens, they are using typical values and principles of the Scrum process.

First of all, it is very important to them to see what works, rather than listening and applying some complicated theory. People on the ground founded NGOs like “Ruta de la Esperanza”, which are working in Ciudad Bolívar. Instead of relying on complicated tools and processes, they value interactions and individuals, working on employment opportunities and poverty relief in Ciudad Bolívar. In this article, we will have a look at how this NGO incorporates many Scrum-specific principles without even knowing the terminology.

For example, everyone knows the founder of Ruta de la Esperanza, Tony. He is in and in front of the office building all day, chatting to neighbors, taking care of neighborhood kids, offering free food to those in need and working on re-opening a recording studio. This will be targeted at male teenagers, who instead of becoming criminal can make hip hop and reggaeton recordings.

Tony can be seen as a Scrum Master who is working with his Scrum team (the Ruta de la Esperanza NGO) on self-organizing the settlement. He organizes the regular team meetings and helps team members to work in the community according to their individual strengths. There are little to no hierarchies and formal processes in Ciudad Bolívar. The work they do (the Scrum process) is used to enable the community to learn and improve through transparency, inspection and adaptation.

There is no complicated contract with the client — cooperation, interaction and quick reaction to any problem count much more. This is why every resident of Ciudad Bolívar can always come to Ruta de la Esperanza and similar organisations in the area. They will help even anonymously, whichever way they can and know.

Looking back to the theoretical aspects of Scrum, this means that solving complex problems in a complex environment like Ciudad Bolívar is working surprisingly well. Residents readily accept uncertainty and they embrace the unknown by failing, improving and trying again in any thing they do in their daily lives. The NGO is working in a more coordinated way on social development in Ciudad Bolívar, but it seems that everyone who is part of that community is already applying Scrum principles. Incremental change can be seen everywhere in the area.

This way of working, which is different from so many Western NGOs dedicated to “social development”, also incorporates some of the most important Agile principles (printed in bold, followed by application to Ciudad Bolívar):

Customer satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

This is the main criterion for success for NGOs like Ruta de la Esperanza. They can only survive if they satisfy their customers (the community in this case).

Welcome changing requirements, even in late stages of development.

The importance of continuous change and of listening to neighbors is evident in an informal settlement, where social bonds tend to be very tight anyway.

Deliver working software frequently (weeks rather than months)

Even daily changes need to be dealt with in social development (examples: earthquakes, flood rains, water shortage).

Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers

Ideally know each other very well and even personally, as is the case in Ciudad Bolívar, so that you can establish trust and good communication channels.

Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted

Ruta de la Esperanza workers are very popular in their neighborhood and enjoy the trust of residents.

Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)

Especially in social development, you will make countless mistakes and bad decisions if you are not living with the beneficiaries of your product. In Scrum, face-to-face conversation is often associated with teams, but Ruta de la Esperanza shows that the connection to customers is equally important.

Working software is the primary measure of progress

We can learn from Ciudad Bolívar to be very tough in the Scrum process: only product characteristics that work will be accepted by the team.

Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace

It is also important to teach others about the tools and products you use so that they will not need you for successful implementation.

Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design

The neighbors are the strictest judges for the work of Ruta de la Esperanza.

Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential

Be able to explain your product to someone who only went to school for a couple of years and might not be able to read or write; then it will be simple enough.

Best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams

Ciudad Bolívar is the best example for the successful work of self-organizing teams. The NGO does not need a lot of input from outside, but works with the principle of “what works”.

Regularly, the team reflects on how to become more effective, and adjusts accordingly

Regular and public meetings are crucial; another, more modern way of doing this is by using WhatsApp / other media.

Furthermore, one can easily derive the four inherent lessons from the Agile manifesto and match them into our case environment that stems from frugality:

· Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools

Observation: Instead of using a complicated project management plan, Ruta de la Esperanza works directly with neighbors. They know all the individual in the area and their personal challenges, so personal interaction is always a focus.

