Organization Wide Adoption of Scrum

A couple of weeks ago, I was deeply impressed by a talk given by Steve McConnell entitled “Organization Wide Adoption of Scrum.”  Before the talk, I naively assumed that Construx was having a hard time getting behind the Agile/Lean movement. Over the course of 90 minutes, Steve gave one of the most cogent presentations on Agile that I’ve ever heard. Here are the highlights that I walked away with (filtered through my own biases and prejudices):

Why did it take so long for Construx to openly advocate Scrum?

Construx is in the business of recommending best practices*.  At the beginning of the Agile era (10 years ago!), there wasn’t enough empirical evidence to advocate Scrum as a best practice. In the decade since, however, the case for Scrum has grown exceedingly strong. 

Learning from the failures

After gaining a lot of experience on various consulting engagements, McConnell asserts that Scrum is a great practice for 80% of the situations he’s encountered.  The vast majority of these adoptions are successful.

Success is great, but more learning occurs through failures. Here are some common failure themes:

Assuming your executive team wants agility at the expense of predictability

Sadly, there are a few organizations where CEO’s have banned the words Scrum or Agile. It usually happens when a development team assumes that agility (interpreted as quickly delivering the highest micro priority) is more important than predictability (being able to predict when we can go to market with a product). These aren’t mutually exclusive, but bad Scrum adoptions tend to kill predictability. Don’t do it. 

Failing to cross the adoption chasm

In many organizations, a single team will adopt Scrum and subsequently enjoy a lot of success. The organization eagerly finds a couple more teams to try it out with. These teams try it, don’t see any benefit, and go back to their old ways.

This type of failure is best understood by applying the tech adoption lifecyle thinking Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. With respect to Scrum adoption, every organization is a mixture of Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majorities, Late Majorities, and Laggards. Innovators and Early Adopters are the type of folks that can read a book or a blog and start running with it. They are typically on the first team that enjoys success with Scrum.

For any organization, the real challenge is crossing the chasm between the early adopters and early majority. This is not an easy task. It can lead to cargo cult adoption and worse performance. Don’t underestimate the challenge with crossing the chasm. Invest appropriately.

Thinking that Scrum can free you from a need for vision/requirements

Imagine a team that bypasses any upfront planning and dutifully delivers the next highest priority every two weeks for the next 6 months. If the team (including business folks) has neglected the real work associated with product vision and requirements, all of those done-done user stories delivered every two weeks will not add up to a compelling product.

Scrum does not mean you can create a product without a plan. Instead, it frees you to change and adapt the plan as business conditions change. I think Eisenhower said it best:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

Confusing Scrum with XP

McConnell described Scrum as the minimal (in a good way) set of practices needed to manage product development workflow. At many organizations, Scrum is complemented by XP development techniques. Don’t confuse the two. XP practices may not be appropriate for every team or project, but that shouldn’t invalidate Scrum’s applicability for the same team or project.

Hoping that Scrum will solve your problems

It won’t. But it will shine a really bright flashlight on them. If you lack product vision, Scrum will make it clear. If team members lack development skill, they won’t have anywhere to hide. If people don’t like each other, they will either need to figure out how to get along or find another home.


 *“Best practices” in general make me uneasy.  In too many cases, best practices are really just ploys by products and services companies to increase sales.

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