Start by Doing It Badly

Okay, but in the real world Scrum doesn’t work.

     This is perhaps one of the most commonly held beliefs I hear repeated in my classrooms. And I agree, kind of. Let me explain why.

     Scrum is a short word packed with meaning, rules, ideals, intent, and implications. So where do you start? I’ll begin by explaining it in my own words: Scrum enables you to better generate value by providing a framework that helps you navigate those problems where you’re either unsure what the end result will look like, or how you’ll solve it—Often some combination of both (this is referred to as a complex problem).

     In a nutshell, the loop looks a bit like this:


     So what does The Scrum Guide have to say about it—Seeing as it contains the literal definition of Scrum? Let’s have a look:

     “Scrum is simple. Try it as is and determine if its philosophy, theory, and structure help to achieve goals and create value. The Scrum framework is purposefully incomplete, only defining the parts required to implement Scrum theory. Scrum is built upon by the collective intelligence of the people using it. Rather than provide people with detailed instructions, the rules of Scrum guide their relationships and interactions.

     Various processes, techniques and methods can be employed within the framework. Scrum wraps around existing practices or renders them unnecessary. Scrum makes visible the relative efficacy of current management, environment, and work techniques, so that improvements can be made.” – The Scrum Guide, 2020.

     If you weren’t confused before, you probably are now. That is a lot to take in. And it’s only one section out of the 13 pages that describes the Scrum framework and its various definitions and rules. This is the part where I tell you that I have both good and bad news; The bad news is that this blog post is not here to teach you Scrum. Well, not directly at least. The good news is that this blog post is here to teach you how to approach learning about Scrum: By doing it badly.


 Wait, What?

     Okay, so that may be a bit misleading. I am not advocating for you to purposefully try and do it badly, Scrum is, after all, ‘simple’. Rather, I am inviting you to try Scrum, whilst also acknowledging that you are likely to be bad at it when you first start. Just like you probably wouldn’t be able to maintain a sustained juggle the first time you picked up some balls. And that’s okay. Fail again. Fail better. This is the foundation for being able to improve anything in life, learn from what didn’t go the way you wanted it to and try to do better next time. Rinse and repeat.

     The empirical process—and its three pillars of transparency, inspection and adaptation—involves checking where you are at by doing something, seeing how you did compared to what you were trying to do, and devising and carrying out experiments (practicing, if you will) to try and get closer to your desired outcome. This is the process that Scrum is designed to take you through with its framework, and we’d be remiss if we did not apply this same process to our learning. Learning is after all a complex problem.


It’s simple, really

     Scrum, at its core, is simple. But simple does not mean easy. Exercising regularly and eating healthy is simple enough, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to pass up comfort time for exercise time. The journey towards using Scrum as your new way of working, requires not only your own effort, but the effort of everyone else in the team and perhaps even those around it. Imagine if you decided to start doing Yoga and only eating meat once a week, so now the rest of your household, and your neighbors, have to as well. Definitely not easy.

     The Scrum Guide also refers to an ‘end state’, or rather, the state that is the Scrum framework. It even explicitly states:

     What it does not tell you, is how to get there. That is for each team and organization to figure out on their own, as the contextual needs for each will be different. And as the saying goes: Context is king.

     So where does that leave us? Well, my assertion is that (initially) we’ll have to do Scrum to the best of our abilities, whilst accepting that we are likely to fail. And that’s okay. Hell, the Scrum framework expects you to continue to learn how to improve even when you are doing Scrum as defined by the Scrum Guide. We do this using the Sprint Retrospective—a regular event where the Scrum Team gets together to inspect and adapt the processes to improve as a team.

     Once we’ve tried and failed to do Scrum, we can reflect on what we learned. If you are able to practise the Sprint Retrospective, that is the perfect place to do exactly that. If you’re not there yet, then a one-off Retrospective is better than none at all. This is the part where I am afraid you are on your own, because your own context will dictate what adaptations you will need in order to get closer to where you want to be. If you’re really stuck, stick to the basics:

  1. What worked, and how do we ensure we keep doing it?
  2. What didn’t work, and what needs to be true for it to work next time?
  3. What experiments will we run next? (An experiment on the benefits of regular sessions where we try to improve, perhaps… Maybe we could even call it a ‘Sprint Retrospective’!)


     All you have to do now is just repeat this cycle of:

  1. proposing experiments,
  2. doing the work,
  3. and checking in to see how we did and what we can learn next.


     Simple, but not easy. And, in my experience, certainly not quick. Every team and organization is different, but I would count on this taking at least a couple of weeks, or even a few months before you start really doing Scrum. Badly.

     Yep, that’s right. Even if you’ve done all the above, including the rinse and repeat, you are probably still at the stage of doing Scrum badly. To be fair, until this point, you have most likely not been doing Scrum at all. And to reiterate—that’s okay. (In the same way that bouncing a ball around but not adhering to NBA rules means you’re not playing basketball, but rather just throwing a ball around—both can be valuable, but only one would allow you to play in a league). At least now that you are doing Scrum badly, you will hopefully begin to see some positive changes in how your team and organization performs.

     The next step is to continue the experiment–learn–adapt cycle until you’re doing Scrum okay. Eventually, you’ll start doing Scrum well, and then one day you may find something that works even better in your particular context than Scrum. Or you may find that Scrum is not at all appropriate in your context. And that is a good thing. The point of Scrum is not to do Scrum, it is to “generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems.” – The Scrum Guide, 2020.

Things to look out for

     If you are just starting your Scrum journey, the good news is that there have been many who have ventured down this path before you—and you can learn from their journeys. Context is still king, so whilst something did or didn’t work for others, it does not mean that the same would hold true for you.

     With that in mind, here are some general ideas that should help you on your way:

  • As you read the Scrum Guide, it is easy to find yourself thinking of all the ways that it wouldn’t work in your current environment. Although that is likely the case, the journey you face is made up of several moments of identifying and making the changes needed to improve. And as we know, every journey begins with a single step, and what time to take that step than today.
  • Different people have different needs. Some of the people around you will be excited about the journey, and adapt quickly. Others will be highly reluctant.
  • You will need to be understanding and patient, whilst making any boundaries or expectations clear and holding people accountable accordingly.
  • There will be times where you have to take a step (or three) back before you can continue moving forward again.
  • If it wasn’t already obvious: You will make mistakes. A lot of mistakes. And that is absolutely fine.


In Conclusion

     So why did I write this? It’s simple, really: I want you to try Scrum. I want you to become an expert in wielding Scrum as a tool to help you better generate value.

     I want you to feel like you have permission to try, and permission to fail. To try again, to try better, and to fail better. To learn, and to grow.