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Poisonous Scrum Anti-Patterns

19 June 2006

Victor Szalvay

My colleagues and I work with a number of organizations implementing agile and Scrum. We are starting to see patterns (and anti-patterns) emerge in the way in which many companies go about transitioning their products to Scrum. Two of these patterns are particularly disturbing: the bored, part-time ScrumMaster and a permanent acceptance of the status quo. In this article I will demonstrate how these two anti-patterns weigh organizations down and ultimately lead to failure during agile transitions.

The Mythical, Part-time ScrumMaster

In nearly every Certified ScrumMaster course I’ve taught, one of the first questions people ask is whether the ScrumMaster role is really a full-time job. Even though my answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” doubts linger about whether a ScrumMaster can really keep themselves busy doing nothing but “ScrumMastering” all day. It seems as though many people have their minds set on how long it should take to fulfill the duties of an average ScrumMaster.

To be clear, if the ScrumMaster is not focusing 100 percent of their work time on team and organizational impediments and improvements, the ScrumMaster is not doing enough to make important organizational change happen. While most new ScrumMasters are comfortable in the role of removing team-facing impediments, they often forget (or conveniently ignore) the organizational work they need to do. Removing organizational impediments, over time, will contribute to changing conditions and culture to maximize the benefits of agile product development.

Some common examples of organizational impediments include:

  • Deficient product owners. There are several variations on this theme.
  • No one is willing to take on the responsibilities of the product owner role at the organization.
  • A product owner is identified that does not have enough time to fulfill the demands of the PO role effectively.
  • The product owner providing product direction is not directly responsible for the profit and loss or ROI of the product.
  • The product owner passes the buck to the team by forcing improper decisions regarding risk.

While the above represent a few recent experiences, there are many, many more.

The challenge facing an organization full of part-time ScrumMasters is that they have limited capacity for change. Tom DeMarco’s book Slack illustrates that middle management is often an organization’s only hope for changing and improving itself. When that layer of management is cut for efficiency, the organization is so busy that no one has slack time to make meaningful change happen. The same is true for ScrumMasters. While they may not explicitly be middle managers, ScrumMasters are the agents of directed and meaningful change in any organization adopting Scrum. If the ScrumMasters are not working to change those ingrained and complex organizational issues most likely no one is.

That’s Not How We Do Things Around Here

Another dangerous pattern is when the status quo is blindly accepted by the organization at large. This smell surfaces clearly when the group is confounded by a situational constraint or problem but no one suggests that the constraint be questioned or altered. Scrum itself will surface these situations because the process is often impeded by organizational constraints. Rather than resolve or remove the constraint, the first reaction of some groups is to shoe-horn Scrum into the constraint and carry on as best as possible. Perhaps making a change is overwhelming in scale and ignored as a possibility from the outset. But in one particular case I learned that people in an organization were still following rules that no longer existed simply out of habit. Often a little blood, sweat, and tears up front nip organizational issues in the bud that would otherwise blossom into destructive product killers down the line.

A Deadly Cocktail

When an organization suffers from both part-time ScrumMasters and a status quo culture, the negative effects of either alone are amplified. Consider the example organization that simply accepts as unavoidable complex organizational impediments. At the same time, the organization has no agents explicitly advocating change. No one is actively scanning the horizon looking for issues that might interfere with the effectiveness of the organization’s ability to deliver the right products. In fact, over time, as the teams’ velocity starts to dim as a result of the impediments, more pressure is applied to the team and the product quality starts to suffer as a consequence. Perhaps the impediment is finally addressed when the negative consequences are tangible and too great to ignore, but by then it is usually too late. The organizational impediments coupled with no means to change them creates a downward spiral of failed products and ultimately a bankrupt organization.

Both of these issues are related to an organization’s openness and willingness to change or to challenge the status quo in hopes of improving organizations. Without a doubt, ScrumMasters play a key role in making change happen. In fact, I’ve consistently seen a positive correlation between successful agile transitions and organizations that take the ScrumMaster role seriously. However, the organization in general also should foster a culture of openness toward ferreting out root causes rather then searching for compromises that act as temporary band-aids. With both active full-time ScrumMasters and a culture of change, organizations will be primed to tackle the root problems that impede effective product development. Who knows, with a little elbow grease perhaps you, too, can make some meaningful changes at your place of work.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Michael James, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 2/27/2007 11:08:52 AM
I don't know where I heard this first: A good ScrumMaster can handle one team at a time. A mediocre ScrumMaster can handle several teams at a time.
Aaron Smith, CSM, 11/14/2012 7:04:30 PM
I know this is older - but wanted to call out a great article. Touched lightly on in scrum texts is the importance of building an acute organizational knowledge for SM's. I think when measured in "busy work", playing the role of SM, especially with a highly independant team can feel like a low overhead job. The fact of the matter though is that 90% of the work comes from moving earth within the organization to pave the way for a team's success. That may mean educating your product owner on playing his/her part, that may be forming close relationships with operations or IT, etc. These things take time, patience, and a wide array of developed skills. It's not just as simple as showing up for a retrospective and stapling historical velocity charts together.

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