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Why Don't I Floss My Teeth?

How Emotional Impediments Hold Us Back from Adopting Scrum

8 August 2009

Michael de la Maza
Heart Healthy Scrum

I've been going to the dentist for over thirty years. Whenever I visit the dentist, I'm told to floss twice a day. Flossing fights cavities, bad breath, and disease. Flossing is simple: it takes about two minutes and costs just a few cents.

And yet I rarely floss my teeth.  Why?

The problem is not at the knowledge level. I know why transitioning from not flossing to flossing is a good idea, full of wonderful benefits for me and my teeth. The problem is not at the behavior level. I know how to floss my teeth because my dentist enthusiastically practices on me every time I visit her.

So if the problem is not at the knowledge level or the behavior level, what is the impediment that causes me not to floss?
Understanding the answer to this question is, I believe, key to understanding why Scrum adoption is so difficult. Understanding what Scrum is (knowledge) and what to do (behavior) is fairly simple. But there is another level, the emotional level, which I have found contains the key impediments to the successful adoption of Scrum.

Many Scrum coaches have transition plans which include garnering the support of senior executives, providing appropriate training and coaching, and creating a transition committee. While these are certainly important considerations, they do not address impediments at the emotional level. A person who has to transition from being in QA to being a member of a Scrum team and is worried, nervous, afraid, and anxious is not directly helped by knowing that the larger organization has a Scrum Transition Committee or has implemented a Scrum Pilot Project.

For ideas on how to address emotional impediments, I have found that studying Weight Watchers is instructive. Weight Watchers was started in 1961 when Jean Nidetch confessed to a group of friends that she was overweight because she could not stop eating cookies. In launching Weight Watchers, Nidetch explicitly said that while she knew how to eat right, she needed emotional support. Today, Weight Watchers provides weight loss information (knowledge) and teaches a point count system (behavior). But, most importantly, it provides emotional support for people who want to lose weight.

A successful Scrum transition effort will do the same.  Not only will it bathe people in the knowledge and behavior needed to do Scrum, it will provide individuals, teams, and organizations with support at the emotional level as they transition to Scrum.

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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Tobias Mayer, CST,Educator,CSM,CSPO, 8/8/2009 10:51:18 PM
Michael, this is an insightful appraisal of the Scrum adoption situation. Knowing what to do, and doing it, are often worlds apart. I am particularly interested in the Weight Watchers analogy. I have often thought that those transitioning to Scrum need some sort of support group. It is a much harder thing than we care to admit -- any of us. I have found commonalities between dysfunctional companies and addicts over the years, and Jeff Sutherland has also written about this, saying that companies first need to admit there is a problem before they'll begin to change. About eighteen months ago I wrote a post about using the principles (traditions) of AA to scale Scrum. This is coming at it from a different angle, but I think that the world of self-help can offer us a lot.

The scaling Scrum post is here:

I wonder if Scrum user groups serve the purpose of support? Perhaps
they need to be as much geared towards self-help as towards education and presentation, which seems to be the main focus. Also, setting up internal groups inside organizations to talk about the transition pain would be beneficial. Not sure how that would look though...

Good food for thought here.

Michael de la Maza, CEC,CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 8/9/2009 7:07:28 AM
Tobias, thanks for your kind comments.

Creating a support group is something that I suggest to every client:
Waterfallolics Anonymous :) When people have been doing something for
many years they may have many psychological and emotional
dependencies. Just as there are emotional eaters, who overeat not
because they are hungry but for emotional comfort, there will be
people who cling to Waterfall, not because it's better but for
comfort. The roots of emotional eating can be powerful and rational (see, e.g.,,
and I suspect that the roots of waterfall behavior may be similarly
powerful, although I have no evidence to support this view (imagine,
however, a person who was told at a young age by a mentor that their
job 'is to make the boss look good' or was punished repeatedly in
elementary school for doing their own thing, etc.).

I have also been studying Alcoholics Anonymous and am building several
games based on its ideas. Step 1 of the 12 step plan is admitting
that there is a problem, hence the game Agile Confessions Game which
encourages people to 'fess up to waterfall sins ("Act out a scene that
captures the last time you used command and control methods to solve a
problem"). :)

One challenge, in my experience, is creating a 'safe' environment. An
environment in which people are not defensive, are not playing
politics, are not fearful, etc. Setting up a Waterfallolics Anonymous
at a company and having it turn into yet another place for corporate
gamesmanship serves no useful purpose.

More broadly, I think that emotional/psychological state is one of the
two greatest impediments to the successful adoption of Scrum. On a
personal level, one of the difficulties I have is remaining kind,
loving, and patient when I get asked an infinite string of 'technical'
questions (Should our task board have three or four columns?) by
people who are new to Scrum when I'm trying to focus on these

David Harvey, CSM, 8/9/2009 1:50:19 PM
Hi Michael,

Good points, but I'd identify these impediments as psychological rather than emotional. It may seem a small point, but generally speaking we have access to our emotions, whereas the resistances to change that we often encounter have deeper and less obvious roots. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have just published "Immunity to Change", a great book about precisely this, and develop several approaches to working with and overcoming resistance.
Michael de la Maza, CEC,CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 8/9/2009 5:58:34 PM
That is a very helpful observation, David. To date, I have been using the phrase "emotional state" interchangeably with "psychological state." I now see that distinguishing between them is useful.
Ram Sathia, CSM, 8/10/2009 12:53:26 PM
Michael, this is a good article on understanding impediments to adopting Scrum. The analogies used in this article (flossing and weight watchers) are very good. One factor that I've found useful to overcome the emotional or psychological imediments is empowerment. If people in the scrum team are empowered, you can definitely expect better results in adopting the Scrum methodology. You can help the scrum team members to feel empowered by many ways. Rotating the role of a Scrum Master between the team members is one way of making them feel empowered. You will notice that it helps the team to feel that they own the process of adopting the scrum model. The second aspect to the impediment is the fear factor. Simply, a good training on Scrum model itself can reduce the fear of unknown. As you said, the emotional and psychological impediments will need to be removed for a successful transition.
Andrea Maietta, CSM, 8/11/2009 1:57:00 AM
The floss analogy is a good one - actually a quote ;-) and it points out how bad habits can hinder even the better intentions, even if we know what we're going to face. Another factor that hinders us, as Ram points out, is the fear of change (even if this has nothing to do with flossing... at least I hope so!). The support of an expert (e.g. a coach) or of a group can thus be very useful, so also the ww example is a good one.
Stephen Jones, CSM, 8/17/2009 5:42:51 AM
I never floss my teeth. Why? Because (a) I wasn't trained to do it as a child, and you can't teach an old dog.... (b) because the benefits/penalties are *too negligible* to be recognised on a day-to-day basis. I might start flossing after my third root canal, but even then, how long before I forget the pain of that crisis, and revert to old habits?

Most commonly, people only change when they have to, and seldom prior to that. Should, therefore, an agile transition plan seek to highlight the pain experienced by current dysfunctional practices? Spouting agile theory is effective only to a point. Yes, it spreads the ideas, but it does not get people to embrace them. Highlight the pain! Highlight the pain!

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