Ken and the Scrum Alliance — a very personal perspective

It is common knowledge in the Agile community now that Ken Schwaber stepped down as chairman of the Scrum Alliance under strained and unfriendly circumstances, leaving confusion, bewilderment and sadness in his wake.  This is my take on the situation, written from an emotional rather than a sensible perspective.

I have great respect, and above that, a great personal liking for Ken Schwaber.  I believe his passion for Scrum, for challenging ingrained, destructive habits, for opening our eyes to better ways of working, and for transforming the world of work, has helped move the entire Agile movement forward in leaps and bounds.  It is quite possible Ken has single-handedly contributed more to Agile growth than any other individual in this community — perhaps more than the rest of the community combined.  The forming of the controversial CSM program, and the subsequent, wildfire adoption of Scrum by the software community is a force to be reckoned with.  Ken made himself an iconic leader of a movement, a man personally admired by many and despised by more than a select few;  Ken is not a man of half-measures.

But for all his good work —and this is the irony— I believe Ken got lost in the same power he was seeking to overthrow; the same power that, despite all the best intentions, seems to underlie all great movements of change [ref].  His need to control this thing called Scrum, in the guise of protecting it, was his downfall.  The Scrum Alliance became yet another example of a monolithic organization that could not sustain itself.  Attempting to run a movement like Scrum from an opaque, command and control position, was not only ridiculous and hypocritical, but doomed to failure.  The Scrum Alliance became the thing the Scrum Alliance railed against so furiously.  If there is blame to cast, (in the Agile world we like to call this “responsibility”) then I’ll cast it at the board, who should have stood up for the principles of Scrum long, long ago.  And I’ll cast it at the Certified Scrum Trainers, frozen into silent compliance.  Ken, well I can forgive him; a man lost in passion and belief —a man in love— is not the best person to make calm, informed decisions.  And a man surrounded by yes-men, with few voices of dissent, will always believe he is right.

Ken needed a foil within the community, someone to challenge him, someone with guts and integrity, someone not operating on self-interest, or on fear, as the majority of the Certified Scrum Trainers were apt to do, keeping their heads down, and raking in the profits from CSM training during the years of abundance.  Me too, of course, except my head wasn’t quite so far down.  It is possible my own early experience with the SA was part of the reason for the silent compliance.  Being fired as a CST by Ken in January 2007, was likely to have stirred up the already simmering fear in the rest of the fledgling trainer community.  Tow the line, or get out. That was the message.  And with so much money to be made as Scrum burgeoned beyond all expectations, honestly, what would you have done?

It is a testament to Ken’s open heart that, ten months later, he invited me back into the trainer community, with humility and a recognition that he valued my big, confrontational mouth.  Few could do that.  Few would.  At around that same time, Ken wrote these words to me, and I treasure them as an illustration of the warmth and vulnerability of a man whose public persona is so often seen to be the opposite: “Tobias… at the end of my life, I will remember some people for their essence. I really appreciate your essence, your passion, and your determination. […] The more our paths cross, the better, and the more in person, the better.”

And yet still, Ken continued to operate as if Scrum was his personal property, rather than his gift to the world.  For a time Jim Cundiff, the SA managing director, became the required foil to Ken, and did much to involve the members in community activity, and to advance Scrum in new ways, but I guess one man wasn’t enough, when an entire board and membership operated on a foundation of compliance and fear — or simply on disinterested, or perhaps more accurately self-interested silence.

Ken is not responsible for making the Scrum Alliance the oppressive, opaque organization it became.  We are, the members and the board, all of us, and perhaps especially the CSTs.  We created the organization that was of most personal benefit to us, without thought for the greater good.  We are guilty of letting down the Agile community and it is time to make amends.  Nothing less than a fully transparent organization, with an elected board and public accounting and decision making will suffice.

This is the time for our own organizational transformation; I hope we learn from the lessons of the past, and more importantly, I hope we learn from the lessons we teach others.   It is time to put principles above personalities, integrity above compliance, and courage above fear.  And as to Ken, I wish him well with his new endeavor, and I hope our paths cross soon — and yes, all the better if it is in person.

27 responses to “Ken and the Scrum Alliance — a very personal perspective

  1. I too, hope that this is a kairos moment: turning a crisis into an opportunity. Thank-you Tobias for being candid, courageous and humble in making visible what those of us much less connected have not known or understood, though sensed something was fundamentally wrong. I look forward to opportunity to play a stronger role in the SA as part of the wider community.

  2. What Tobias describes is a garden variety case of founder’s syndrome, no more, no less, and I’m thrilled to see him acknowledge what Ken accomplished with such unvarnished praise! The qualities of greatness that make one individual able to found an organization are diametric to those needed to nurture the organization itself to greatness. This seems like a fine time for a little creative destruction, out of which will emerge a stronger, shinier Scrum Alliance, no doubt!

  3. Tobias my friend, I love it when you speak from a point of humility, honesty and compassion.

    I really appreciate that you have written this to try and calm some of the confusion – and for me it has.

    It has inspired me to want to contribute to the improvement of the SA rather than to sideline it in favour of a free agile community.

    thank you.


  4. Damn dude. I so want to buy you a beer.

    Thank you for writing that.


  5. Tobias,

    All I can say is thank you for talking the time to summarize the current situation, as always you challenge current thinking and you words strike a chord with me.

    I hope I have the opportunity to work with you on any initiative that brings about positive change in the community.

    You challenged me once before which hit home about my own attitude to collaboration. Please continue to challenge I am the better for it.

