Get certified - Transform your world of work today


Unlearn What You Have Learned

Ten Habits You Must Break To Be Successful with Scrum

25 February 2009

In the Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back, Luke tries unsuccessfully to rescue his X-wing fighter from the swamp. After some time, he gives up. He tells Jedi Master Yoda that lifting the fighter is impossible with the force, the new approach Yoda is trying to teach him. Yoda has these words of wisdom for him:
“You must unlearn what you have learned.”
Scrum is no different! Like the Jedi force, the Scrum framework is conceptually easy; it’s putting Scrum into practice that is difficult. In order for a team to be successful, the team members must unlearn what they have learned so far in their careers.
Here are nine habits you must break in order to be truly successful with Scrum.

Habit One: Create email trails

Often, on traditional projects (i.e., waterfall), team members create trails—written proof to cover themselves. Scrum, like all agile methodologies, values communication and collaboration among team members. Individuals are encouraged to pair with other team members, discuss the story or task at hand, and drive it to completion (and not worry about getting it in writing). Team members must unlearn the mentality of creating a trail and learn to trust and depend on their teammates.

Habit Two: Use command and control

In traditional project management, the project manager uses a command and control approach to steer her project in a certain direction. She generally is responsible for the success or failure of the project. On Scrum projects, team members must learn to take collective ownership of the project. In turn, the project manager has to learn to facilitate and empower rather than dictate and drive.

Habit Three: Create disciplines and silos

On traditional projects, each team member is assigned certain tasks and is responsible for completing theses tasks. Generally, the tasks assigned are discipline-specific, focused on the primary skills of each team member. A systems analyst, for example, will be assigned only the tasks that relate to requirements gathering. This creates silos and requires hand-offs.

On a Scrum team, each member has to unlearn the tendency to specialize and instead should use pair programming and role sharing to expand his or her understanding. No more staying in your own lane. Scrum team members are encouraged to venture into others' lanes.

Habit Four: Be a hero

Our traditional work environment promotes heroism. An individual team member is applauded for her achievements on a project. This often encourages individuals to look after themselves. This behavior must be unlearned by the team members on a Scrum project. On Scrum teams, there are no heroes! For the greater good of the project, the team members must be willing to work with each other to drive the stories to completion. The team, as one unit, is responsible for success or failure of the project and must take the collective ownership of the project.

Habit Five: Sign off on a detailed requirements document

It is difficult for management to accept the fact that you can work on a project that has a fluid top line or scope. This is the most difficult trait to unlearn. On Scrum teams, we adjust the top line of the project at the end of every sprint. With each sprint, the team gets better, smarter, and learns more about the project and the environment. Based on what the team learns, the team adjusts the top line of the project.

Habit Six: Stick to the iron triangle

The traditional approach to project management refers to scope, schedule, and cost as the iron triangle. This iron triangle, though, is broken because it does not take into consideration the quality of the project deliverables. The requirements and priorities of the customers might change as they see more working software.  The management must unlearn the urge to box customers into committing to a pre-defined and well-documented set of requirements. Instead, Scrum teams should emphasize the quality of the product that the team creates through various levels of testing and inspections to achieve a done state. The team must learn to focus on quality and make it a central requirement of its work and deliverables.

Habit Seven: Be plan driven

The world is not standing still, so why should your project plan be written in stone? Traditional project management is very stubborn about setting the project plan and sticking to it no matter what. Project Managers spend many hours trying to come up with a perfect plan; the truth is, no project plan is ever going to be perfect. It might be perfect for the moment; however, the world is changing constantly. Your customer’s requirements and priorities will change, the work environment for the team will change—the plan must change in response. Management must learn to accept the truth of change, and allow teams to respond and adjust accordingly.

Habit Eight: Be IT driven

How many times (in your career) have you come across a situation where the IT management is driving the projects? Where IT is dictating what it can and can not do for the business? In Scrum, IT must learn to play a supporting role. The business must drive the projects (priorities, scope, what gets delivered and when—all to increase the ROI). IT should work with the Business to deliver the required artifacts. The Product Owner, thus, is the single most important factor for the success or failure of an agile project.

Habit Nine: Have a big bang delivery

With waterfall projects, you typically get a single, big-bang delivery, where the finished product is delivered to customers at the end of the project. The big misconception with the traditional waterfall approach is that any complexity can be effectively dealt with in a "big-bang" approach.
Scrum emphasizes the delivery of the product in an iterative manner. On a Scrum project, the team must learn evolutionary (and iterative) delivery of the product. With each delivery, the team learns from the customer’s feedback and communication of changed priorities. What the team learns is applied toward making subsequent deliveries better, delivering value to the customers, and in turn to the business.

