Scrum makes one promise only

Photo by Nagesh Badu on Unsplash

One of my favourite books on agility is The People’s Scrum (Dymaxicon, 2013) by Tobias Mayer.

A lot of books on agility focus on the mechanics of how it all fits together, who needs to be where doing what with whom in order for the machine to work more effectively.

This book is different. It focuses not on the how, but challenges the why. It is open to critically questioning every aspect of agile with the intention of uncovering the core drivers behind agile practices.

I love Mayer’s boldness and passion. He is unrelenting in his belief that agile cannot be pinned down: by its nature it has to be fluid and adaptive. At the heart of agile are people who collaborate, who gather around a workflow board, who self-organise, and who regularly and critically evaluate their own practices and then adapt them.

More than any other book I’ve read on agile, this is the book that got me thinking most deeply about why we do certain things. Mayer doesn’t always offer the answer, because – in good postmodern tradition – my answer may be different to yours, but he does make you think. Like all good books I come away from this one feeling like I have changed, and seeing the world a little differently.

A new way of thinking

Prompted by a post on LinkedIn, I’ve started re-reading the book.

This insight from his opening essay, “A new way of thinking”, has resonated with me recently; it has challenged me and encouraged me:

According to co-founder Ken Schwaber, scrum makes one promise only: it will help you fail in thirty days or less. That’s it. Organizational dysfunction will begin to surface as the work plays out.

Healing from that dysfunction is up to you.

What scrum can give you is a space to be human, to try, to fail, to reflect and to try again. Putting the simple scrum framework in place at your organization will be the first step towards fostering an environment of safety and trust; in time this will lead to the release of human potential, guiding you towards innovation and success.

Fail fast

I like that description. Scrum gives you “a space to be human, to try, to fail, to reflect and to try again”.

It’s what happens in our private lives, in our families, our friendships, our relationships. Why should work be any different?

That ‘fail fast’ attitude is essential for success. Failing fast doesn’t mean failing outright. It’s more than just try, try, try again. It means creating shorter learning loops. It means creating opportunities for validated learning. It means building a culture of experimentation to find out more quickly what works, what doesn’t and understanding why — do something, learn from it, adapt, repeat.

I was encouraged today when discussing with a team member a proposed change to our Jira board. “Let’s try it,” they said. “And if it doesn’t work, we can always change it.”

Scrum, as Mayer points out, doesn’t promise to resolve any dysfunction. That’s up to us. It requires commitment, courage, focus and openness. But within a culture of safety, trust and experimentation anything is possible.

Scrum is not a rigid methodology, it’s a simple framework. But like a bamboo cane that supports a tomato plant enough to bear fruit, scrum offers enough structure to enable things to emerge.

Maybe ‘scrum master’ isn’t the right job title, maybe we’re ‘agile gardeners’.


Originally posted on my work’s internal blog.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 48 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Scrum master at Vision Ltd, Dundee. Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and former warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. Enneagram type FOUR and introvert, I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, write, draw and laugh… a lot.

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