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Fixing Non-Agile Scrum

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Scrum is often touted as the silver bullet for faster delivery, better quality, and improved customer satisfaction in our industry. However, despite its potential benefits, many Scrum implementations fail to embody the Agile values and principles, instead relying on outdated 19th-century management theory. As a result, Scrum teams often feel micromanaged and disempowered working in a rigid and bureaucratic culture.

My experience with over a thousand Scrum undertakings across various companies has revealed a prevalent set of strong Agile antipatterns, that I wish were not the norm. While Scrum, when done with an Agile mindset, can effectively promote flexibility, collaboration, and customer focus, poorly implemented Scrum emphasizes rigid adherence to generic and misunderstood roles, ceremonies, and rules.

Corrupted by 19th-Century management theory

Many Scrum implementations prioritize speed and output over empowering team members and business outcomes. Unfortunately, this approach creates an environment where individuals feel micromanaged and undervalued. The Scrum Master and Product Owner behave like traditional managers, while the development team is relegated to a subordinate role, undermining the Agile principle of self-organizing teams.

Another antipattern in poorly implemented Scrum is the focus on hierarchy and control. In this case, the Product Owner is usually seen as the only customer representative and the decision-maker, leading to communication and decision-making bottlenecks. As a result, the development team is often disempowered and not directly involved in customer conversations that could help them better understand customer needs and inspire innovation.

Finally, embracing the Agile value of responding to change can be difficult in a suboptimal Scrum environment. The emphasis on inflexible sprint planning and commitment can hinder teams' ability to pivot and react to evolving priorities and requirements. Furthermore, focusing on delivering a predetermined set of features within a specific timeframe can lead to a reluctance to change course, even if it would serve the customer's best interests.

The list of antipatterns induced by 19th-century management theory in Scrum is extensive, but it's important to note that this form of Scrum is not truly Agile. Unfortunately, most teams incorporate significant anti-Agile work patterns in their implementations from the very beginning. This is often because the company bureaucracy is driving the transformation and has no intention of becoming obsolete.

How do we fix this?

While it may not be feasible to eliminate bureaucratic tendencies within a Scrum team or company completely, steps can be taken to reduce them and promote a more Agile way of working. Here are a few strategies to consider:

  1. Foster a culture of trust and autonomy: To reduce bureaucratic tendencies, fostering a culture of trust and autonomy within the team is crucial. This means empowering team members to make decisions and take ownership of their work rather than micromanaging them. This includes defusion of the decision power of the Product Owner to the team. Teams with an intimate understanding of the customer's needs can make reasonable decisions on customer value.

  2. Don't make the Scrum Master or Product Owner role a permanent job: The role of the Scrum Master is essential when a team is just learning to do Scrum, but over time, the function becomes unnecessary after the team has been doing Scrum for a while. Scrum is a simple framework that people can learn and do rather than requiring long-term facilitation. As for the Product Owner, it too is a role, not a job. The Product Owner is a role that everyone on the team can do. Rotating this role to different or multiple team members will build high customer acumen and help the team make better value delivery decisions.

  3. Enlist an Agile coach from time to time: An outside perspective can be invaluable in helping teams simplify processes, work on team impediments, and improve the overall culture of open communication and collaboration. An Agile coach can also guide how to implement best practices and avoid common pitfalls.

  4. Focus on outcomes, not outputs: Bureaucratic cultures often prioritize meeting specific targets and metrics rather than delivering value to customers. Encourage the team to focus on providing value to customers and business outcomes rather than just meeting velocity targets.

By implementing these recommendations, Scrum teams can reduce bureaucratic tendencies and promote a more Agile way of working.

Final Thoughts

Despite being a modern framework, Scrum still bears the marks of outdated, 19th-century management theories, particularly those of Frederick Taylor. Taylor's ideas centered around strict control over humans and their processes, often leading to micromanagement and team disempowerment. Consequently, the roles of Product Owner and Scrum Master in Scrum can be seen as closer to 19th-century management thinking than modern Agile concepts. While these roles may be helpful, it's essential to avoid incorporating antiquated management theories and instead adopt modern approaches that promote collaboration, trust, and autonomy.

One potential solution is to evolve Scrum by transforming the Product Owner and Scrum Master roles into a set of tasks that the entire team can take responsibility for and be empowered to carry out. This would bring the team closer to the customer and foster greater ownership over outcomes. Not only would this help to make Scrum less bureaucratic, but it would do something extraordinary--it would make it Agile.

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