The Insidious Side of Scrum and How I’d Fix It (and yes, I know it wouldn’t be Scrum anymore)

Scrum is based on empirical process control. If I understand this correctly, this means that we base our actions on what happens and inspect and adapt accordingly. Scrum is accordingly set up with a set of rules, roles, artifacts and events designed in such a way that if they are followed good results will happen.

I believe it to be true that if you in fact do what Scrum tells you to do you will get good results. But that’s not a huge endorsement. If you follow a financial advice system that says to buy stocks low and sell them high you’ll also make a lot of money. And if you don’t, it’s providers can always say you didn’t follow the method.  The question is not if Scrum’s practices will work if you follow them, it’s can you always follow them? And even when you can is it the best way to go? And, perhaps more importantly, does taking this attitude that you should learn how to be Agile by using Scrum defined exactly as it is the best way to go? Because we must remember, our goal is not to do Scrum. Our goal is to be effective.

Let’s look at the typical way teams are told to adopt Scrum. It is suggested that they follow Scrum’s rules, roles, artifacts and events. But what if the team has problems with doing this? They are told to keep at it until they can do this. Since many of the teams are new to Scrum and Agile they are told to trust their trainers and coaches (in other words, not trust their own thoughts about what might not be working but to do what they are told). Personally, I find this somewhat disrespectful. People know a lot about their jobs and as a coach I wouldn’t expect anyone to do something merely because I said it’s a good idea. If I can’t get them to see it’s a good idea then that’s a failing on me.

But there are two other problems here. One, it may not be possible to follow Scrum’s practices. And two, even if possible, it may not be desirable. I have seen many cases of this over the last 20 years of using Scrum. Yet, in 10 years of discussing this I have yet to have one CST (certified Scrum Trainer) admit to such a possibility even though I’ve given them dozens of cases. Instead they always claim if people were committed enough they could do it. In other words, they don’t acknowledge Scrum may be off, but rather people just are not committed enough to do Scrum (implying, of course, that Scrum is the right thing). But wait a moment, what if there is a better way? Why stick to Scrum? Is it really always the best way to become effective? Sounds like brand selling to me. And that’s not a bad thing – you wouldn’t expect a Chevy dealer to say a Ford is better.

Here’s the problem. When Scrum is taught, the training almost always focuses on the framework. This makes sense. If it focused on the actual laws of software development there’d be no Scrum brand involved. In any event, Scrum isn’t based on the actual laws of software development. It’s based on  empirical process control. But that doesn’t mean that’s what it should be based on – this is just an a priori assumption that is always accepted. But Scrum is what it is. So when there are problems, there is no basis for figuring out how to solve them other than following Scrum’s rules. People intuitively know this is not quite right. So resistance is not uncommon. When things don’t work well, people often don’t like to keep doing what’s not working. Even if they try, if they are in a situation where Scrum is not ideal, at some point people will give up. But since they don’t know what else to do they will likely just drop a Scrum practice and voila you have Scrumbut. From Scrum.org’s site – ScrumButs mean that Scrum has exposed a dysfunction that is contributing to the problem, but is too hard to fix. A ScrumBut retains the problem while modifying Scrum to make it invisible so that the dysfunction is no longer a thorn in the side of the team.”

And now Scrum is off the hook because although the team is not getting effective, Scrum’s proponents can claim it’s not their fault because the team is not doing Scrum. Yes, the team is not doing Scrum. But Scrum’s definition is partly at cause. I believe what’s needed is to integrate how to remove dysfunctions into our Scrum training so that we have the opportunity to remove dysfunctions whether the solution strictly follows Scrum or not.

So what can we do instead? There’s a lot of evidence that taking an approach based on the Lean principles of systems thinking, just in time (reducing delays in workflow and feedback and in acting no new information) is more effective, Can we take the rules, artifacts, roles and events of Scrum and implement them within a Lean-thinking approach instead of an empirical approach? What would happen if we did this? Full-disclosure – doing this would result in something not Scrum. I’ll call it Lean-Scrum to differentiate. This is because The people who invented Scrum (Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland) have the right to define what Scrum is.

So how would Lean-Scrum work and how would people trying to adopt it manage the situation where Scrum doesn’t work well?

Lean-Scrum would essentially say to start with Scrum but consider its roles, rules, artifacts and events to be examples of what could be done. That each of these have an object. If the practice of Scrum works then great – do it. But if not, teams should feel free to find another way to do things. This must be done in a disciplined way. This can be accomplished with this four-step process:

  1. Are you having challenges with the practice because it is being done poorly? If Yes, then inspect and adapt and see if you can do it better. If No, continue.
  2. Is there something else in the organization that is causing us this problem? If Yes, then see how to fix that or at least influence the fixing of it. If No, then continue.
  3. Is the ecosystem that the team finds itself in causing the problem? That is, are people not collocated when they need to be or are required skills missing? Can you improve on this? If yes, do so. If No, continue to see if another practice that works within this ecosystem will work better (see next step).
  4. What else can we do that meets the same objective of the practice? If there is something else you can do, then try that. If not stick with the practice until you learn more.

Step 4 begs the question of telling if you meet the objective of the practice in a different way. This can be determined by looking at the underlying principles in software development. This is always in theory to some extent, because even if a change will improve things if made, there are often side effects caused by people not adopting the change that work against it. We therefore must always be diligent and validate any change we make.

The measure to use is the value stream impedance scorecard. In a nutshell, the VSIS indicates how much resistance the system will impose on work being attempted. It is based on what improves total value manifested. Lowering this resistance usually results in more value manifested.

Psychologically this is a much better approach. Now people have a solid starting point. But if they have challenges with it, they can think for themselves and come up with what they think is a better way without just going off the deep end.  Hence, they don’t resist and can self-organize in more effective methods. Scrumbut can be avoided because people will understand what they need to do. It also avoids the stigma of being taught Scrum but then having to abandon it. Staring with Scrum and then going beyond it feels wrong – especially to management who said the team is going to do Scrum and just paid for Scrum training.

We call this approach Scrum as Example because it considers Scrum as an example of what we could do and that we can do other things while still being effective.

I’ll close this article by asing why is it that people do Scrumbut? If we trust and respect people the only conclusion we can come to is that they don’t realize it’s a bad thing. So why don’t we give them the understanding to realize that? When you believe software development needs to be controlled by an empirical process it’s because there is no understanding of it – one can only see it by doing it. There is no model that could explain it. When you believe that Lean-Agile principles can explain it, however, then we show people why Scrumbut is a bad thing and how to avoid it.

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