Are all Scrum Masters in eternal pursuit of a Fata Morgana?

Scrum Master May 1, 2020

We would make Don Quixote proud with all these Scrum practitioners chasing windmills all over the world

I’ve got a confession to make. I never worked at an organisation that understood and practiced Scrum as described in the Scrum Guide. In fact, I would dare to say I never met anyone who worked at such an organisation.

Whenever you probe a bit further and ask a couple of questions, you can immediately point out things that are off, and not according to the Scrum guide as intended.

Here are some concrete and common examples of the many things that can go wrong (list is definitely not exhaustive):

  • Sprint Goals are not being used or misused to have team work on multiple competing objectives.
  • Sprint Review is just a demo.
  • No goal is set at the Daily Scrum for next 24 hours or it is not reviewed the next Daily Scrum.
  • Scrum values are not embodied and lived by the Scrum Team.
  • The Product Owner does not have final say and gets overruled by other people in the organisation.
  • Multiple Product Owners working on the same product or Product Managers taking over part of the job.
  • Scrum Teams are not cross-functional and depend on others outside of the team like design, infrastructure, architecture or security.
  • Scrum is practiced by the Scrum Teams in isolation in their Sprint bubbles. The rest of the organisation is unaffected.

Like I said before, there’s always something off.

Are all Scrum practitioners in eternal pursuit of a Fata Morgana? Are we seeing a beautiful puddle of clean and clear water that doesn’t exist in the middle of a barren desert? Is pure Scrum an illusion that is impossible to attain?

Image by Norbert Schmitz

You might be thinking that I’m a nitpicker (to be honest, I am), but this has nothing to do with my exacting nature. Every organisation implements Scrum in their own way. This is great, because this is exactly how it’s supposed to be. Scrum is a process framework and not a process after all. Scrum helps you detect where you need to fill in the gaps.

However there are precise and well-defined limits to this process framework freedom. You are free to change anything except the Scrum foundation.

Scrum, once implemented by humans, for some reason invariably ends up conflicting with parts of the core framework. The core is the foundation that enables Scrum to empower people to discover their own way of working. When this conflict happens, the following little snippet from the Scrum Guide springs to mind:

“Although implementing only parts of Scrum is possible, the result is not Scrum. Scrum exists only in its entirety and functions well as a container for other techniques, methodologies, and practices.” — Scrum Guide Nov 2017

Personally, I find this paragraph is a bit too dramatic and dogmatic. But I also understand the conundrum the writers of the Scrum Guide are in: where to draw the line? If you were to make it grey, you would open the door to weaker versions of Scrum. Especially since Scrum is so light-weight that every piece performs a clear, precise and explainable function. Throwing away or adjusting any small piece, can have big consequences.

If you leave something out that’s part of Scrum as described in the guide, you’re not doing Scrum. Another interesting conclusion, if what I was saying at the beginning of this article is true, there are very few (if any) organisations in the world really doing Scrum.

I’ve been practicing Scrum for around 7 years now. I’m working in the Netherlands, the biggest Agile hub in the world. And yet I’ve never seen Scrum properly implemented. Scrum has a mythical and evasive status to me, like the monster of Loch Ness or Big Foot. We all hear about the existence of these creatures, but I’ve never seen any of them.

But does it matter that nobody really implements Scrum by the book?

I’m internally conflicted about this, for two reasons:

  1. On the one hand, often when Scrum is not implemented by the book you can clearly see the problems it causes.
  2. On the other hand, very few organisations implement Scrum by the book, even those that are reasonably successful with it. What does this say about Scrum and it’s success as a framework?

This is also the reason why, whenever someone writes an article that Scrum doesn’t work, you can easily point out all the things they are doing wrong. But if you look at it another way, give me a company that is successful with Scrum, and I can point out all the things they are doing wrong too. And if something is wrong, then they are not doing Scrum either.

If you agree with the reasoning above, are there many organisations in the world successful with Scrum? Or are most organizations doomed to use a Scrum-like, watered down version of the real thing? And does this mean most organization in the world are not practicing Scrum, but a Scrum-like process we can’t call Scrum?

I can only conclude that Scrum has a lot in common with religion and this troubles me.

Why does Scrum have a lot in common with religion?

When I was in high school, I had a lot of conversations with religious people. Some of these religious people, believed that if you’re an atheist you can do whatever you want.

Their thinking was that when you’re an atheist, you don’t have a moral compass, like religion, to guide you. They basically said:”If I were an atheist, I don’t know how I could stop myself from doing evil things”.

The assumption made was that morals are closely tied and unique to religion. I would then ask them the following question:”But how can a Christian then murder someone?”, a bit dramatic I know, and their response would be:”A true Christian would never murder someone.”

To me this never was a satisfying answer. For the same reason, if somebody does Scrum wrong, to conclude they are not doing Scrum is taking it a step too far.

To make another parallel with religion: Buddhists attempt to reach a state of enlightenment called Nirvana. It is something that is rarely reached, but they are still Buddhists that are trying nonetheless.

I believe it’s the same with Scrum. Everybody who is on the path to enlightenment, is doing Scrum. It’s tough work, messy, challenging and uncertain. Agility is a path, and not an end destination you suddenly reach.

As long as we’re on the path to agility, we’re practicing Scrum. Be it a pristine, perfect version of Scrum, or something that has still has a lot of room for improvement.

We also have to keep in mind that Scrum isn’t the point. Scrum is a means to an end. We need to worry less if we’re doing Scrum right and more if we’re delivering products of the highest possible value.

What would you rather eat: a tasty dish from a restaurant with an ordinary process, or a mediocre dish from a restaurant with flawless execution? What you ultimately create is what matters most and not the exact steps you are following.