September 12, 2023
Whilst we absolutely encourage any leader that wants to improve their ways of working to consider Agile approaches, it’s important that any implementation programme is done properly and thoughtfully. If you are one of those leaders considering introducing Agile to your organisation, ask yourself how you’d promote the transformation programme to your teams. If you find yourself saying things like “Let’s go Agile!” or “Our company is going to do Agile!”, pause for a moment and consider going a little deeper into your motivations.
What follows is a very subtle distinction, but the distinction is disproportionately huge in terms of its impact on the likely outcome of your desired Agile transformation: ideally, your answer to that prior question would be “We are going to be Agile”.
Saying that you are “doing” or “going” Agile hints towards an organisational culture that might not yet be ready to undertake an Agile transformation. Without the right culture of “being” Agile, you have a very high risk of the concept of Mechanical Scrum emerging. In this article, we’ll talk you through how to identify when that starts, and more importantly, how to course-correct if it does.
If you stop reading here, we’d like you to take away one key point. That is that truly successful Agile Transformations address company culture more than they address technical skills and the day-to-day activities within an Agile Framework itself.
So to maximise your enterprise Agile transformation being a success, start with the culture.
Get in touch with us for a free consultation if you would like to explore any of the topics discussed below, or to find out how our enterprise Agile coaches could help your business to deliver faster, better and cheaper.
When it comes to Agile Frameworks, many turn to Scrum, the most popular framework that promotes collaboration, adaptability, and iterative progress. Adopting Scrum usually aims at outcomes such as enhanced team collaboration, quicker product delivery, increased customer satisfaction, reduced waste from mistakes and/or incorrect assumptions, and improved adaptability to change.
However, not every organisation that adopts Scrum achieves these outcomes. A common pitfall is falling into the trap of 'Mechanical Scrum', a superficial implementation of the Scrum framework. This is significantly different from properly implemented Scrum, where teams fully understand and live by the Scrum values, principles and adopt a growth mindset. We’ll talk about this in more detail in a moment.
Mechanical Scrum vs. Properly Implemented Scrum
Mechanical Scrum occurs when teams go through the motions of Scrum events, accountabilities, and artefact creation without fully understanding or embracing the underlying principles and values. In contrast, properly implemented Scrum involves not only following the Scrum Guide but also adopting the Agile mindset, which includes principles such as continuous improvement, adaptability, and customer-centricity.
In Mechanical Scrum, the focus is often on completing tasks rather than delivering value. Teams may complete all the tasks in the Sprint Backlog, but the product increment may not meet the needs of the customers or stakeholders. In properly implemented Scrum, the focus is on delivering a valuable and useful product increment that meets the Definition of Done to the customers and stakeholders. An organisation that’s “being Agile” will have a Product Goal that is aligned with the company’s strategic objectives, and will be crafting Sprint Goals that directly and incrementally deliver value and are tactical steps that gets the team ever-closer to achieving that Product Goal.
In Mechanical Scrum, the accountabilities of Scrum Master and Product Owner may exist in name only, without the individuals fully understanding or embracing their responsibilities. In this scenario, the Scrum Master may be little more than the team’s administrative support or acting as a quasi-project manager and doing tasks that are not part of their Scrum accountability. We may see examples such as taking notes in meetings and assigning tasks from the Sprint Backlog to passive developers, as well as being thrown every single impediment to solve on behalf of a team that doesn’t first try to address them for themselves. These mechanical Scrum Masters also tend to be the ones that get blamed when deadlines are missed or the end deliverable isn’t immediately loved by the customer. A Product Owner is little more than a conduit between the developers and a group of senior stakeholders who each have their own list of non-negotiable P1s and their own view of what a delivery timelines should look like.
In a properly implemented Scrum, the accountabilities of the Product Owner and Scrum Master are pivotal and distinctly defined. The Product Owner is responsible for maximising the value of the product resulting from the work of the Scrum Team. They are the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog, which includes clearly expressing Product Backlog items, ordering them to best achieve goals and missions, ensuring the value of the work the Scrum Team performs, and ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all.
The Scrum Master, on the other hand, is the servant-leader for the Scrum Team, helping those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which are not. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximise the value created by the Scrum Team. They facilitate Scrum events as requested or needed, and coach the developers, the Product Owner, and the organisation on the Scrum framework.
Root Causes of Mechanical Scrum
Despite best intentions, there are many reasons why an Agile Transformation can go mechanical. Here are some of the main ones.
Lack of Understanding: A fundamental reason for the emergence of Mechanical Scrum is a lack of understanding of the Scrum framework and the Agile mindset. This includes not only the Scrum events, accountabilities, and artefacts but also the underlying principles and values.
Organisational Culture: The culture of the organisation plays a significant role in the emergence of Mechanical Scrum. An organisation that has a hierarchical structure, siloed teams, and a command-and-control management style may struggle to adopt the collaborative and empowered team approach required by Scrum.
