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The Case Against Scrum's Sprint Practice - Another Look

In the excellently written article  Dark Scrum:  The Case Against the Sprint, Ron Jeffries' does a wonderful job of explaining a common problem of Scrum's mainstay practice, the Sprint.  As I read the article I could only think of many managers I've seen over my years that didn't trust Scrum, the teams, or the coaching to deliver.  And feeling pressure to make deadlines imposed from little information (desire more than empirical evidence) had reverted to past heavy handed pressure techniques to make a deadline.  After all it was their career that was on the line.

To summarize (and you would do better to just click the link and read it):  As an exercise in explaining the inverse of "Good Scrum", Ron uses the term "Dark Scrum".  In this inverted world, Ron makes the case that the Sprint is a bad practice, because a manager expecting the common faster progress (Jeff Sutherland's statement “Twice the Work in Half the Time”) will demand that result.  And they will use the transparency embedded in the Scrum process to inspect this result of 2X the work.  When it's not obvious... they will, having never been trained in the process/theory or concepts - use their well known tools (typical behavior that got them promoted to director) - in Ron's example this will be pressure!
"Scrum has increased pressure on the team. It has been rammed into place without a real chance to deliver the real benefits of Scrum. It has been planted in soil so bad that the fruit is going to come out rotten. People suffer."
This article does a nice job of explaining one significant problem with the typical current training paradigm (CSM, PSM, two day courses).  And concludes that this situation is common.
"It’s possibly the most common outcome in organizations that are starting Scrum with no help other than some CSMs with their two days of amazing training, or PSMs ditto."
Let's now take a look at the straw-man - the management in the story.  It is fairly easy to see that this behavior is the root cause of the Sprint being a tool for harm - isn't it?  How could we classify or categorize this behavior?  A very smart guy named Douglas McGregor's had theories on motivation of humans way back in the 1960s.  And he also set up some straw-man situations, like Ron, to do thought experiments.  He called his motivation theories of management Theory X and Theory Y.

Without going into the details, let's experiment.   To set up the experiment, a bit about Theory X & Y.

Theory X

  • People dislike work, find it boring and will avoid it if they can.
  • People must be forced or bribed to make the right effort.
  • People would rather be directed than accept responsibility (which they avoid).
  • People are motivated mainly by money and fears about their job security.
  • Most people have little creativity, except when it comes to getting round rules.


Theory Y

  • People need to work and want to take an interest in it. Under right conditions they enjoy it.
  • People will direct themselves towards a target that they accept.
  • People will seek and accept responsibility, under the right conditions.
  • Under the right conditions, people are motivated by the desire to realize their own potential.
  • Creativity and ingenuity are widely distributed and grossly underused.
Niels Pflaeging Keynote:  Bye-bye Management - Agile Lietuva 2013)


Do you understand the theories?   Now the experiment.

Answer a key question about human nature.
What kind of person are you - X or Y (human nature - not behavior)?

In your organization, what percentage of people are Theory X people  (0% - 100%)?

Now what are the results?

In a large conference room there will be a few people (0 - 3%) that believe their nature is Theory X. (This could be within the surveys error rate.) Most of us believe WE are Theory Y people.

When asked about the others - we have a higher tendency to believe THEY are Theory X people.
The number of people that answer zero precent will be low.  Meaning they have zero theory X people in their organization (they believe only Theory Y people exist).  There will be a few - maybe less than 10% of people in the room.  But what does that mean?  It means that many people (90% of us) believe that their colleague are Theory X people.

We are Y :: They are X

And this belief is what Ron has assumed.  He might classify that management person as a Theory X person.
"In companies with this kind of management style – that is, probably, most companies – Scrum’s Sprint is harmful to actual human beings."
Agile is designed and works with Theory Y organizations.  It doesn't work so well with the Theory X organizations.  Now, McGregor didn't really believe that a Theory X person could exist - nature would not create such an abomination.  Remember the theory talks about human nature - not behavior.

Yet our research experiment shows us that within our organizations - many of us believe we are surrounded by Theory X people.  How can we reconcile this empirical evidence with reality?  One statistical trick would be to attribute it to Observer Bias, the tendency to see what we expect to see, or what we want to see.  This may help us reduce our cognitive dissonance - but it will not resolve the problem.  We will still create systems that insure those Theory X people pull their weight in our companies.  We will have no slackers working here.  And it's our management's job to ensure we weed these bad apples out (I love to mix metaphors in my barrels).

The problem is the behavior exist AND the manager is not of Theory X human nature BUT within the current system no one has the respect/standing/authority to expose the manager's previous set of mistakes that has lead to this point where yet another mistake will be made to protect the illusion.

What is this illusion?

There is an illusion that in the past the manager has been successful in his tactic to pressure people to work harder to make the dates he's promised months ago when he knew very little about the problem/solution space.  Then, everyone assumed it would be simple enough to accomplish.  No one has attributed the poor quality of that solution to the continued rising cost of maintain and accomplishing new objectives.  It is only success when one uses a project accounting method that has no externality cost associated with the pressure to succeed.

There are many illusions ...

Why did the executives believe that the workforce needed to be trained but the management cadre needed no retraining, no modification of expectations, no changes to their motivations?  Did the executives believe they understood the Scrum process and the impediments it was going to surface?  Did they prepare the various level of management, as a good leader would, about what this Agile change was going to mean to them (What's this Agile Transformation mean to ME)?

As I step back and look at Ron's wonderful example... it is not that he assumed a Theory X manager, I did also.  I've seen them, worked with them, worked under them - well if they exist; I know their behaviors exist.  The problem that I see is the problem of poor organizational change leadership.  A belief that a quick training course for about 80% of our IT staff will be sufficient to create Scrum.  To check the box on someone's yearly performance review goals list.  So that we too can say we are Agile.

If one wants real and lasting organizational behavior change - it will require more than 10 - 16 hours of powerpoint presentations (a typical 2 day course).

If you want lasting change - I specialize in change one team at a time; ask me how that works.

See Also:

Agile Lietuva 2013
Opening keynote: Niels Pflaeging - Bye-bye Management!


Dark Scrum: The Case Against the Sprint - by Ron Jeffries

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