Habit Ten: Tell teams “How,” not “What”

Management has learned to dictate how the team should complete the tasks at hand. In Scrum, management must unlearn this urge to tell the troops how to execute the tasks. Instead, they must learn to provide the priorities, and then trust the teams collective instinct and experience to complete the tasks. Let the troops on the front line (the folks who are actually going to work on the tasks) decide how to execute and get things done within the boundaries established by management.

Scrum is a simple framework, but executing it properly is not easy. You must unlearn certain long-held beliefs to be successful, and as we all know, breaking habits is never easy. Keep in mind the words of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker: “Luke… Let go. Trust the force.”

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.

Article Rating

Current rating: 0 (0 ratings)


Plamen Balkanski, CSM, 2/26/2009 2:43:00 AM
Very good list! I would say that while some of the points are obvious others are not so obvious. Looks like a good read to recommend to both new and not so new to scrum teams.
Daniel Greening, CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 2/28/2009 1:21:04 PM
I have a physically split team. We run standup meetings with GoToMeeting (real-time screensharing and conferencing). We transcribe meetings and send out emails daily with what we did, will do, blockers to anyone who wants it. (Of course, the person transcribing is not standing.) We get technical assistance from architects, researchers and others because of this.

Effectively, we have a very detailed email trail. The purpose is not for CYA, but for complete transparency, which Scrum encourages. I think you should rethink whether your #1 habit should be eliminated or restated. Email is not the enemy.

Our team is a seasoned, well-operating, pure Scrum team. Since we've been doing this over a year, we've sent out about 340 of these standup emails. Even if the team was co-located, I would consider continuing this practice because of the transparency benefits.
Erik Gibson, CSM, 3/4/2009 3:03:22 PM
There are two "Habit Seven" entries in the list.
Duncan Campbell, CSP,CSM, 3/10/2009 12:25:01 AM
Great list!

When people are asked what the key factors of project management are the goals of delivering on-time and within-budget feature highly. What rarely appears is delivering what the customer actually requires!
Tobias Mayer, CST,Educator,CSM,CSPO, 3/12/2009 5:04:28 PM
Very good list. I appreciate your ability to present these ideas in simple and clear terms. Yes getting into the Scrum mindset is absolutely about unlearning. Like Lao Tzu said, oh-so-many years ago... "To gain knowledge add something every day; to gain wisdom remove something every day".
Mike Sutton, CSM,CSPO, 3/14/2009 6:49:13 AM
Overall a good list - though I think it suffers a symptom of lists of this kind. I feel it projects an illusion that this is ALL you need to overcome to succeed with Scrum. In a world where so many have institutionalised thinking and many are looking for recipes, this list (as simple and well presented though it is) might seem to be the only things that you need to address to succeed.

I would prefer a list that starts

Habit One: Maximise direct communication (dump the mail trail and get talking) - emphasises the point that face to face is where maximum collaboration dwells. Sure, send and email or write a letter, but for the really good stuff have a chat over coffee and cake.

This way you cite email trails as an example of diminished communication while reminding readers to keep trying to maximise comms. (I hope the subtle point is clear).

If you take a similar filter to the other habits (look at the actual issue you are trying to improve , rather than cite the symptoms), I feel you would have a much more valuable list.

And actually, none of these habits are bad in of themselves, there are good reasons to do each 'bad habit' - believe it or not, command and control DOES have its positive uses. So another point to make is... so I would also include in your article the 'Understand why you are doing something, if it makes sense given your circumstances, then do it... bad habit or not'.
Rajiv Bajwala, CSM,CSPO, 4/6/2009 1:48:04 AM
I agree with you, it takes a lot of unlearning to implement Scrum in its true spirit. Its a very good list to refer to.
Andrés Glavina, CSM, 4/28/2009 10:35:55 AM

Very good list, my only quibble is the first one: My advice: pair with other team members, discuss the story or task at hand, but keep email trails. Trust is good, but cautious is better, and they are not incompatible
Juan Banda, CST,CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO,REP, 5/6/2009 4:56:43 PM
Habit One won't be that ease to break if you work with distributed teams, if for instance teams are in different cities or countries you will have no choice but to create email threads. And alternative that work very well for me was using Sharepoint and starting discussion topics where everybody can contribute. At least using this tool important emails doesn't get buried.
Stephanie Groot, CSM, 8/29/2011 3:34:17 PM
Habit five: "detailed requirements" is often abused, team members read that point to mean "no documentation". On the opposite side, hefty requirements can be out of sync with market changes. In order to be successful you have to be aware of the market and adjust your priorities to suit the customers' needs. I've had PMP managers gag and choke when I discuss habit five.
Hitesh Shah, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/20/2012 12:16:10 PM
Very comprehensive list of habits to unlearn! Habit six: iron triangle is particularly difficult for me to unlearn! Impressed with comparison with Star Wars!

You must Login or Signup to comment.

The community welcomes feedback that is constructive and supportive, in the spirit of better understanding and implementation of Scrum.


Newsletter Sign-Up