Lack of Management Buy-in: When an organisation decides to "do Agile" or "go Agile", there is often a focus on the practices and meetings rather than the underlying mindset and principles. This is a significant misconception as adopting Agile, and particularly Scrum, is as much, if not more, about a cultural shift in the organisation as opposed to a technical or skills development exercise. As soon as people in leadership roles start to exhibit behaviours that are contrary to Agile principles, it will immediately undermine the Scrum Team’s confidence in the new approach. At best, they will hit a series of impediments that prevent them from developing to be an efficient, collaboration and cross-functional unit. At worst, they will abandon Agile thinking that “Why should we bother if our leaders don’t care?”
Consequences of Mechanical Scrum
Demotivation: Teams may become demotivated as they feel they are just going through the motions without seeing the benefits. This can lead to a decrease in team morale and overall productivity.
Poor Product Quality: The focus shifts from delivering value to just completing tasks, which can result in subpar product quality.
Delayed Product Delivery: The lack of true collaboration and adaptability hampers progress, resulting in delayed product delivery.
Missed Benefits: Ultimately, the organisation may not achieve the benefits it sought from adopting Scrum in the first place, such as increased customer satisfaction, quicker product delivery, and improved adaptability to change.
Reversion to Old Ways of Working: Presumably, there were reasons why someone somewhere in the organisation felt that an Agile Transformation was required. It was no doubt related to wanting to deliver faster and drive more meaningful results than their current ways-of-working would allow. But failing to let go of old ways of working and to fully embrace Agile creates an unproductive environment where people have effectively just rebranded the status quo with Agile terminology. Unsurprisingly, the same results will end up being seen because change has been purely cosmetic. The inevitable next step from that is the response “Oh, Agile doesn’t work! Let’s just go back to how we were doing things before”.
Rectifying Mechanical Scrum
To rectify Mechanical Scrum, it is crucial to address the root causes:
Educate All Levels: Ensure that all levels of the organisation, from the teams to the management and leadership, have a thorough understanding of the Scrum framework and the Agile mindset.
Foster a Supportive Culture: Create a culture that supports collaboration, empowerment, and continuous improvement. Make it OK to fail (within reason - failure from a good faith action should not be punished, but instead learned from to ensure that it doesn’t happen again). Ensure that your teams are not prevented from making bold decisions through fear of punishment or finger pointing. Agile creates an environment whereby experimentation is at the core of what teams do and the risk of failure is not only openly acknowledged, but crucially it is also mitigated. Sprints are short and feedback loops are constant - the risk of truly breaking things is pretty low.
Obtain Complete Buy-in: Ensure complete buy-in from all levels of the organisation, particularly management and leadership. This may involve training and coaching for management to understand their role in supporting the Scrum teams.
Empower Teams: Empower the teams to take ownership of their work and the process. This involves not only providing the necessary training and support but also removing any impediments that hinder their progress.
Focus on the Scrum Values
Throughout this article, we’ve frequently referred to the culture of an organisation needing to be Agile. But what does this actually mean? Let’s take a look at the Scrum values one-by-one and see how working to these principles can keep Mechanical Scrum at bay.
Commitment: This is about being dedicated to the work and the goals of the Scrum Team. A genuine commitment to the team’s goals, the Sprint Backlog, and the Product Backlog ensures that the team is focused, engaged, and takes ownership of the deliverables. This prevents Mechanical Scrum by ensuring everyone is invested in not just the 'what' but also the 'why' and 'how' of the work.
Courage: This is the ability of the team and its members to do the right thing and work on tough problems. Courage prevents Mechanical Scrum by empowering team members to address challenges head-on, speak up when they see issues, and make necessary changes even when it is uncomfortable. It’s also about creating an environment where teams can take calculated risks without fear of punishment. It’s also about creating a culture that enables teams to say “no” to senior stakeholders when needed, and for these senior stakeholders to understand and accept the team’s decisions.
Focus: This means paying attention to the work and goals of the sprint and not being distracted by other tasks. Focus prevents Mechanical Scrum by ensuring the team concentrates on delivering the highest priority items that deliver the most value, rather than getting sidetracked by less important tasks or getting bogged down in unnecessary details.
Openness: This involves being transparent about the work, the challenges, and sharing it all with the team. Openness prevents Mechanical Scrum by promoting a culture of trust and collaboration, where challenges are shared and solved as a team, rather than hidden or ignored.
Respect: This is about recognising and valuing the worth of each team member. Respect prevents Mechanical Scrum by creating a positive, supportive environment where each person’s opinion, experience, and contribution is valued, and where there is a collective responsibility for the team’s success. Leaders also have a big part to play when it comes to this value: respect the Scrum Framework and don’t try to bend its rules purely to serve your own needs.
Falling into Mechanical Scrum is a common pitfall, but it is possible - if not essential - to rectify it. The key is to address the root causes and focus on fostering a culture of continuous improvement, collaboration, and customer-centricity.
Bringing in external onsite enterprise Agile coaches can be highly beneficial as they can provide a fresh perspective, guide the organisation through the transformation, and help establish effective Scrum practices. They can also have the kinds of conversations with senior leadership that are perhaps not easy for those within the organisation to have themselves.
If you need help identifying or rectifying Mechanical Scrum in your organisation, the experts at Agility Arabia are here to help. Contact us today for expert advice and guidance.