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Exploring The "Dark Scrum"

Updated: Feb 6

What Is "Dark Scrum"?

The term "Dark Scrum" was coined by Ron Jefferies and is used to describe when the Agile philosophy is abandoned, and the Scrum approach starts to take on bad traits, ultimately damaging its performance.

Introduction To Dark Scrum

I'll be honest. I'd never heard the term 'dark scrum' until recently when I stumbled across the term on a social media post, but it grabbed me. Out of curiosity, I dug deeper and realised it's a new name for age-old problems in the software development world whereby Scrum deviates from its best practices and becomes ineffective.

If you have spent time in the Agile / Scrum circus, then I'm sure you've encountered it; like anything, there are good, bad and ugly interpretations of any approach. I've always said it's okay to rip up the rulebook and toss it out of the window. IF you've read it first. The problem seems to me that most Scrum and Agile dev teams have never had any formal training, so they don't tend to realise that they are deviating from the path and, in turn, the benefits.

The Scrum framework can significantly improve team performance and project outcomes when implemented effectively. Heck, I wouldn't know how to work any other way beyond Scrum and Scrumban. However, when it's implemented only partially, the team skips bits or twists itself into something that was never intended, and "Dark Scrum" emerges and causes havoc within many organisations.

The Dark Side of Scrum: Origins and Warning Signs

a road with two sides - one to dark scrum

From the outset of being introduced to Agile and then Scrum, I was an eager advocate, drawn to its promise of rapid, reliable delivery and the empowerment of development teams. There was an absolute logic and simplicity to it, but at the same time, it wasn't process-heavy.

Yet, the stark reality I've encountered was often a far cry from these ideals and the Agile Manifesto itself.

I'll admit, most of these lessons in how to avoid it have been taught to me by fantastic Scrum Masters and Development Managers that I've worked with.

The key to emerging from the Dark Scrum shadows lies in education, transparency, and a commitment to the core principles of Scrum. I've captured some of the major ones below in my five pillars.

The Five Pillars to Dispel 'Dark Scrum'

1) Self-Organisation or "Let them do WHAT!?"

Scrum, while inherently a powerful framework, can morph into a tool of oppression when poorly implemented. This phenomenon arises never from malice but from misapplication and misunderstanding. A deformation of the approach, if you will.

The journey begins with the allure of self-organisation, a core tenet of Scrum. Yet, achieving this state is far from straightforward; It requires a departure from traditional hierarchical management, embracing a culture of trust, self-alignment and empowerment instead. It sadly proves too much of a leap for most organisations to allow true self-organisation.

I've witnessed teams struggle to adapt, hindered typically by a lack of proper training and an ingrained command-and-control mindset among leadership. The result is a perversion of the Daily Scrum, transforming it into a trial where autonomy is stifled and innovation is quashed. Not overtly so, and not with malice, just through people not knowing better and not practising the approach.

The planning phase can also often devolve into a dictatorial exercise rather than a collaborative one.

Do you remember why we self-organise?

Cover this up! Don't read any further, and ask yourself, "Why do we self-organise?"

I suggest this little coffee-break quiz because I think most of us would struggle to articulate why we talk about self-organising teams in typically hierarchical organisations.

If you've got your mental shortlist ready, then let's compare....

The Answers: According to Alan

  • Self-organising teams have the autonomy to tackle problems as they see fit, leading to more creative and effective solutions; creating a sense of ownership and accountability, and an environment where innovative ideas can flourish.

  • If the team then owns those decisions, they will typically be implemented more swiftly.

  • Morale is always better when team members have a say in their work processes and decision-making. As per the above, self-organised teams have much more control over their approach.

  • Better communications emerge as members work closely together and share responsibilities, and the communication barriers break down, leading to more effective teamwork and a stronger sense of community.

  • Increased Productivity and Quality - Self-organise teams tend to be more productive and produce higher-quality work. This is because they are directly involved in planning their work, setting their pace, and holding each other accountable for meeting commitments, leading to more efficient workflows and attention to quality.

Leadership must lead by example, demonstrating trust in their teams' abilities to self-organise and make decisions. This involves stepping back to allow teams the space to grow while providing them with the support and resources needed to navigate their path.

Simultaneously, teams must actively seek to build their skills in effective communication, conflict resolution, and adaptive planning, ensuring they are equipped to handle the autonomy afforded to them.

Weak team members will only lead to a weak, poorly self-disciplined, self-organised team. But get the right ones in a team, empower them, and you'll achieve lift-off.

2) Education as a Foundation

a mortarboard hat

A deep-rooted commitment to education and reflection is the cornerstone of any successful Scrum implementation and avoiding the Dark Scrum emergence.

Both teams and their leaders must grasp the procedural and cyclical aspects of Scrum and its core values and philosophies.

