Why your Scrum team sucks.

In James Clear’s book Atomic Habits he refers to the practice of “environment design” for helping you change your habits. The idea being that your environment plays a big role in whether you succeed or fail in adopting a new habit e.g. if you want to start running then put your running shoes where they are easier to find, if you want to stop smoking then probably you shouldn’t hang out with your smoker-buddies…

Similarly when we introduce Scrum to an organization that doesn’t support it, we must “redesign” the environment where possible, otherwise your team’s noble attempts to develop good agile habits are likely to be undermined.

Half the work in twice the time.

Scrum is usually thought of as a framework for teams. If you are to believe a vast number of Scrum master job listings, you’d never guess that the environment and organizational change had anything to do with Scrum (unless you’ve read the Scrum guide). The focus tends to be solely on the team. Specifically on their delivery through ‘enforcing’ Scrum events, artefacts and roles.

However without systemic change, or even just a readiness to change within the greater organization, introducing Scrum practices isn’t going to enable you to do “twice the work in half the time” — the environment will ensure quite the opposite actually.

  • Retrospectives will become demoralizing if impediments within the organization are left unaddressed.
  • The team will struggle to formulate worthy value-oriented sprint goals (and therefore be empirical) if they are given the next project and set of requirements to work on — with an emphasis on “just getting it done”.
  • The progress of teams will be derailed if they are not provided the skills, tools and autonomy to avoid crippling dependencies.

Like an apple tree planted in a desert, or an organ starved of blood and oxygen, while it might be able to survive for a while, eventually it will be crippled or die. By neglecting the impact that the greater environment has on the team, you’ve lost the race before you’ve even started.

Shortening the valley of despair.

If you want to maximize your odds of success, then you need to operate in an environment that accelerates your results rather than hinders them. — James Clear, Atomic Habits.

Atomic Habits mentions that ‘disciplined’ people are actually just better at avoiding environments or situations where they might be tempted or their efforts undermined.

Unlike our smoking habit though, a Scrum team can’t choose to leave the organization and go hang out with a ‘healthier’ company but unless we take action it’s likely that some team members might. For a period of time, your team might have no choice but to work in an adverse environment and this will require some willpower to get through inevitably difficult and frustrating moments. You might consider this the team’s collective “valley of despair”. It’s important that we don’t prolong this period for any longer than we must.

However, the team can and should still find some solace in improving themselves wherever they can. In the end, every new ‘agile habit’ they build no matter how small, is as James Clear might say, a vote for an agile identity, which in turn strengthens your willpower. Ultimately this pursuit of continuous improvement that normally starts internally within the team, will lead them to start asking questions about the environment around them, if they aren’t already, and to break through glass ceilings.

Scrum is not a solution. It is a catalyst.

To get the most out of Scrum, the framework requires the transparency, collaboration and trust of an agile organization. However, somewhat paradoxically, an organization that is already truly agile no longer needs Scrum. It’s for this reason that we do not change the organization for the sake of Scrum by the book, but rather use the pursuit of Scrum values as a catalyst for organizational change.

When introducing this framework into an unsupportive environment just bringing in the fundamental idea of being empirical and iterative, is often enough to ignite curiosity, frustration with the status quo and catalyze change by making impediments (and bad habits) painfully obvious.

As long as you act on those impediments with the intent to figure out the best way of continuously delivering value, even if it means moving furniture (perhaps literally), you’ll be diverting water to the apple tree, or blood to the organ. You’ll enable the team to stick with good habits and continue their journey towards high-performance.

If your team sucks, there is a good chance it’s not because they lack motivation, aren’t talented enough or don’t work hard enough, but because they’re battling an adverse environment.



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