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Developmental Dinosaurs: SCRUM, Agile development, Lean Methodologies and Why They Don't Work

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Everyone has an opinion about the development process. I certainly wouldn't consider myself an expert, although I was very much involved in the software development process of a previous startup I worked at that developed KidsApps. And in my humble opinion, SCRUM, agile development and lean methodologies do not work for mobile apps, SaaS applications nor any applications dealing with B2C.

In fact, a lot of B2C startups focused on these methodologies have often failed even if they win public approval or gain a large amount of traction. In my previous KidsApp startup, we had more than 4 million downloads, but we were unable to retain that user base despite the fact that we utilised agile development and lean methodologies to give people what they said they wanted.

SCRUM and agile development was prominent in 1980s corporate Japan, when there had been a strong separation of roles: product owner, developer, user, investor etc. In this day and era, in the startup world, all these roles merge, and often people have more than one role in the development of a company.

And the truth is, people don't know what they want. If in doubt, check out all the Kickstarter campaigns revolving around software development or mobile games. There will be a critical mass of people donating their funds to projects that are based on user popularity, but after the launch, the enthusiasm wanes. Why? Because people think they want something, when they really want something else altogether.

I think the most important aspect of development need to satisfy these following requirements:

1) Easy to use, no bugs, fast to download, doesn't lag (we are living in an era where people have short attention spans)

2) It makes my life easier somehow either by saving time to do something, organising something or making something convenient without having to put in a lot of effort

3) It piques my curiosity. (And this is the most important). It is something that I need to access again and again, and not an unsavoury one-off download, or join-then-forget phenomenon. I want to access it, because it has something I continually want and need that satiates my curiosity.

SCRUM taskboards may address #1 and #2, but it rarely addresses #3.

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If we look at OUYA, as an example, a mobile gaming company that had successfully closed $15 million in funding led by Kleiner Perkins in 2013 only after they gained $8.6 million on Kickstarter by fans who loved the idea of their open source mobile gaming platform, we have to wonder what went wrong?

So, why did they fail? Because despite the fact that people had funded their product, that isn't what they actually wanted. People didn't want another console like X-box or SonyPlaystation that had a bluetooth wireless feature. What people wanted was speed and engagement. OUYA had neither. Bluetooth is super slow. No one is going to want to play games on a console that has a slow lag time, even if it is wireless, and has many samples of different games. What people want is a continuous, engaging narrative and speed.

Although I don't agree with many of Peter Thiel's ideas, I agree with him and think that lean methodology is actually antagonistic to product development. To use the anology of film, let's pretend you are making a film, and you have 20 investors tell you to change a scene because it's not what the audience wants. What you then end up with is most likely a low-par crappy romantic comedy or soft core porn film that probably isn't very funny nor sexy. That is what I consider to be most software products or apps on the market today. Something I don't really need nor want, but may download it just once out of market hype. (eg, Snapchat).

I also think that the reason why there is a high turnover of software development talent is that they are rarely involved aside from the coding process. Obviously if you have a bunch of twenty-something software engineers who are just told to code this/that/frontend/backend/ without giving them any sort of creative input nor access to analysis and involvement in the process of software development, they will get bored and leave, or simply do the most bare minimum to get by.

And the truth is, the audience is never a trustworthy source of what they actually want; however, the audience is intimately connected to the vision of the director, and when people create something completely unexpected, it naturally becomes a black swan phenomenon. That is why we love touch phones, although we never imagined we wanted touch phones in the late 1990s.

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Founders have to be ahead of market research and market analysts. That is why Founders such as Etsy's Former CEO Rob Kalin and Airbnb's Brian Chesky knew exactly what they were creating, even if, at the time, people thought what they were creating was crazy and no one would want what they had been attempting to do.

As an artisan, Rob Kalin understood that our contemporary world was based on factory-mass produced mentality, and he wanted to create a marketplace for lesser known artisans around the world. As an artist and designer, Brian Chesky observed that most people couldn't afford expensive resorts for holiday stays and opened up a revenue stream VCs could not understand at the time. Steve Jobs created Apple products with superior audio and visual technologies with a focus on art and design because he understood Microsoft and other PC makers had long given up on innovation and were focused on cheap, bare minimum products for high margin profit. 

If we examine other sectors, such as medicine and science, we see a similar kind of methodology: Elizabeth Holmes took 10-15 years to develop the core products at Theranos, a blood testing company that only needs a few drops of blood (instead of an entire vial or two) to transmit important genetic data via wireless technology.

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Founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos

Founders are always ahead of the trend of what people want, and it is not merely about convenience, SCRUM and agile development nor about crowdfunding popularity.

Founders are naturally stubborn, and persistent. If they all gave up so easily at the first sight of criticism, then they would all become cubicle drones. That's why I think it's important that investors support the vision of the Founders, because it is that long-term vision that will gain the greatest return on investment.

Lean methodology, I find (almost always), is for people looking for a quick profit.