Book Interview: Stefan Wolpers
The Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide
Stefan Wolpers just published the following book:
If you’ve been following his work, you know this book has been many years in the making. I had the privilege of reading an early review copy, and I’m currently reading the final version on my Kindle.
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I enjoyed the book a lot and I believe it will be incredibly helpful to Scrum Teams all over the globe.
Don’t just believe me, here’s what Diana Larsen had to say about the book:
"Stefan Wolpers has a remarkable ability to highlight underlying traps and issues for stakeholders, teams, and process. Wolpers documents sources of waste and frustration, an amazing compendium of typical ways progress becomes blocked. Depressing! He doesn’t leave us there though. He also recommends insightful remedies. Uplifting!"
I thought it would be nice to interview him to talk about his newly released book. Here we go!
First of all, congratulations on publishing your first book! How do you feel after publishing your first book?
Thank you for your kind words! As a fellow author, I now understand much better what effort you went through writing your book. I am unsure whether I would have signed up for the endeavor had I known in advance that it would take me the better part of a year to complete the manuscript and all the sketches. Writing a book is a completely different beast compared to curating a set of blog posts into a PDF.
However, over time, when I basically rewrote the original draft, I learned to appreciate it. It is true: To fully understand something, you need to be able to teach it to others and write about it. In that respect, I am possibly the individual who will have the steepest learning curve from the Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide. Today, I am glad that I was so ignorant in the beginning!
“Yes, writing a book is indeed an entirely different beast than curating a set of blog posts. How did you notice your ignorance / learning curve while writing the book?”
That was simple: I submitted the first draft of the book, and the first chapter came back from the editor in “deep red” after a while. Think high school-deep-red: comments, pointing to missing information and explanations, deletions, fixes, many good questions, etc. I then accepted that I had to rewrite all the chapters, and I started with the one at the end, covering the Definition of Done. It was a classic inspect and adapt approach… 😂
What was your approach, Maarten?
Yeah, as Gunther Verheyen told me when I started writing my book: writing is rewriting.
It was the hardest for me to have the first draft. My approach was figuring out how to best deal with my inadequacies, which basically boiled down getting myself to write every day. I figured out something that worked for me, which was basically forcing myself to write at least 5 mins every day, and when I did that, I usually kept writing. For me the hardest part was starting.
What was the moment you came up with the idea for your book? Was there a single moment when you realized: I have to write about this? Or was it something that gradually happened over time? And did you first have the idea that you wanted to write a book, or did this idea grab you and compel you to write a book?
I started writing blog posts about Scrum anti-patterns in 2017 while freelancing as a Scrum Master at the then-largest European utility. I traveled by train and noted my observations during my “commute.” I never intended the posts to become a themed series. However, over time, I covered many Scrum events, artifacts, and roles. Then I curated all of them into a simple PDF — the Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide v1 — and it proved very popular. I only suggested turning this PDF into a proper book to Scrum.org in early 2022. They cooperated with Pearson, and I thought the book might be an acceptable addition to the “Professional Scrum Series.
If I’m hearing correctly, it all happened organically. You wrote about something that you were passionate about, one thing led to another, how did you notice it was popular and was there a particular moment you could point out: this should be a book?
And why do you believe the curated collection resonated with so many people?
I had proof in advance; the PDF was downloaded over 15,000 times before I considered turning it into an actual book. While the PDF, which is still available today, is free, I use it to sign up people for my Food for Agile Thought newsletter — you pay with a subscription. Signing up with Pearson/Scrum.org was opportunistic.
Regarding its popularity, the prevailing feedback I have received over the years is something along the lines of ‘it helped me to succeed as an agile practitioner in the eyes of my peers and superiors.’ In that respect, it is a good investment in your career.”
I love the gradual approach you followed to discover there was a market for your book. I loved reading your book and what I found particularly interesting is your focus on anti-patterns. Why did you decide to focus on anti-patterns? And I was also curious for your process for discovering these anti-patterns. As you know, I also cover anti-patterns for Sprint Goals in my book, but even your section on Sprint Goals is far more exhaustive than mine, so I’m curious to learn from the approach you followed.”
“Inversion is a powerful learning practice. Like Charlie Munger said: “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
Often, problems at the team level and, more importantly, at the organizational level are hard to solve forward. However, the moment you invert and address them backward, a solution becomes more likely. It is all about not being stupid all the time. There are several practices where this principle is used, for example, the Liberating Structure TRIZ or the Pre-Mortem.
I highly enjoy this way of learning. For example, during a brief stint at a law school, I learned the penal law code by reflecting on beneficially bending the spirit of the law without breaking it.
Naturally, I apply this practice to my job as a coach or Scrum Master, too. Also, I like to stay in the background observing things to figure out what is happening, who is pulling strings, and why this might occur. The latter is critical: there is always a reason why things are how they are. To address a resulting issue, you need to understand the origin first. Otherwise, you will likely jump to conclusions which are not helpful.
I didn’t know you went to law school! Do you have a good example of a moment you jumped to a conclusion that was not helpful at the time, and what happened as a result?
And how did you learn to be patient enough? I suck at being patient, I always want to jump into action.
I am actually an impatient individual; it took me a long time to get that halfway under control, being comfortable with silence or watching things unfold.
Am I jumping to conclusions? It happens all the time despite my best efforts. For example, negotiating a price and considering the seller equally rational about pricing only to find out that they are entirely irrational and opt for sinking the deal rather than admitting they got it wrong. It just happened last week to me, unfortunately.
Yeah, I can heavily relate to your story. One of the most difficult parts of our jobs is dealing with humans and over-assuming how rational they (or we) actually are.
Now that we’re on the topic of human nature. What do you think is one of the most common and tough anti-patterns to crack that you see Scrum Teams face in the wild?
The human operating system: cave-person with a thin veneer of civilization on top of it and increasingly challenged by technological advances. We are still operated by greed, fear, envy, and anxiety: Will it eat me? Can I eat it? Can we mate?
When we run into serious anti-patterns, it is often a people issue, occasionally disguised as a technical or organizational problem. Humans always play status games, and we do so at work intensively, too. I stopped judging people because of it; nowadays, I am more interested in learning what might be the rationale behind other individuals’ behavior: personal agendas, loss aversion, anxiety, or a status problem. I tried to address these issues as well as possible in the book.
Haha yes! I believe Seth Godin calls that part of our brain the lizard brain, and it’s necessary for survival but it can also backfire in our modern society.
Imagine somebody has read your book, and they’ve used it to identify all the anti-patterns in their organization. Let’s assume they did a good job. How will your book help them to overcome those anti-patterns?
The purpose of the Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide is not to provide a recipe book on how to solve each anti-pattern. There are too many of those, and all have developed under specific circumstances requiring consideration. However, the book will make identifying those much easier, help understand its background, and suggest tactics and strategies that have proven successful in other cases of a similar anti-pattern in the past. All the reader has to do now is to spark a discussion with their team or organization.
Maarten final question:
Imagine you bump into someone at a meetup and they’re super excited to meet you. They share the one most important thing they took away from the book. When they share that one most important thing, as a writer you smile, because they’re sharing exactly what you intended when you wrote the book.
What do they share with you?
Something like “I stopped jumping to conclusions in my effort to fix things. Now, I reflect more about the “why things are the way they are,” and I include my teammates and stakeholders in overcoming anti-patterns. I am facilitating change, one step at a time.”
Thanks for your time and have an awesome week Stefan. And once again, congrats on publishing your first book."
Let me know if you enjoyed this interview and if I should do more in the comments below.
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