Why I Value Frameworks Over Methodologies
Early in my career, the head of IT gathered us together to introduce us to a new concept—a methodology. He pitched it something like this: “We’re going to start using new processes to complete our projects in IT.”
We’ll follow this set of rules that will take us from the beginning of the project to the end.” We didn’t think that would be particularly beneficial and we were pretty vocal about how this would slow our work down. So, after a few minutes of our grumbling, he tried again: “Wouldn’t be great if we could get Harvey to leave us all alone and let us get our work done?!” That we liked because Harvey was our collective nemesis—our main client who pressured all the programmers whenever he liked with constantly changing ideas. These never-ending changes caused a chaotic environment. We found it hard to get work done on time resulting in many complaints about us throughout the organization. The new methodology was introduced, and it did indeed improve our chaotic environment.
It did not, though, help our standing in the company. It was too inflexible and the clients like Harvey hated it.
That was the first of many methodologies that were introduced to our industry over the years. Some were quite technical, and others less so. Each purported to get projects done more quickly with more client satisfaction. Each touted that it was the latest and greatest and would solve all of IT’s problems. Each advanced the idea that if it were followed, the whole organization would be eternally grateful. Each started with good intentions, but each got bogged down in its own bureaucracy.
Is Agile a methodology?
Before I became a Certified Scrum Master in 2010, I attended my first presentation on Agile. The speaker reviewed the Agile Manifesto and principles and I said to myself—here’s something that takes good, solid project principles and puts them together in a practical way. At that time and to my delight, Scrum was called a “set of practices” which made a great deal of sense to me. Of course face-to-face communication is preferred, if not always practical. Of course we don’t want to get bogged down in needless documentation just to follow some mandated process.
Gradually, though, the word “methodology” replaced the phrase “set of practices.” And to some teams, calling a set of best practices a methodology gets misinterpreted as an unalterable way projects are completed. I remember attending a presentation where the speaker proudly discussed how documentation had been banned in her organization. “ And in another presentation a panel discussed whether virtual communication was considered face-to-face and therefore “allowed.” Agile was in jeopardy of losing its practicality and becoming bureaucratic. But Agile still works today when used as intended. It works, though, more as a framework than a methodology.
So what’s the difference?
I think there is and has always been confusion between the two. According to the Scrum Alliance website, “Agile methodologies are the conventions that a team chooses to follow in a way that follows Agile values and principles.”[i] The use of the word “conventions” implies some flexibility. So what’s a convention? It’s a norm, an agreement for how in this case a team behaves and does things. I understand behavioral conventions. It makes sense to me that each team will create its own communication and behavioral norms and guidelines. My concern is that these methodology-conventions run the risk of becoming rules for every project—rules that don’t allow for individual problem-solving.
Frameworks by their nature are flexible. They allow teams to decide which practices make sense for their projects and which do not. A best practice may work well on one type of project or in one industry or organization but not others. Another best practice may work well for one set of clients, but not for others or with one team’s skillset but not another. Frameworks allow for these differences and usually encourage teams to choose among the myriad best practices described in the framework.
Sure, frameworks usually describe more practices than can be absorbed for any given project. That’s why it’s important for teams to understand what’s contained in the framework and choose the practices that work for them. If the team views the framework as an inflexible methodology, each step of which must be done on all projects, they may become overwhelmed and abandon it entirely.
I value frameworks over methodologies. Not that there shouldn’t be methodologies. It’s just that in my experience, frameworks are more flexible. They allow for individuals and teams to understand the context of their specific environments and make better-informed decisions. Frameworks provide guidance without demanding that each step be followed. Methodologies tend to become rigid over time. They are often used as a crutch when teams are unable to understand context and synthesize information. Having frameworks is important. It seems to me, however, that having bureaucratic methodologies can be self-defeating.