Wednesday, 17 August 2011

What scrum is (not) – a meme

Although it's difficult to test or otherwise corroborate in any way, I have the feeling that 'the agile community' has been trending negatively over the last couple of weeks. At the very least there has been much to-do in my personal infosphere on the evils of agile (aficionados). The debate as to what agile, and specifically scrum, is seems to have been revived via a couple of slightly bad tempered posts by Ken Schwaber. Even well-loved fixtures of scrum lore like the chicken and the pig are coming under fire.

A framework that has inspect&adapt as one of its central tenets should obviously itself be under constant review, but what surprises me about some of the negative utterances I have come across recently is the vehemence with which they are delivered. Onediatribe in particular caught my attention, not only because (in a discussion of scrum) it ranged – in a series of three articles - over politics, (social) history and religion (subjects close to my heart), but most especially because of its toxicity. This guy really has a bee in his bonnet. His central metaphor, of priests and followers, is not without its worth though, and the unthinking uncomprehending dogmatists that seemed to have riled him so are definitely not a figment of his imagination – I have met them too. As for the parasitic consultants; I don't doubt they're out there either.


Lambasting scrum as a religion, when it is explicitly constructed on empiricism, is a bit like creationists claiming that the theory of evolution is just one more belief system.

One of the issues that came up in discussions engendered by said article (also re-posted to LinkedIn) was the Scrum Alliance and its certification (specifically the Certified Scrum Master). I do not want to get into a discussion on the Scrum Alliance but I will defend the CSM, at least as delivered by Jeff Sutherland; not that everybody who attends the course comes away a good scrum practitioner but then again not everybody with a university degree in computer science is a good programmer.

Two days is enough time to get through the basics of scrum, scrum is simple and incomplete; that's the beauty of it. More importantly, Sutherland starts by introducing scrum as, above all else, a frame of mind; the way. He then goes on to explain shu ha ri and states that although it is good to follow the rules to the letter initially, gaining understanding is the goal and that once that goal has been attained the rules can be left for what they are; useful guidelines. He also explicitly includes XP and Lean as means to maximising the efficacy of scrum. Scrum as taught by Sutherland is therefore anything but an exclusive collection of dogma and rites. 

Further; the belief that agile development equates to no documentation, no planning and no commitments abounds. I have met teams that claimed to be running scrum when sprints were not fixed-length, team composition was wildly variable, random managers could change the 'sprint backlog' whenever it suited them, and most importantly, delivery of working software was haphazard at best. I have known team leads and scrum masters who 'itched' at the idea that 'their' charges were not all fully allocated – that their team was thus inefficient – and therefore assumed responsibility for sprint planning. With so much confusion out there some attempt at certification is absolutely necessary. If someone is a CSM then you know at least that they have been exposed to a version of scrum that will work if applied as learned.

But the CSM is not enough, Sutherland & Schwaber on the topic: certifications do not guarantee excellence

That is to say; scrum is a meme. And just as with the its physical cousin the gene, it is as good as impossible to make a perfect copy of a meme. Everybody who has ever learned anything about scrum has their very own unique scrum meme, some of which will be instantly recognisable as incomplete or otherwise faulty, some of which will be more difficult to assess, unless you test them. In that regard, it could be a good idea to view certification as a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for recognising the owner of a good scrum meme. An agile hiring process could be even more useful – new scrum masters are hired initially on a one or two month contract, their performance (basic understanding, facilitation & communication skills, removal of impediments) can then be tested over a small number of sprints whereupon the team can decide whether the new scrum master is the scrum master they have been looking for.

I sincerely hope that the agile community succeeds in keeping its conflicts positive.


  1. just linked this article on my facebook account. it’s a very interesting article for all.

    Scrum Process