Scrum Adoption #1 — The Awakening

This article has been removed. An edited version appears in the book, The People’s Scrum, published by Dymaxicon, May 2013.
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What does it take for an organization to fundamentally change the way it works, and embrace a new way of being, in particular something as radically different as Scrum? I believe it requires an awakening, which manifests itself in three ways, interwoven and complimentary: Honesty, Open-mindedness and Willingness. Those familiar with the medical field of addiction will recognize those qualities as being the necessary requirements for an addict to seek recovery. Drug addicts, dysfunctional software organizations… not as different as one might think.


A broken organization, one that is suffering from the overhead and dehumanization of a command and control culture, embarked upon no doubt for the best of reasons and a belief that such an approach would yield the best results, needs first to admit complete defeat. This takes a profound level of honesty that few are capable of.  Of course, what it means for “an organization” to admit defeat is really for those in charge to do so. But not only those in charge, perhaps every member of that organization, every employee. There needs to be an overall sense of “we’re done with this”.  Without such an admission of defeat few organizations will honestly seek a new way of working, and will instead look for quick fixes to their existing processes, believing that if only people would work harder, do as they are told, if managers were stricter, more in control, then everything will work according to plan.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that every organization must be on the point of going broke and closing down in order to adopt Scrum.  An addict doesn’t have to be on death’s door to begin the process of recovery. Hitting bottom is a personal thing. I heard of an alcoholic who when asked how he knew he had hit bottom, replied “I stopped digging”.  When we stop digging we can focus on what is beyond the hole. We get to look at the stars.


Once an organization honestly admits the path it is on is the wrong one, it immediately opens its collective mind to the possibility of something different.  This is a leap of faith, especially when that something different is as yet unknown.  Being open-minded to something that we can only identify as “not this thing” is a scary proposition.  Many organizations have of course heard of Scrum, and other Agile frameworks. Sometimes the reports will be riddled with inaccuracies, and are likely to be a cocktail of myth, fact, horror stories of anarchy and developer rebellion, mocking tales of new age hippies making everyone hold hands and share their feelings, exaggerated claims of 10x productivity and unlikely promises of faster, better, cheaper. It takes a lot of courage, or a state of desperation to stay open-minded in the face of the unknown.


An organization that has admitted failure, and whose only shot at redemption is something as radical and misunderstood as Scrum, is at that jumping off place. Can’t go back, dare not go forward. Without a willingness to attempt something different the only place to go is nowhere. The organization can trudge on in the same old way, slowly sinking as more lightweight competitors rise up and capture the market, or they can change.  We are not necessarily willing by choice, but sometimes through lack of any better alternative. Sometimes the adoption of Scrum will come not from “hey that sounds great” but rather “what the hell” Either way, the willingness to at least explore this new paradigm gives hope where before there was frustration and despair.

Of course, these three qualities alone are not sufficient, but I believe they are necessary for an organization to reach a state of awareness, to be able to explore Scrum in a holistic way.  And again, total failure isn’t a requirement, just the desire to stop digging, to stop acting in the same old ways and expecting different results.  Those that have no desire to change, that want to use Scrum as a quick fix, a patch to their existing processes while remaining locked in old thinking and arrogance will get exactly what they seek: a quick fix, a duct tape solution, temporary and non-sustainable.  Those that start their journey by an honest admission of defeat, an openness to new ideas, and a willingness to embrace a new paradigm will stand a better chance of long-term success. In some coaching circles this is known as a breakdown. But the sense of powerlessness and impotence we face in this breakdown is temporary.  The world of knowledge work is changing; those willing to let go of old ideas, and embrace this change will quickly discover a new power — a very different kind of power rooted in respect, trust and a passion for creation.

Once we are willing to embrace what Scrum has to offer we need to get into action; we need to start building our Scrum organization. And we will need help. In the next blog post I’ll look at the set of values an organization will need to embrace in order to begin the process of transformation.

Afterword: I want to make it clear here that I am using Scrum as an example of a radically different approach to work. Scrum is what I do. More broadly it is the concept of an empirical, self-organized, collaborative approach with flattened hierarchies and worker autonomy that is so daunting to many traditional thinkers.

10 responses to “Scrum Adoption #1 — The Awakening

  1. Great post! But is it helpful to refer to “Analytic” organisations as “broken”, failed”, “defeated”, etc.?

    Even though WE may see these organisations as such, most of them do not see themselves in this way. Indeed, their current way of being is a matter of choice (albeit generally implicit), after all – and predicated on their current world-view (aka shared mindset).

    In the Rightshifting view of things, there exists a spectrum of organisational effectiveness – where each organisation’s effectiveness (position in that spectrum) is dictated by its prevailing world-view.

    This spectrum ranges (horizontally) from “Ad hoc” (eg Code & fix) on the far left; through “Analytic” (eg Command and Control, hierarchical); then “Synergistic” (encompassing our beloved Agile, along with Lean, Systems Thinking, TOC, etc.); and then on again through to “Chaordic” (and beyond, maybe) on the far right. You may already have seen my chart illustrating this.

    I very much agree that rightshifting – aka increasing effectiveness (what you and I may describe as “progress”) – depends on a collective transformation of mind-set. And the key question for us coaches is how to effect EACH of the three transformations implicit in the 4-mindsets view described above. I hold that each transformation requires different strategies, interventions and actions for a successful transformation/transition . Put another way, intervention and transformation strategies are context-dependent.

