How I read the Scrum Guide

Overview:

  1. The good: Things the Scrum Guide™ reinforces that would otherwise get lost
  2. The ugly: Things that should not be accepted at face value
  3. How I approach it

I’m going to assume that you have at least a passing acquaintance with Scrum, either as it’s generally taught and discussed, or as defined in the Scrum Guide. The guide itself has been updated in the past few days, there now being a 2017 edition:

The guide is ©2017 Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland. Offered for license under the Attribution Share-Alike license of Creative Commons, accessible at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode and also described in summary form at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/.

I haven’t checked to see when this license model was applied, but nice move.

1. The good: Things the Scrum Guide reinforces that can easily get lost

My biggest “Aha!” moment for Scrum was when I realised that it wasn’t about story points, velocity, Fibonacci numbers, and the like. Although tools like these do seem to work effectively enough for some people, others find them a recipe for (i) busywork or (ii) setting teams up for regular disappointment, making them a popular target for sniping. Rightly, there is no mention of them at all in the guide.

The guide instead talks of the sprint backlog as both a set of items selected for the sprint, and – crucially – a plan for delivering them. And get this: the sprint backlog is subordinate to something else, the sprint goal:

As the Development Team works, it keeps the Sprint Goal in mind. In order to satisfy the Sprint Goal, it implements functionality and technology. If the work turns out to be different than the Development Team expected, they collaborate with the Product Owner to negotiate the scope of Sprint Backlog within the Sprint.

Imagine you’re working in an organisation that typically takes months or even years to deliver anything of note (I exaggerate not). Now give people the chance to work together on achieving a meaningful goal in a matter of days. And again. And again. That’s powerful. Could that be done without Scrum? Does it happen without Scrum? Of course it could and of course it does, but Scrum is often the vehicle by which people experience this for the first time, and that’s something to celebrate.

I also have to give credit to Ken and Jeff for being explicit about Scrum’s applicability:

Scrum (n): A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value.

I don’t highlight this quote as some kind of backhanded compliment, a way to put Scrum back into its box. The domain described here is huge! And it’s important for reasons explored in chapter 5 of the Agendashift book. To operate a Lean, Agile, or Lean-Agile process worthy of that name, you must embrace the idea that the often challenging, sometimes messy, and always necessary work of helping the organisation to change must be treated as real work, to be carried out not just alongside delivery work, but integral to it. The ‘complex adaptive’ part of that quote might be unnecessarily jargony but it refers to the inability of any linear plan to deliver this vital kind of change effectively (see my “Change in the 21st century” keynote).

Taking these together, Scrum working well means:

  1. Meaningful goals regularly met
  2. The system – the team and well beyond – evolving commensurately

That’s harder to achieve and even harder to sustain than it might sound, and the guide is honest about the level of challenge involved. What it leaves unsaid is that as soon as Scrum comes to mean ploughing through the backlog, these benefits become increasingly difficult to sustain. It’s why we find support in complementary tools such as Kanban, Lean Startup, and now Agendashift [1] when the returns from Scrum on its own begin to diminish.

2. The ugly: Things that should not be accepted at face value

The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.

The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.

There are so many better ways in which the Scrum Master role could have been introduced, and it beggars belief that this section could be edited (yet again) in the 2017 edition and left like this. After an ugly paragraph easily construed as ‘your first responsibility is towards Scrum’ we see a very carefully circumscribed kind of servant-leadership that will surely be read in the light of what precedes it. There are more charitable interpretations, but they depend on assumptions that aren’t made explicit.

To be a true servant leader, your responsibility is towards your colleagues, your organisation, your customers, other stakeholders, even towards society. Where by-the-book Scrum helps you in those responsibilities, fantastic. Where it gets in the way, it might be time to do something not by the book. A true master at Scrum might find these situations rare, but pity the conflicted rookie! Even if only in the context of these sentences, if it doesn’t bother you that Scrum Masters are certified after just a couple of days of training, it should.

If we want our industry to do better, we have to look at its systems, ready to challenge a status quo that tends to preserve itself. Scrum has been around long enough to qualify for that kind of scrutiny and whatever their true intent, these widely-read sentences are too open to a cynical, self-serving interpretation.

In response to my tweet yesterday morning, Neil Killick was quick with this much better alternative:

With all due respect to Neil, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

3. How I approach it

I start from the perspective that Scrum describes some pragmatic solutions to common problems. Do you have multiple customers, far removed from the team? Then you’ll find it helpful to have a highly available Product Owner. Do you need someone to model and facilitate appropriate practices and behaviors? Then bring in a Scrum Master. Are your feedback loops too slow relative to the rate of environmental change? Then plan your work to fill short timeboxes and meet daily.

Conversely, if you don’t have all of these problems, you might not need Scrum. At the very least, tread carefully:

  • Don’t place obstacles between a team and its customers if they’re already collaborating (yay, manifesto values!)
  • Don’t add layers of process and ceremony where teams are already self organising effectively
  • Don’t allow Scrum’s timeboxes get in the way of rapid flow and rapid change – they needn’t [2], which is why I don’t present this as a technical objection to Scrum

Nice problems to have, you might argue. And well you might, which why I am significantly more pro Scrum than anti. But I don’t check in my experience, knowledge, or curiosity at the door. Where I see conflict between approaches, I dig deeper, fully expect to find agreement, and am usually rewarded handsomely.

For the most part, you can leave the self-serving stuff behind (I’ve learned to filter it out). If you are helping to bring clarity and agreement around purpose and goals (things Agendashift and the guide fully agree on), and if you start with needs, seek agreement on outcomes, and so on [3], it’s likely that you’re approaching things in a good way. As time passes you might find that things look less and less like anything you heard in class, but don’t let anyone shame you for that. Expert or rookie (and yes, tread accordingly), you’re responsible. You’re a leader!

[1] About Agendashift
[2] Scrum and Kanban revisited
[3] Agendashift in 5 principles

I’m grateful to Olivier My, Neil Killick, Johan Nordin, and Karen Beck for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this post.

While we here

Lean-Agile Strategy Days London (II) – 22-23 Nov, London, UK is just over a week away and there’s still time to book your place. Interested in Lean-Agile change and its relationship to strategy? You should be there! In case you can’t make both days, we’ve just added a strictly limited number of single day tickets.

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