Bad Agile Management Burns Scrum Teams

Last month Giles Bowkett wrote a scathing blog post about scrum called: Why Scrum Should Basically Just Die in a Fire. It’s a provocative article that shows how damaging bad agile and scrum can be to a team.

Ms. Glaze | Flame | Flickr

Ms. Glaze | Flame | Flickr

I’m not going to go point by point and argue with Mr. Bowkett about his experiences with scrum. They are his experiences, and they are truly awful. I have sympathy for him and those who have been burned by a botched agile transformation.

With waterfall, teams know what they are signing up for at the start of a project. They know there will be problems and that a death march is likely. They also know that the date set at the beginning of the project is likely wrong, but still they soldier on.

But with agile and scrum it’s supposed to be different. The agile manifesto is a developer play aimed at making the lives of engineers better. Scrum specifically puts the team in control of how they accomplish their work. Everything should be great.

But often, it isn’t.

Mr. Bowkett makes this point by calling out many common scrum anti-patterns that he has experienced:

These are all valid – and unfortunately common – problems on scrum teams. However, the conclusion that he draws from the existence of these problems misses the mark.

In other words, in its best-case scenario, Scrum’s a dog-and-pony show. But that best-case scenario is rare. In the much more common case, Scrum covers up the inability to recruit (or even recognize) engineering talent, which is currently one of the most valuable things in the world, with a process for managing engineers as if they were cogs in a machine, all of equal value.

Rather than cover up individual inabilities, scrum exposes the bad practices of organizations. Quickly. Work becomes transparent, impediments become obvious, and old practices become extra painful.

The culprit here are manager who thought they were getting hyper-productivity for free. They want the benefits of scrum, without having to change.

Mr. Bowkett’s problem is with lousy managers, not scrum.

The agile community is also partially to blame. The tendency is to focus coaching and training on the scrum team. But it is the management team members that we need to be working on the most. Bad scrum cannot take root in an organization that embraces the scrum values from the top down.

Part of embracing the scrum values is accepting the twelve principles of agile from the agile manifesto, which Mr. Bowkett also railed against.

I don’t think highly of Scrum, but the problem here goes deeper. The Agile Manifesto is flawed too. Consider this core principle of Agile development: “business people and developers must work together.” Why are we supposed to think developers are not business people?

We’re not. The intent of this agile principle is the end the “us vs them” mentality between IT and “the business”. With Scrum, the expectation is that the product owner is co-located with the development team and available to answer questions about the product backlog items.

This isn’t a slight against the business acumen of developers. It’s a call for close collaboration between stakeholders and engineers. How else can the development team know if they are working on the most valuable features for the business?

Question: Have you been a part of a poor agile transformation? What went wrong? How could things have gone better? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

HELP!!! The Scrum Master IS the Impediment!

At the heart of the scrum master role is servant leadership. We are driven by serving our teams as teachers, mentors, and coaches. It’s our job to help the team remove impediments, not to become one.

Brandon Glasley | Facepalm | Flicker.com

Brandon Glasley | Facepalm | Flicker.com

As a newly minted Professional Scrum Master (PSM I), I returned to my team excited and ready to get underway. Unfortunately, I brought back a purist view of scrum and had not fully grasped the concept of servant leadership. In other words, I failed miserably.

The problem started in the daily scrum’s. I took a heavy handed approach and ran the meeting how *I* saw fit. I asked the questions of each scrum team member and asked follow-ups where I felt *I* needed more information.

During a sprint planning meeting, I pressed the team to use the AS AI WANTIN ORDER TO format for user stories. The team came up with their own format that they felt more comfortable with. And still I pressed on.

Why I felt the authority to do so is beyond me. User story formats are not prescribed by scrum. A development team member approached me and very respectfully disagreed with me in many of these areas. Tension grew between us.

After a particularly stressful daily scrum, he stormed out and I was left with a team of amazed developers staring back at me…disappointed. And they were fully justified.

I tracked down the developer that stormed out and after a tense, but respectful meeting I finally started to see the errors of my ways.

Scrum – A Pocket Guide tell us that “The scrum master has no interest in scope, budget, delivery, or tasks but coaches and facilitates the complete ecosystem in scrum to manage them.”

I was still being a project manager. That was no longer my role.

I apologized to the team and they showed me a lot of grace by giving me another chance. We went on to deliver some amazing sprints and managed to bring some real value to bear for the business. But why did the conflict happen?

I struggled with giving up the command and control mentality.

Scrum masters who transition from a traditional project manager role must initially cope with the fact that they are not in control of the team. Scrum masters have no direct authority. We are a servant to our team. Our role calls us to help the team get better at playing the game of scrum.

As coaches, we must be careful to not turn adopting scrum in to people being coerced to follow new practices. People can typically handle change given enough support, but they are universally defensive in the face of coercion.

The developer – who rightly challenged the way I was behaving – embodied the scrum values of respect, commitment, focus, openness, and courage. He had the courage to speak up, the commitment to the team to want to do things better, the openness to air a grievance, the respect to keep things civil, and the desire to focus the team on valuable work.

If you find yourself on a team where the scrum master has become an impediment you have a number of choices:

  1. Do Nothing: Allowing the behavior of an errant scrum master to continue undermines the scrum adoption and disrespects the entire scrum team. This option isn’t really an option.
  2. Address the Issue Privately:  The advantage of this approach is that you give the scrum master the opportunity to realize their mistake without an audience. I appreciated this approach when I had lost my way. If it’s difficult for you to address the issue 1:1 then the next venue is the sprint retrospective meeting.
  3. Address the Issue During the Sprint Retrospective: If the 1:1 approach did not work, the team can bring up the behavior of the scrum master as an impediment during the sprint retrospective meeting. When the team discusses what did not go well or what made them mad/sad the scrum master should be brought up. Done respectfully, this conversation could lead to a positive outcome.
  4. Self-Organize/Self-Manage: The scrum team is a self-organizing/self-managing entity. If the scrum master is not getting the message after multiple attempts, the scrum team does have the right to select a new scrum master. It would be an unfortunate turn of events, but in some cases this drastic step is necessary.

I’m thankful for the developer who challenged me to be a better scrum master. He made me confront my fear of giving up control and helped me become the servant leader that I needed to become for the scrum team to be successful.

Question: Have you ever been on a scrum team where the scrum master was an impediment to the team? How did you handle it personally? How did you handle it as a team? You can leave a comment by clicking here.