What Really Makes Scrum Work
While I spent the first twenty years of my career as a software developer, during the last twenty I have been managing, leading, and coaching mostly software development teams. I learned about agile toward the end of the last century and used various agile practices with my teams to try and help them perform better (mostly XP, Scrum, and Kanban). I’ve also spent the last few years focused on training and coaching teams in the use of Scrum, sometimes finding success and other times… not so much.
As I look back on the teams that were successful, it has occurred to me that the common thread may not have been the practice of any particular framework or methodology, but that the successful teams seemed to just work well together. There seems to have been something beyond the process of how they worked.
I currently spend most of my time training individuals and teams in the use of Scrum, and I’ve noticed students are most interested in the mechanics of the Scrum roles, events, and artifacts. They want to learn how to “do” Scrum. They seem less interested in discussing what the Scrum Guide calls the “Scrum Values”. Although, it’s important to note the Scrum Guide states that the “successful use of Scrum depends on people becoming more proficient in living five values”.
These values are commitment, focus, openness, respect, and courage.
As defined in the Scrum Guide, the “Scrum Team commits to achieving its goals and to supporting each other”. To me, this means that the Scrum Team members put the needs of the team, or the many, ahead of any selfish personal needs of the few, or the one (to paraphrase Spock from Star Trek). They understand that working together on a Scrum Team is more like being a member of a soccer or basketball team, and less like golf or an individual track event. While you might take pride in being the high scorer on such a team, you won’t be considered great if your team does not win games.
The successful Teams I’ve worked with have been quick to help each other in any way they could and were willing to perform tasks that were not ones they most enjoyed. What counted most was the success of the team. Delivering something valuable to the customer was always the most important goal. Members of less successful teams tended to focus on “their” work and were not interested in working on things outside of their comfort zone.
The Scrum Guide states that the Scrum Team’s “primary focus is on the work of the Sprint to make the best possible progress toward these goals.” The best teams exhibit this trait and are not pulled in several different directions by competing or changing priorities. They internalize the needs of the customer and focus on doing whatever they can to meet these needs.
In my experience, this is the toughest of the Scrum Values. The Scrum Guides says that the “Scrum Team and its stakeholders are open about the work and the challenges”, but this is easier said than done. In many if not most environments, it’s easier to get along or get ahead by telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. The best teams I’ve worked with had open and honest relationships with each other and with the customer.
Successful teams recognize that everyone brings their own skills and experiences to the work and don’t tolerate people being disrespectful to others. The Scrum Guide asks team members to “respect each other to be capable, independent people, and are respected as such by the people with whom they work.” In other words, don’t be a jerk.
If teams have an environment of respect and openness, and are committed to the work and each other, it becomes easy to show courage when hard choices must be made. Early in my career, I began putting up a poster in team rooms that stated, “It is better to do the right thing than to do things right.” The teams that got the meaning of this consistently outperformed those that struggled to understand its meaning. As the Scrum Guide states, they had “the courage to do the right thing, to work on tough problems.”
The more I discuss these values with students, the more I realize that these values were the main drivers of success for the high-performing teams that I was a part of. Whether the team was following XP, Scrum, or Kanban, the framework was a less important predictor of their success than the values being lived by the team. So, while I believe that the Scrum framework can be a powerful tool, I agree with the Scrum Guide when it says, “successful use of Scrum depends on people becoming more proficient in living five values.”
As trainers and coaches, we need to help teams create an environment where these values can thrive before worrying too much about the framework or methodology, they are following in completing their work. Teams that follow the Scrum Values become great teams that deliver great solutions for their customers.
Originally posted on 12/15/2021 at Improving.com.