    Martin Kearns .

  6. Nice posting.

    “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
    — Eric Hoffer (The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements)

  7. I want to chime in with praise for Tobias’ writing and humble attitude.

    I am one of those early SMs who did not particularly like the ways of the SA (especially the SM certification and the pyramid-like setup). Therefore, I elected to stay outside the organisation although I have used and lived with Scrum since 2002. I know several people here in Sweden who agree and have taken the same stand.

    However, by transforming the organisation from the ground-up, making it more transparent and removing the unethical, self-serving parts, I think I for one would be interested in joining again.

  8. Very interesting story. It gives some insight to what’s happening politically in the scrum community to outsiders/enthusiasts like me

  9. Tobias – thank you for saying this and for articulating so well what many of us have suspected for some time. I really appreciate what Ken has done for this industry, I really hope that he can open up and become an agile leader in his actions (i.e. transparent, open, …) as well as his words.

  10. I agree that having an armee of yes man around you is never good to anyone.
    I think that is why I think (together with people like Eric Schmidt) that everyone needs a coach.
    Someone who challenges you and doesn’t agree with everything you say.

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  13. Tobias,

    It is plainly evident that you not only teach Agile philosophy, you live it. All of us could learn something from your honest, yet non-adversarial critique.

    On the topic of the post, I wholeheartedly agree that the Scrum Alliance in essence betrayed its own principles. The mention of Ken being a man “in love” is very poignant. It is only natural to want others to perceive things as we do. This is purely non-empirical, but it felt like there was a subtle movement to try to reconcile Scrum and Agile with more traditional command-and-control management. When you start seeing mainstream tools trying to cram Scrum into a GANNT chart, you know it’s time for a change at the top.

  14. Ken had inspired me to implement scrum

    Ken should Stay in the Game

  15. I think using the words “command and control” so liberally is a fallacy. There are things that must be controlled. For example, the team must not be controlled but someone must controll the backlog – the Product Owner.

    Ken is the Product Owner for scrum – at least for the scrum that he likes or he thinks is right. If you like the scrum defined by Ken’s backlog, just use it. If not, feel free to follow whatever or whoever you want. Simple as that.

    For me this whole story seems that team members who did not agree with PO just expelled him. Now the team are very happy because they can control the backlog.

  16. Ah, humans! We innovate everywhere, and we destroy everywhere. You and I, Tobias, have seen the work of Ken Wilbur distorted, but here I think it actually does apply. Scrum and the agile community can transcend all of Ken’s perfectly legitimate human shortcomings, and can include all of his brilliant, community-building innovations.

    Thanks for the respectful, insightful post, from an admitted, partly-reformed, former Scrum-distruster.

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  18. Tobias,

    thanks for this article. You express many things very clearly that I had only felt out of my guts when I was at the Agile Alliance board before the birth of the Scrum Alliance and which prevented me from embarking onto the Scrum Alliance. I really appreciate Ken for his work and I like him in person. But the Scrum Alliance could bear a significant shift towards an organization that lives the agile values. If the current turmoil becomes the start of this shift, it would be an enormous contribution to the agile ideas.

    And still, according to good agile practice, I “truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” (N. Kerth) This is true for Ken as well as for everyone who had tried and still tries to contribute to Scrum and to Agile.


  19. Dear Tobias,

    thanks for this article!

    Ken certified me as a CSM, I admired him, his writings helped me to keep Scrum as simple as it is and try hard to adopt it before trying to adapt it.

    But so many things went wrong with the SA und the CSTs supporting this, is IMHO not primarily a matter of anyone’s personal failure but also a matter of constitution and ethical principals the SA is giving and following themselves.

    My hope is, that when I come back from the SG in Munich, I will have found some evidence that the SA is going to be a more democratic body, which serves the interests of all members and with more diversity, given the members are from all places and cultures around the world.

  20. Tobias,

    I hope we have the opportunity to sit down and talk – perhaps in Munich. I think we both will benefit from it.


  21. Tobias,
    Many thanks for an excellent summary of what must have been, and still is, a painful chapter in your experience. I took my CSM class from Ken and it was inspiring. I know that Ken is out to change the world for the better. His book on “The Enterprise and Scrum” show that.
    Thanks again

  22. Tobias,

    Thanks for your words, they very clear and I am believe that after all falls, we are found the best things, because we are learn our wrong to improve every day.

  23. Thank you very much Tobias for this insight into your personal opinion and experience. I think it is very important to have guys like you around. Your spirit and reasonable criticism keeps us focused (living and breathing) to the essence of scrum


  24. Tobias,

    it took me so long to read your post. During this time I could only wonder about the whys of all disparities and discrepancies created around this subject. I value Ken as professional and thank you for this post, which ended up being quite profound.


  25. I’m new to scrum, but worked with many dysfunctional Boards. We recently developed an assessment tool, based on, using a measure of culture to assess the list of “what we all collectively have a right to expect.” Setting our collective, community expectations at the highest/best level is the framework of scrum, and sets the tone for cultural development and sustainability. Working on this list is an exercise, and it becomes the Macro-Scrum for quarterly Planning, Doing, Checking (from PDCA). The Checking is essentially asking the following questions:
    1. What is working well now?
    2. What is not working well yet?
    3. Is anything missing or unnecessary?
    I also see another ScrumMaster, Si Alhir, who is creating value by blending Tribal Leadership with Scrum (Scribal Leadership):
    A good dose of ‘gracious collaboration’ will soothe the heart and soul.

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