A comprehensive understanding of the Agile manifesto and the Scrum ethos cultivates an environment where mutual respect and collective endeavour flourish.

You might not be surprised that most developers haven't had any formal training in Scrum, but picked it up as they've gone along, and implemented whatever they have been shown, for better or worse, doubling down on misunderstandings and deviations from the accepted methods.

Check your team's training levels and, if necessary, get them on a Scrum course together. Training only one, or just your Scrum Master, and having them report back isn't enough.

By setting time aside for training and reflection, the team can ask itself pivotal questions about its approach and its reasoning.

4) Coaching For Perspective

If you find your Scrum team veering off the path, with the foundational principles of Scrum fading into the background, it might be time to introduce a Scrum coach.

The purpose of a Scrum coach transcends simple instructions on the theoretical applications of Scrum. Instead, they provide an external perspective, offering insights and feedback grounded in observation of the team in practice.

Take, for example, the world's elite tennis players who continue to work with coaches despite being at the pinnacle of their sport, and one would have thought they'd have little left to learn about the sport.

The rationale? These athletes recognise the value of an unbiased eye, someone who can identify and articulate nuances and areas for improvement that may not be apparent from within.

A tennis coach shouting at a player

A coach’s external vantage point allows them to pinpoint discrepancies and offer constructive guidance, assuming the team is open to embracing this feedback.

In essence, a Scrum coach serves not as a director but as a mirror, reflecting the team's current state and illuminating the path back to Scrum's foundational principles.

An external perspective can be invaluable in realigning the team with the ethos of Scrum, ensuring that its practices are not just followed but lived.

4) Transparency as a catalyst

Transparency in progress and challenges within an Agile framework is another critical factor.

In Agile development, particularly within the Scrum framework, transparency is not just a principle; it's a beacon that guides us away from the shadows of 'Dark Scrum' emergence.

My experiences have taught me unequivocally that when teams embrace openness about their progress and the obstacles they face, the entire project dynamic shifts for the better.

Transparency acts as the foundation of trust between development teams and stakeholders. Trust naturally builds when everyone involved in a project has clear visibility into objectives, reasoning, what is happening and why.

Trust is the antidote to the fear and uncertainty that often lead to micromanagement—a hallmark of 'Dark Scrum.'

By openly sharing progress, challenges, and even failures, we demystify the development process, focus minds and attention, and bring the best solutions to the table.

This openness helps to set realistic expectations and fosters a culture where problems are seen as opportunities for improvement rather than grounds for blame.

In such an environment, the pressures that lead to oppressive practices dissipate, allowing creativity and innovation to thrive.

Achieving true transparency like this requires more than good intentions; it demands deliberate actions and practices.

When transparency is woven into the fabric of an Agile team's culture, the shadows of 'Dark Scrum' begin to recede, but it has to be at all points in all meetings and reviews. If the leadership isn't clear, the team won't be. Confidence will be undermined if something is hidden in a sprint review and it comes out later.

Get it all out in the open, with as little blame attached as possible, and focus on the solutions. After all, 'The problem is rarely the problem. The response usually becomes the problem.'

5) Continuous Improvement as a Goal

The Plan-Do-Check-Act Continual Improvement Cycle
The Plan-Do-Check-Act Continual Improvement Cycle

Finally, an unwavering dedication to continuous improvement marks the journey towards excelling in Scrum.

Bring it all together: the training, the sprint reflections, the transparency and the coaching. All of it knits together to form a continuous cycle of improvement.

We should never stop asking, 'Is there anything we could improve upon?'.

This commitment is most vividly brought to life when conducting open and honest Retrospective meetings. Retros are not mere formalities but are the heartbeat of the iterative process, offering teams the opportunity to reflect, critique, and enhance their methods.

Retrospectives serve as a crucial mechanism for collective introspection and problem-solving. In these sessions, the entire team, including the Scrum Master and Product Owner, comes together to dissect the successes and challenges of the past Sprint. This is a safe space where team members should be actively encouraged to voice their observations, concerns, and suggestions without fear of reprisal. The objective is to constructively identify what worked well and what didn't and formulate actionable improvement strategies.

The Path Forward

Moving Beyond 'Dark Scrum'

The transition from 'Dark Scrum' is facilitated by a proactive approach to addressing the root causes of frustration and ineffectiveness. By regularly evaluating their processes and interactions, teams can gradually eliminate the elements that obscure the benefits of Scrum.

The five pillars to drag your scrum into the light were;

  1. Embracement of the self-organising scrum team

  2. Education of scrum techniques and approach

  3. Introduction of coaches and external feedback

  4. Transparency of objectives, reasoning, constraints and information

  5. A constant cycle of reflection and improvement

I hope it provides some value to you and fuels a little thought about perhaps where your scrum can improve.


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