Or: Would you trust a Geiger counter to save your life?

Disclaimer: I love Scrum — it’s an awesome framework! But too many people believe that Scrum would make their company agile; this is wrong and this is why I wrote this article. Enjoy.

When I went to Chernobyl, a good friend told me to bring a Geiger counter (a device that detects radioactivity) to protect myself. So I got a Geiger counter — a good and expensive one — and went into the danger zone polluted by the nuclear catastrophe of 1986. Although the situation felt scary, I had no fear, because I was protected by that Geiger counter. The device was clicking along happily. Trusting it to save my life, I entered the ruins of the old power plant. I was using the Geiger counter exactly as I was instructed. And three days later … I died.

Scrum and radioactivity

The fictitious story above characterizes me as a very naive and stupid member of the human race — someone well worth of achieving the Darwin award. I trust that neither you nor anyone in your company will ever believe a Geiger counter could protect you from lethal radiation. Yet many managers, companies and even agile coaches believe that Scrum could protect companies from slow deliveries, bad code quality, unmotivated employees and lack of innovation (the equivalent of death for a company in today’s competitive markets). Why do people trust a simple detection device to also automatically fix the problems it detects? To understand that, we have to first analyze how Scrum is introduced in many companies.

When companies scream for “agile” and contract consultants and coaches, the most common reaction is to introduce a bunch of frameworks and tools like Scrum, SAFe and Jira. Teams are taught daily stand-ups, the role of product owners and the format of user stories. And most teams learn to do all this flawlessly. However, the promised results of “agile” and Scrum are not materializing! And then managers ask why, just as I ask why I died in Chernobyl with an expensive Geiger counter at my side. So first it’s paramount to understand that Scrum will not make you agile!

I repeat: Scrum will not make you agile! Yet Scrum is a wonderful tool to help you on your journey towards agility — just as a Geiger counter is a wonderful tool to help you survive in Chernobyl.

So what makes us agile then?

So if Scrum will not make us agile, what will? The simple but a little unsatisfying answer is:

“Following Scrum will just make you follow Scrum.
Trying to be agile will make you agile!”
— Matthias Orgler

Before we look at how you can “try to be agile” in practice, let’s understand why so many organizations rely solely on Geiger counters like Scrum on their path towards agility.

Why do we trust in Scrum to make us agile?

There is an old joke:

The situation is quite similar with Scrum (or other agile frameworks and tools for that matter): Just because “being agile” and “agile values” are so soft and hard to grasp, we focus on the stuff that is easier to understand for us — like Scrum. Of course the man in the joke will never be able to find his quarter under the street lamp, if he lost it two blocks away — but so will companies never find agility just by implementing Scrum, SAFe, Kanban and all the fancy buzzwords! Many companies willing to become “agile” are essentially performing a cargo cult: they practice rituals without understanding the underlying mechanics making it work.

What can we do?

If your company is doing Scrum and struggles with reaping the promised benefits of agility, you should focus on two things:

1. Include mindset and values in your coaching — especially for management

Including mindset and agile values into your coaching does not merely mean to recite the agile manifesto. It is much more than that. Be aware that agility requires a change of their image of human beings and the world for most companies! Accepting that humans do not shy away from work and therefore need not be told what to do or checked upon is a fundamental shift away from Tayloristic thinking.

In agile coaching we have two extreme approaches available: One is teaching only process (Scrum, SAFe, Kanban, …), the other is teaching only mindset (trust, self-organization, failure culture, …). A good coach will mix both extremes depending on the context of the company or team. Sometimes a more process-focused approach fits people better, sometimes a more value-focused approach fits them better — there is no fixed rule, but always mix both approaches!

2. See the warning signs of cargo cult

If you notice your coaches or your company are focussing too much on processes and risks to thwart agile values in the wake, please see the signs and act. And please never measure your progress towards agility by how many teams are doing Scrum or how well they implemented the Scrum framework!

Please do not die from radiation

Be aware that Scrum is just a tool. Like a Geiger counter will not protect you from lethal radiation, Scrum will not protect you from the fallacies of a non-agile waterfall process. View Scrum as a helpful detection device on your agile journey. However, living the agile values, adopting an agile mindset and trying to become more agile each day is what will deliver the big promises of agility. Always remember: you cannot “do agile”, you can only “be agile”.