The problem with Scrum

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I’ve been pondering a problem with Scrum and agile in general for a while now.  Why do so many people use these named processes that encapsulate agile ideas as swear words?

Others seem to have been pondering this too with Ebenezer Ikonne writing his thoughts at and Ron Jefferies at  These are worth reading.

If you’re doing Scrum or XP or being agile or doing some other process / philosophy that focuses on quickly learning what to do and executing on it and then checking to see what to change and readjusting continuously – it can have awesome results. So why do so many people use these named processes that encapsulate these ideas as a swear words?

A Problem

Scrum has been a highly successful marketing success. Everyone is doing it. That is part of the problem. It is accessible as it is “just some practices”. But it isn’t just some practices. And huge numbers of adopters are getting that wrong.

This has resulted in Scrum and agile being about control to many that have experienced it.

I have two friends whose formative experience of Scrum was an implementation that literally created waterfall documents in sprints for several months. To them – this is what Scrum was about. Their opinions have changed since, but this was their formative experience of Scrum. If they hadn’t since had good experiences – or good conversations about why this isn’t what it is about – then that would be how Scrum would be for them.

As Sarah Mei puts it:

how can we reclaim autonomy and control over our work in an industry where “agile” is most often a tool of top-down corporate control? – Sarah Mei [1]

It is hard to refute someone’s personal experience. This is what it means to them.

Words have power. And when you let them mean something to people – that is what they start to mean. As Ron Jeffries puts it:

 Agile is what people who call themselves Agile do.

It seems to me often that every good idea gets watered down and ultimately perverted. “Agile” is no exception. There are many bad things done in the name of “Agile”, and many more quite inadequate things. – Ron Jeffries [2]

It turns out the personal experience of people is a powerful factor in determining what people think. It doesn’t matter if what they experienced was completely not agile or not Scrum to those that understand and experience agile or Scrum in a positive way. Their experience was done in the name of Scrum / agile – and in many ways that’s just how it is.

You’re Doing It Wrong

There is a trite saying that I heard early in my Scrum days – “Scrum does not fail. You fail at Scrum.” It is so easy to say you’re doing it wrong. You’re not being agile.

Software development is hard. And as can be seen by the rise of Safe, DAD, Mom, Pop, LeSS – people who are unable to bring the existing lightweight – but easy to misinterpret – processes to bear are reaching for other silver bullets to help.

 “@twykowski: There are more companies trying to scale Scrum than to do Scrum right.” Yes, isn’t it curious? – Peter Hundermark [3]

An early idea that I read about was the metaphor of Scrum an abstract class. All implementers of Scrum will need to do it within their context and by definition that will be slightly different. So if you’re doing it differently to someone else, this is by design. But the abstract ideas and principles and practices should manifest in the same way.

Could you do it better?

Perhaps.   Has everyone read the Scrum Guide / Agile Manifesto?  Does everyone have an equal say – particularly in debating whether something that is being done is true to the principles and values from there?  Strong debate on how to do the work grounded in achieving the same principles and aligned with the same values will make the team stronger.  And they will then buy into how the work is done when they are empowered to do it well and improve.

Does it actually matter?

Maybe? Maybe not?

I used to be a Scrum zealot. It worked well for the implementation that I was doing. We were highly successful in the things we did and I learnt a lot.

I used to think that Agile was a thing, and that everyone should do it. I guess I kind of still do think that, for values of “Agile”. But the term is so watered down that it scarcely matters. – Ron Jeffries [4]

Then I joined a company that was doing Scrum and it was a mess.  The spell was broken.

Then I joined a company that didn’t do Scrum and we used bits and pieces and things were better than when we started. This was a Good Thing.

Mostly, what matters is operating your work and your life so as to maximize whatever you consider to be happiness. – Ron Jeffries [4]

Stop worrying

I’ve mostly stopped worrying about the name of the process that I use. I’ve moved back to values and principles.  Most of the bad things done in the name of Scrum and agile are due to lack of understanding of these values and principles.

To me, it is important to know why we’re doing practices and where they come from. So rather than Scrum, Agile, XP – I’m more interested in Feedback and Simplicity, Humanity and Reflection. I still value the structure of Scrum / XP – with iterations, POs, SMs, retrospectives – but I value more understanding from the values and principles that they are derived from.  And I’m happy to let those specific practices go, if the values and principles that underly them are still important and optimised for.

Positive Sharing

Lets positively share more of what works well for you – in your context – and WHY it works.

Lets stop spending time trying to negatively pull down what you think others are saying you should do.

As Ron Jeffries posits

More and more, I try just to talk about the specific things I do, without proper names. Maybe that’s best. – Ron Jeffries [2]

This is a good thought.

It might also be an idea to not give your thing a name 😉







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