Do we ruin Scrum by overthinking it?
I played clarinet from fourth through twelfth grade. The manner in which I was taught was, to me, extremely disagreeable — a ruthlessly judgmental and competitive environment, with overly serious and intense teachers, brought about to weed out anyone who wasn’t 100% serious about playing as perfectly as possible in an overpopulated New York Metropolitan Area student music scene.
I was very good, but I was unhappy. Mistakes were frowned upon at an early age. The training was intense, intellectual, demanding, and even demeaning. Music should bring joy, but performing it was decidedly joyless by the time I left high school. I haven’t picked up the instrument since.
I still adore music, but not as a performer. Today, I enjoy it as a listener. There are many musicians I admire, both alive and deceased, but one who has long caught my ears and my mind — and who I have had the fortune to see in person many, many times is the great bass player Victor Wooten.
Please take five minutes to watch Victor share something that, upon its debut in 2012, made me cry with both disappointment and joy:
This is such a profound point. How I wish I had learned music that way!
But Scrum — ah, Scrum. Can we learn it that way? Why do we tend to treat Scrum as having essential rules that can never be separated or broken, even while learning it? Plenty of otherwise fine Scrum practitioners will let people have fun in the classroom, but once students proceed to apply Scrum in the real world, things change. This is just wrong.
If we can practice personal point kaizen via “One Small Step Can Change Your Life,” then we certainly can practice Scrum sloppily and joyfully as we learn it. I think we would all be better off if we made an effort to introduce Scrum in the form of something I’d like to call Relaxed Scrum.
Here’s an interesting way to introduce Scrum to a group of the uninitiated. I’m describing an in-person exercise, but you can easily translate it to a virtual world. At the very top of your teaching:
Ask your class to write down the missing word in the following sentence:
Initiatives that have _______________ are the ones that are best suited to being managed with agile practices like Scrum.
Have them write their answers and pass them to you.
Once you have them in-hand, read each answer aloud.
Next, ask the class to have a discussion about these answers, to pick one, and have them elect one individual to deliver the final answer at the conclusion of their deliberations, much like a jury.
With work and maybe a little luck, they will arrive at the answer: uncertainty.
You will have just demonstrated Scrum in the most elemental way possible: an uncertain start; an iterative trial-and-error exercise in the middle; and a completed sentence at the end. Your audience will have applied transparency, inspection, and adaptation. And, they will develop a first-hand appreciation for the significance of the very sentence they worked to complete. Scrum — Relaxed Scrum — doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
A colleague of mine recently responded to his early Scrum training by noting that Scrum is really all about psychology…it’s about finding a way to unshackle the mind when it is paralyzed about the uncertainty of a task that lies ahead. A truer observation could not have been made. It’s really that simple, and if you make it more complex than that to the uninitiated, you will be as happy practicing Scrum as I was practicing clarinet.
When was the last time you read the Scrum Guide? In its fully-documented form, with a cover, a full-page table of contents, very wide margins, generous 12-point type, large repetitive footers, and a full-page end note and acknowledgements, it’s only 19 pages. You can read the bulk of it in about 20 minutes.
One of the most overlooked sentences in that guide is “Scrum is not a process, technique, or definitive method. Rather, it is a framework within which you can employ various processes and techniques.”
Isn’t this an invitation to play?
As you read the Scrum Guide, you will read the core values (commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect). If you were to create a Venn diagram of Scrum values with Progressive CIO values, there would be one overlap: commitment.
In my experience with Scrum (both Formal and Relaxed), commitment is the single most important value to focus on. You can do just about anything you want, so long as you make and keep commitments.
Relaxed Scrum is playful, and encourages learning by applying rules conveniently and selectively:
- We can have a single Sprint where we commit to do some research (one or more Spikes), without having to have a real Product Owner. Such a Sprint might not have a formal backlog — it might just consist of one thing to do. This Sprint might not even have Daily Scrums, and yet it might even wind up resulting in a final release.
- We can have a Sprint with no Daily Scrum at all. If a team is communicating well and communicating regularly, the intellectual exercise of a quality Daily Scrum might get in their way of feeling the liberation that Scrum should provide, especially early on.
- We can have a Sprint with no Retrospective, most especially if things are already flowing well.
- We can have a Sprint with no monolithic Sprint Review at the end, if people have mini-reviews as they roll along.
I am sure you can think of your own rules! The only things you really need to implement Relaxed Scrum are: 1) a problem you commit to work on; 2) time to do the work; and 3) a commitment to review the work at the end of a period of time. If you are able to find a subsequent problem to work on at the end, then you are cooking with gas!
(For a real-world example of what this can look like, refer back to the two-part post: There Are Two Sides… / …To Every Commitment.)
As we grow to appreciate Scrum more — and as we jam with professionals — we will slowly get better and learn the value of its finer points and common practices. But we should not take ourselves so seriously en route! As Victor Wooten pointed out, we can laugh at mistakes, and even embrace them.
The point here is —
If your organization is not working to apply an agile practice like Scrum — Relaxed or otherwise — in some form, one of two things is happening:
- You have no uncertainty in your business
- You are missing something very powerful
In the case of item number two, if you are avoiding the power of doing something like Scrum because you are intimidated by it, then do everything in your power to think this way rather than this way.
As we proceed on our journey together, you will come to see that I am very fond of agile methods, and of Relaxed Scrum in particular. Relaxed Scrum happens almost organically in a culture that shares the foundational values we discuss on The Progressive CIO:
- Vulnerability: An ability to admit something you did that was wrong, turning the shame into learning.
- Humility: Remembering that we are human and learn from mistakes.
- Empathy: When we seek to understand other viewpoints, we get the best of all possible worlds.
- Patience: We are willing to put the time in to get to whatever is right even if we are unsure how long it will take.
- Compassion: We understand that helping others on an uncertain journey requires us to be active in how we reach out to help them.
- Curiosity: We are eager to learn new things.
- Commitment: We know that doing something is hard, but doing nothing achieves nothing and actually prolongs our difficulties.
- Willingness: We want to push ourselves forward to do something to effect change.
The three pillars of Scrum are underpinned by these values:
- Transparency: A combination of vulnerability, humility, commitment, and willingness
- Inspection: A combination of vulnerability, humility, empathy, curiosity, commitment, and willingness
- Adaptation: A combination of empathy, patience, compassion, commitment, and willingness
If you create an environment with our eight values, you will have the essence of Relaxed Scrum without any other rules! Most critically, you will invent your own way to apply the principles of Scrum across a wider variety of initiatives. So why not find your own way of getting there…and do it with a playful spirit, with as few rules as possible?
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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Icq0LlvtEy0.