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Is Scrum an Asperger's Friend or Foe?

October 22, 2015

The subject of this blog post might seem unusual. But having worked with multiple development teams, I've gained some experience with team members having (symptoms) of Asperger's. I mostly contributed to the team as a Scrum Master or Agile Coach. The combination of Scrum and Asperger's hereby always had my interest. With this blog post, I want to share some of my thoughts. But beware: I'm certainly no expert in Asperger's and haven't got any in-depth knowledge about it. See this blog post as an invitation for conversation where my findings can be used as a starting point.

Asperger's is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests[1].

Some positive symptoms of Asperger's are creativity, blunt honesty, perfectionistic, analytically strong, having excellent pattern recognition, strictly following the rules and having a high ability to concentrate. However, they often find it difficult to develop friendships, are unable to empathize and make eye contact, and have a strong urge for routine.

Considering these symptoms, working in software development seems like an ideal environment. Because software development[2]:

  • is fixated with order, syntax and literal interpretation
  • allows you to deal with machines instead of people
  • requires a nearly obsessive focus

I don't know the precise numbers, but I think the amount of people with Asperger's in software development is for these reasons relatively high compared to other areas of the profession.

Some years ago I started using the Scrum framework in development teams. At that moment I wasn't really aware of the impact it could have on some team members. However, when I got the idea to change people’s workplaces, a colleague told me this had quite an impact on him. The change was fine, but he would like to switch the workplaces on Friday evening, this way he could use the weekend to get used to his new workplace. I already knew this colleague had some form of autism spectrum disorder, but from that moment on I got actually aware of the consequences it could have.

In the meantime, I've introduced Scrum in many development teams. Some people embraced it; some however really didn't like it. The question I'm pondering about is the impact Scrum has on people with (symptoms) of Asperger's. Is the Scrum framework their 'friend or foe'?

The advantages I can think of are:

  • The Scrum framework offers a clear structure and a repetitive sprint heartbeat/routine with which software is developed;
  • Requirements will inevitably change, Scrum embraces this change and its framework is build to cope with it;
  • Working in a fixed team offers them a safe environment that also stimulates them to connect with their peers;

However some disadvantages might be:

  • The power of a true Scrum team is its cross-functional character. Scrum team members don't stick to their role of e.g. backend developer when theirs a lot of testing to be done. They will work together to get all the testing realized. This musketeer-attitude might feel uncomfortable;
  • In a Scrum team, it's all about collaboration. The intense social interaction during the Scrum sessions and daily activities can be difficult to cope with;
  • Bringing the development team in direct contact with the customer is something I've always promoted. Because direct customer feedback is very valuable. However, this might be too confronting when you don't set the right stage for it;

I started this blog post by stating the topic might be unusual. For quite some time I wanted to write about it but somehow I didn't do it. Worrying about possible wrong assumptions (but hey, that's why it's called an assumption...) outweighed the urge to write about it. But working as an Agile Coach, you can only 'create' powerful development teams taking into account all the different personalities and characteristics.

By writing about this topic I hope to gather more insights that will help me be a better coach. Therefore I would really appreciate it if you are willing to share some of your thoughts and experiences about it with me. Do you consider Scrum a framework that offers a suitable environment for team members with Asperger's? Do you recognize the advantages and disadvantages I mention? What is the best way a Scrum team should collaborate with a team member having Asperger's?


What did you think about this post?