· Working Software over comprehensive documentation

Observation: In poor urban areas like Ciudad Bolívar, what works will be scaled up (for example, using tires as stairs or beautifying houses with street arts), whereas other attempts will quickly be discarded.

· Customer Collaboration over contract negotiation

Observation: There are no written contracts in Ciudad Bolívar, but the social contract is equally binding. Neighbors cooperate with the NGO and donate food or money where they can.

· Responding to Change over following a plan

Observation: With the recent influx of refugees from the civil war in Venezuela, Ciudad Bolívar has adapted to many new inhabitants. They are welcome to join food banks or the programs of Ruta de la Esperanza.

In Ciudad Bolívar, the work of Ruta de la Esperanza has resulted in incremental changes in the living situation, such as community clean-ups, improvement of public stairs to move around the hilly neighborhood, and more participation in urban planning.

These stairs made out of tires are a simple example of how you can apply Scrum. Using the given resources, the problem is solved — if not perfectly, then to the satisfaction of the clients. There is room for future improvement by neighbors (the team).

Maybe most importantly for long-term social development, Ruta de la Esperanza is investing in and supporting street artists. The new cable car of the city, which is now arriving to one of most marginalized areas of Ciudad Bolívar (somewhat ironically called El Paraíso), will bring more tourists, but also allows residents to travel to other places where they can find work or better education. The street art shows a renewed (or new) pride in the area, explaining the NGO’s slogan: “Ciudad Bolívar no es como la pintan — es como la pintamos nosotros”, which roughly translates into “Ciudad Bolívar is not how others paint it, but how we paint it”.

The perception of the area and of the challenges Ruta de la Esperanza is working on, which can be compared to the product in a Scrum process, is changing incrementally. This is what social development NGOs can learn whenever they get active in informal settlements: The residents and local NGOs are already successfully applying Scrum methods. Instead of imposing theoretical processes and foreign ideas, it is better to learn more about Scrum by combining textbook knowledge with on-the-ground-knowledge.

In Ciudad Bolívar, the team (community) lead by the Scrum Masters (NGO) have taken matters into their own hands by cleaning up streets and incrementally improving their neighborhood (product) through street art.

Lessons for Scrum in Social Development

Scrum is much more than a software or a project management tool. It might seem new, modern, and fancy, but in fact, its building blocks are tailored so closely to human interactions that we experience a true rebirth in approaches. Among many other areas, it is already being applied in social development, but most successfully by local NGOs on the ground. A frugal environment seems to be the most fertile ground for the principles of Scrum to work.

With or without building complex projects in complex environments, we can benefit from experiences like the one in Ciudad Bolívar and understand how different angles to problems are addressed in manners that remind us of traditional values, principles and practices. This would be particularly interesting for Scrum Masters of any profession and for social development practitioners, who in Ciudad Bolívar or similar poor urban areas can see with their own eyes what Scrum actually means.

On a global scale, the digital economy has enabled us to make this shift but we can learn and apply this knowledge in all areas of life — for the better. Especially local, frugal environments pose the most abundant source of extensive inspiration to social interactions.

It is necessary to have a practical approach to Scrum and learn it where it is actually happening (not only from textbooks) — this is where Ruta de la Esperanza and similar NGOs could educate Scrum Masters as well as other NGOs.

This would be an interesting business model for Ciudad Bolívar’s residents, who could showcase their work and help Scrum theoreticians to better understand the model. At the same time, Scrum professionals can learn from this experience and will be able to apply the principles of this framework in a much more practical manner in their future work.

Social development as a process does ideally follow many of the ideals of Scrum — but it seems that too often, development NGOs forget that in favor of their own ideas of project management and development. We should all learn from agile and dynamic communities!

This article was co-authored by Laura von Puttkamer and Alex Michael Pawlowski.

About: Alex M. Pawlowski is a consultant, hybrid coach and Medium author with regards to the design, execution and economics of startups. For contact, collaboration or business inquiries to Alex, please get in touch via lxpwsk1@gmail.com.


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Laura Puttkamer

Written by

Writer and urban planner, currently based in Mexico City. Read more at parcitypatory.org!

Serious Scrum

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