This is not like That

This is a repost of an article written by Lyssa Adkins that first appeared on my old Agile Thoughts blog, in March 2009.  In the past few weeks I have had reason to quote from, and refer people to Lyssa’s words, so I figured it would be good to give this article a second life here.  Lyssa addresses our tendency to map new ideas to old, and suggests this may not be the best road to truly embracing Scrum.


“…we all safely interpret dangerous things in ways that don’t require us to change our lives.” — Orson Scott Card

I was honored to co-facilitate an Introduction to Scrum session recently for sixty-eight Project Management Institute (PMI) folks, who were all willing and open-minded. Even the ones I had known in past years who were not so open minded to Scrum raised their hands high and proud when asked, “Who is excited to try this in their work?” Within an hour of starting the session, though, I was compelled to stop it. My co-facilitator was introducing the group to Scrum and hands were popping up everywhere. The questions being asked were all some version of “How does this match what I already know?” “So, the product backlog is your requirements document, right?” “You can’t really expect people to sit together. That would never fly where I work.” “I just don’t get what you do without a plan. How will people know what to do everyday?”

When I stopped the group, I asked that they give themselves the gift of learning something new without forcing it into the categories already in their heads. “Perhaps,” I said, “just perhaps you will need new categories to understand what’s being given to you. So rest for now and learn Scrum for the sake of learning Scrum – without relating it to plan-driven project management, without worrying about whether or not it will work in your current situation.”

As I peruse the submissions for the Agile 2009 conference, I see the same tendency in the community as a whole. It’s a fervent desire to map Scrum to something else, something more familiar and, therefore, at least seemingly safer. PMBOK, CMMI, Lean, Kanban, the list goes on.

As the Orson Scott Card quote says, there is something in us that desperately wants to “safely interpret dangerous things in ways that don’t require us to change our lives.” Is Scrum dangerous that way? Absolutely. If you are doing Scrum well it will require you to change your life. You will have to give away your belief that having a checklist makes things run smoothly. You will have to stop chasing the perfect process and, instead, start cultivating your ability to trust the resourcefulness of others. You will cease using line items checked off on a plan as your measure of value. You will face your fears, all of them, about yourself and other people. You will stop making progress and start making products.

If you must map Scrum to something you already know, go ahead. Use that door to come to Scrum if that’s what makes sense to you. Heck, for PMBOK, you don’t even need to do it yourself. Michele Sliger and Stacia Broderick have done a fine job of it for you [ref]. If you come through that door though, don’t stop just inside the foyer. Keep moving. Immediately seek out people who allowed their brains and hearts to expand when they learned about Scrum and go learn from them. Allow the simplicity and depth of Scrum to rock your world and open your mind up to news ways of being in the workplace and getting work done, together. Try on some of the radical practices recommended by good Scrum coaches, even if you think, “Oh, no. I could never…” The practice you have that reaction to is the one you need most. So, do it. Let the dangerous thing into your life and allow it to change you. It’s absolutely for the better.

© Lyssa Adkins, 2009

Lyssa Adkins is a personal coach, a Certified Scrum Trainer and a PMP.  She is the creator of the well-respected and oft-cited YouTube video The Road from Project Manager to Agile Coach and the author of an upcoming book in the Mike Cohn Signature series, Coaching Agile Teams.  Lyssa presents regularly at Agile and Scrum conferences and gatherings, and tends to make friends wherever she goes — look out for her on your Agile journey  🙂

10 responses to “This is not like That

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  2. You make an excellent point about true learning. It toolk me several months to let Scrum really sink in and get it. I do see a lot of semi-learning as Scrum is used as a tool in plan driven projects or only for the ‘implementation phase’.

    Your observation is so profound that it now also applies to Scrum users. When new methods or thinking tools are introduced I now see Scrum masters fitting the new paradigms into Scrum. The lesson here is that no one can escape what you write here, it helps to be aware of this tendency to resist true learning.

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  5. Pingback: Stop making progress and start making products.

  6. Catherine Dupont

    I agree that there is a vibrant curiosity for PMI-certified project managers to learn Scrum methodologies (many PMI member requests for this.) We are co-sponsoring a PMI-Agile conference in Open Space format for day-long immersion into Scrum methodologies. Many people are unfamiliar with the Open Space format — how do bottom-line project managers rationalize attending a conference that contains no prepared professional content? (Perhaps this is all too much of a hard sell.) However, we invite them to become more effective project managers if they can come open-minded and willing to put their collective comfort zones on hold for just a day.

  7. I think that people always try to relate something they don’t know to something they already know. This is why many programmers who started off writing BASIC or FORTRAN struggled to learn procedural languages like Pascal or C, and why many good C programmers who understood structured programming struggled to learn OO programming and C++. We see this when discussing story points and people want to map story points to hours because hours are what they understand. Et cetera.

    Understanding a new paradigm, a new way of thinking, is difficult, especially when that new way seems to fly in the face of all that we have been taught to believe to be good or the right way. The best way I’ve found to get people to do this is to combine different types of learning. I may talk about the subject for a short while, then I get people up on their feet and moving around, physically acting out the new learning. I may use the Socratic method, discussing the topic and using pointed questions. The point is to get people to actually experience the value of the new paradigm, because once they do you no longer have to convince them.

  8. As much as I’m a born ‘mapper’, I love Lyssa’s writing. The quote ‘give yourself the gift of learning something new without forcing it into existing categories’ is so beautiful, simple and yet so powerful. This asks our students to make a decision about opening their minds, and presents the new knowledge as a gift, something to be taken in, something to be received. And as all gifts, we will likely be surprised, maybe in a good way, maybe not. But at least take it in first, shake the box, unwrap it, look at it, inspect it, and then go brag to your friends once you’ve figured out that you like it. 🙂

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  10. Beautiful, I believe Lyssa´s offer follows the Buddhist ideal of learning without judging nor relating to what we already know. For us westerners, that usually seems impossible, but we need to release into it.

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