September 26, 2023
Business and commerce moves fast. Processes, products, approaches, value propositions, teams, brands… they all come and go at an incredible rate. And linked to this, certain approaches or methodologies that have been introduced to help businesses deal with this dynamic environment - which were once deemed revolutionary - can often find themselves facing waves of criticism as time passes.
Agile frameworks, with Scrum at its forefront, are no stranger to this changing sentiment. Despite its absolute simplicity and its proven track record of success across industries, there’s been a pretty consistent and vocal minority speaking out against Scrum. “Scrum is dead!”, they will shout, “Scrum doesn’t work!”.
But is it really dead, or is this just another phase in the ebb and flow of (un)popular opinion?
If any part of the following article resonates with you, we encourage you to get in touch. You can book a free 30-minute consultation with one of our expert coaches and get their advice on how to tackle some of the topics outlined below.
OK. Let's delve deeper.
Where did the Anti-Agile sentiment come from?
A lot of the anti-Agile sentiment has come from people enthusiastically kicking off Agile projects without truly understanding the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. All too often, someone reads media articles or a blog – not dissimilar to the kinds of blogs you’ll find on this very site! – that talk about a way to drive efficiencies and reduce project risk through collaboration. This often translates in the minds of some skim-readers as “better, faster, cheaper by giving a few people new job titles and making everyone stand-up every day and give a status update for 15 minutes”. Before you know it, Agile is declared as being ‘done’ in their organisation.
But because nobody knows the ‘why’ and ‘how’, these initiatives are usually destined for failure. And it’s the failure that causes the vast majority of the anti-Agile sentiment that you find lurking in the more frustrated corners of the Internet.
In a nutshell, it comes down to a lack of true cultural understanding of Agile and how it should be correctly implemented and supported. The scars of numerous badly implemented “Agile Transformations” that have happened over the past 20+ years run deep: it only takes one or two bad experiences to turn someone against a concept, no matter how much that concept is going to help them in the long run.
To be clear: this article is not going to criticise those carrying the battle scars of failed Agile implementation. Trust us: we’ve been there too on death march projects that claim to be Agile but aren’t. We have those same battle scars.
Instead, we’ll look at some of the root causes of those scars.
Common Anti-Agile Sentiments
1. "Scrum meetings are time-consuming and inefficient."
Daily Scrums or Sprint Reviews can be perceived as bureaucratic by those that perhaps don’t take the time to really understand how Scrum events work. When conducted properly, these events ensure clear communication, alignment and continuous improvement. Not only that, done right and you will find that the Scrum events reduce the amount of time spent in meetings by the people who should be working to build the products and services you need to get to market.
2. "Agile lacks planning and foresight."
Some believe that Scrum promotes a chaotic, "make it up as you go along" approach. In reality, Scrum emphasises adaptive planning, where changes are welcomed based on feedback, ensuring that the end product truly meets user needs. Inherent in Scrum is the concept of empirical control process – more simply phrased, that means: we delivery experiments to our actual users/market (which are small enough to not damage our business if they are not right), so that we can see how our users/market reacts and then decide on what we do next based on what we have learned.
The concept of planning out roadmaps and deployments is entirely normal in Scrum projects. But rather than plan every single detail about the project and all future deployments before we start work, we reduce the time horizon by working in sprints (of up to one month in length) and all agree that plans beyond that horizon are not commitments, but good faith forecasts that will likely change in the future.
3. “It’s just used by management as a tool to try and squeeze more work out of less people in less time. And be able to change their mind on a minute-by-minute basis.”
Ouch. If this is something you’ve experienced, you have our deepest sympathies. This is sadly an all-too-common occurrence in the corporate world, and it’s very much linked to the earlier discussion around a lack of understanding of the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. Management show-up with an Agile vision, send people on a day of training (if you’re lucky) and then immediately expect faster, cheaper, better…
One of our senior Agile Coaches often tells the story of an engagement they took over at a big, Fortune 500 company that was desperately trying to get a self-service web tool to market but had failed to get anything live despite 12 months of missed deadlines, resulting in a very unhappy and demotivated team and angry people with senior sounding job titles. Upon initial inspection by the coach, he quickly identified that scope creep was killing Sprint efficiency and imposed a basic – yet fundamental – rule from Scrum, which is to respect timeboxes and the team’s ability to focus on their work (i.e. the Sprint Goal and its forecasted Sprint Backlog). Almost immediately, the manager responsible for that product escalated to her boss – even going so far as to say about the fact that uncontrolled scope creep was no longer possible: “We used to be Agile!”.
It’s understandable why someone would have negative thoughts about Scrum when they experience this.
But let’s be clear here: it’s not Scrum that is the problem. It’s the lack of Scrum. It’s the management culture that expects teams to deliver more, faster and cheaper (like expecting to be able to pour 20l of fuel into a car engine that can only take 10l and expect it to be able to drive twice as quick (as opposed to the actual outcome, which is a highly toxic and flammable mess at risk of combusting at any moment!)).
4. “I spend all my time deploying releases rather than building cool new features.”
We get it: people prefer to spend time building shiny new features or widgets. Testing, bug fixing and deploying are rarely as exciting or engaging. But think about that for a moment: if you are having to spend a ton of time every time you deploy doing those activities, then perhaps it’s the deployment process that is broken and not Scrum? If you find that there is a higher percentage of your Sprint being spent on bugs and deployment activity then it’s time to look at the real root cause of this. Spoiler alert: it isn’t Scrum that is causing the problems, it’s just surfacing them for you to fix.
In this scenario, it could be wise to prioritise some work looking at CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous delivery: a way to automate a lot of the testing and deployment overhead associated to releasing) to free up developer time and derisk your entire project. That might sound a bit scary to some but done right, it is game-changing. Amazon invested in CI/CD very early on and now has an infrastructure that is capable of deploying once every 11 seconds… Now that’s probably not required for most projects, but it shows just how transformative automating this stuff can be.
5. “I hate using Jira!”
Feel free to replace the word Jira with whatever other tool you feel that you must use in order to be Agile.
We’ll keep this one short: Scrum is a lightweight framework that contains very few core rules. Which tools to use and how to do the actual work are not contained within the Scrum framework. So if a Developer or their Scrum Team colleagues don’t like a particular tool, try changing it. Using Jira is most definitely not a prerequisite for being Agile.
The Way Forward
To the business leaders contemplating their strategic delivery approach or professionals considering a career in Agile, here's our message: Scrum is very much alive. It's a transformative tool, but like any tool, its efficacy depends on how it's used. Properly understood and implemented, Scrum can be the catalyst for remarkable business success and personal career growth.
The rumours of Scrum’s death are greatly exaggerated. If you find yourself doubting, or if you're finding that a few too many of the examples above are resonating with you, get in touch and have a virtual coffee with one of our experts. At Agility Arabia, we're here to demystify, guide and help you unlock the true potential of Scrum. Book a free 30-minute consultation here.