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I love scrum, but I have never been able to use it, what's going on?

Last post 07:24 am July 8, 2021 by Ryan Brook
3 replies
12:37 pm July 5, 2021

I'm not going to get into all of the last 6 years, but I've been practicing as a scrum master during this period, and I've had three separate full time opportunities. 

Each of these opportunities has had similar issues, the organization says it wants scrum, says it wants to follow it to the letter, but really it just means they want the teams to follow it and not support it in any way...

Most of the teams I have been "assigned" to have not had any form of product owner. It's like this role just doesn't actually exist. About 95% of my experience is with teams that have multiple systems and multiple products inside of those systems to support. They're told what teams they will join and they're selected by management who takes what they perceive to be the necessary skills and assembles those teams. These teams still do not have the required skill sets, and outside team dependencies are the norm.

Did I mention these teams are almost always scaled before I get there and we're working backwards to try and decouple / slow down these teams to increase their quality while the business spits fire at us because we're not delivering faster, but slower? 

These are just some of the problems. My current engagement has me working with a team that is about 3x the size of a scrum team, the lines of communication are off the charts. But, most recently I've had a massive issue with "requirements".


I'm in a regulated lending industry with this opportunity, and we're required to follow several processes that directly impede us, specifically with our testing process and with our deployments. We are not even remotely autonomous. We have a UAT that is done almost entirely by our own team, but we do selective demos to the business where they consistently tell us that we got it wrong. My team has bent over backwards to write stories down to a test case level with the business, and still, they tell us we're not getting it right.

In this case I've wanted to just push back on the business, call them out for being totally unreasonable, but I've been told that we will 100% lose that because the business makes the company money and IT just supports that. If the business says jump, we must say how high?


I've become rather disenchanted with this role, it feels like I am really just a hall monitor there to give reporting metrics up to our PMO, and in addition to that, the actual changes necessary to help make meaningful results are swept under the rug or called pipe dreams. Such as splitting out the team and de-coupling the legacy systems that have existed for many many years. Oh, and half of my team doesn't even understand those systems, the other half barely does... 


What exactly are we doing in this role? Companies don't seem to have a clue what scrum actually is, despite half the organization being certified, and worse, the "just do the best you can" attitude keeps us stuck. After three separate full time roles that all have similar problems, it doesn't seem to be an isolated event anymore, this seems to be widespread and consistent.

I can totally understand why people call scrum / agile a fad or say it doesn't work, obviously because they simply don't do it, but it's actually becoming very difficult to even understand what a scrum master is suppose to do for a company. You try to make meaningful change and it's like you're speaking voodoo to people who know just as much as you do... 

I would leave and look elsewhere, but like I said this is the third time, I don't think it's any better elsewhere. I also don't know how to help people who pay me to ignore me... Is that what my career is going to be? 


05:42 pm July 5, 2021

That all sounds normal enough.

Remember that a Scrum Master will reveal issues but not resolve them. You manage people's understanding of Scrum and leave solutioning in their hands. Wonder about the things you see and be the first to be vulnerable. Position organisational failings as your own failure. Ask those who may have greater power to change things: please help me to succeed.

After some months or even years, an organization might understand that they aren't doing Scrum right now, and that agile outcomes cannot yet be expected. That openness is a win. We fall back on Scrum values like this when implementing the framework proves hard.


04:42 pm July 6, 2021

You described every company for which I have worked.  The words Scrum and Agile are used all the time. Words from the Scrum Framework are used in ways that have no relation to how they are explained in the Scrum Guide.  In my opinion, this comes back to the word Agile.  The word agile is not a noun.  It became a noun when people started commercializing the manifesto for agile software development and needed to have a word for the products that they were selling.  

The companies where you have been hired to be a Scrum Master are usually looking for a project manager but don't want to sound antiquated.  For those of us that understand the benefits of Scrum it is frustrating.  

I share @Ian Mitchell's opinion. As a true Scrum practitioner you have to celebrate the small things and hope that they will lead to bigger advancements. But if you try to become steadfast on your opinions, you will be falling into the same trap as all of those Agilists.  Scrum is a framework that can be used to build.  The End Note of the Scrum Guide states

Scrum is free and offered in this Guide. The Scrum framework, as outlined herein, is immutable. While 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.

Most companies don't want to use Scrum as the framework outlines.  They want to use some of the words, a few of the practices but in the way that they want to use it.  I have never worked at a company that used the Scrum framework as provided in the guide.  But I have helped a couple get pretty close.  And in the end, I have strived to help the company be more able to adjust to changes quickly so that they can have more agility in their decision making. 

07:24 am July 8, 2021

The first thing to say is that your observations are normal - like Daniel and Ian said.

Many organisations move towards using Scrum because they've heard of the grapevine that they should - do or die. The problem with that approach is that isn't considered properly, and consequently is applied as a wraparound without changing the 'old' ways of working. This is the life of large organisations. Poor change management is endemic which to a certain extent I can understand - they've made money doing it one way for years, why can't they just continue doing that?

There is also an issue with one person p****** into the wind. More voices matters. Find the sympathetic ears and help them change things one step at a time.

One bit I'd like to pick up on is: 'but we do selective demos to the business where they consistently tell us that we got it wrong'.

If this was me I'd say 'Oh shucks, if you could provide us a suitably experienced and dedicated Product Owner to absorb and apply your feedback, perhaps we'd get it wrong less'....that may not work for everyone, I'm quite sarcastic. The key takeaway for that organisation is that Product Ownership is vital. Without it, Developers are taking guesses and consequently the risk. This is important because it's not their risk to take! This reminds me of a story about a burger and a squirrel...:D

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