    Indeed, we can approach even one transition zone (i.e. the Analytic to Synergistic zone, the one you refer to in you post) armed with a range of strategies – including the values-led strategy you mention.

    I very much look forward to reading your post on that subject.

    Oh, and one last thing, let’s not forget that transitioning a software development group to a new mindset will often count for nought unless its host organisation is making the same journey. If this is not the case, those pesky corporate antibodies WILL swarm, and kill the transformation.


    – Bob

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for pointing out the different cultures organizations may have. My own experience in the software world has been with the “Analytic” — and I have good reason to believe this culture dominates our industry. My post is really focused on such organizations, but any organization wishing to embrace a new way of being needs first to let go of old ideas absolutely. Compromise is usually a bad idea.

      > let’s not forget that transitioning a software development group to a new mindset will often count for nought unless its host organisation is making the same journey.

      When I use the term transition here I am actually thinking of whole-organization transition, not a single group. I agree, it is essential the whole organization aligns towards the same goals for any new way of working to be effective. A Scrum group inside a Waterfall organization has a short shelf-life.

  2. Wow. Really? So the logic is for us to say that what has made us successful so far is, in fact, an utter and complete failure. And then we’ll try something unknown, because that’s the best thing to do now that we’ve declared our successful business a failure. And since we’re a failure, and we’re trying something new, well, then we’re stuck with Scrum?

    Are you suggesting that executives should use the “What the hell” option to run their business and adopt Scrum?

    I honestly keep checking the date of this post to make sure it isn’t April 1st. Addiction is something very real and very personal to me, and I can promise you that never once did the people I loved that went through the insane pain of attempting to get clean say, “What the hell, I’ll try this thing”. Nor did they ever claim their lives were an “utter failure”.

    They did measure the effects the addiction had on them, did weigh the benefits, and did find paths that could work for them. But I’d hardly compare being shot, or losing your kids, or losing your family as anything even remotely close to being in the same ballpark of a successful company that needs to improve making a decision to use Scrum.

    In fact, the entire notion of this is so disgusting to me that I can’t really believe it was put here. But I also know that people have different experiences and that you may have experienced addictions from a different angle.


    Let’s reframe this then. How many teams have you worked with that you have convinced the executives to declare defeat? What is the process *you* use to help get people to adopt Scrum? If this is it, then more power to you, but somehow I am highly skeptical. If you could, please prove me wrong.

    • Hi Cory,

      Clearly this struck a nerve. My apologies if it upset you, but please understand that at no time do I refer to the fallout in the life of an addict, the consequences of the life-style, and I certainly make no judgments; I am speaking solely of the disease itself, and how it manifests internally in the form of strong denial, and an inability/unwillingness to be introspective. Struggling organizations frequently suffer very similar symptoms.

      > Are you suggesting that executives should use the “What the hell” option to run their business and adopt Scrum?

      Actually, yes, I am. Not all organizations will be at that place, perhaps only a few, but if things have got so bad sometimes an idea like Scrum, which once looked ridiculous and laughable begins to look like a way out. But even when things aren’t quite so dire, changing direction based on a belief that there is a better way of working is still a leap of faith. Sometimes we just need to act on a gut feeling, rather then demanding hard evidence.

      > How many teams have you worked with that you have convinced the executives to declare defeat?

      You can’t convince someone to declare defeat; it has to come from them. I would never attempt to do this, but can only be there when they are ready to change. And yes, I have seen organizations make that admittance. They are among my favorite clients. It is the offer of a different way of thinking, working… a way of being in life that sometimes takes people to the point of surrender, creates that willingness that I talk about here.

      > And since we’re a failure, and we’re trying something new, well, then we’re stuck with Scrum?

      Please note, I added an afterword to make it clear I am not talking about Scrum specifically, but what might more generally be called “the new paradigm”.

  3. What’s interesting to think about is whether you only need this ‘shock therapy’ once when you start Scrum, or you need it again after doing Scrum after a few months/years to move into the next level as Scrum itself is founded on gradual improvement (Kaizen).

    • Hi Machiel,

      Interesting that you call this shock-therapy. I feel it is the opposite approach to that. Shock-therapy (as I understand it) is when a coach, trainer or some other “expert” coerces you into a state of surrender, holds up your faults and tells you you need to change. It is drastic treatment, which in the field of addiction is no longer practiced due to having only a short-term effect.

      What I am suggesting here is that an organization needs to come to its own realization, in its own time. What a trainer or coach can do is offer alternative ways of seeing. Nothing more. It is altogether a more gentle approach that I advocate.

      A continual process of introspection is certainly advisable. Taking an honest look at what you do and seeking improvement is not a one-time thing.

  4. Interesting blog and comments – Very thought provoking.

  5. As a person who was exposed to the world of Scrum by no other than Mr. Tobias himself, I can tell you first hand that it is truly a transformation. It is very difficult to understand how broken and backwards the traditional process is until you experience something that actually works and works well. Scrum is not a magical silver bullet that solves all your problems .. its more like a very clean and reflect mirror that exposes all your faults and helps you see things more clear. Ultimately, it is up to you and your company to solve your problems. Scrum just helps you realize them sooner, rather than later.

  6. Great post and interesting angle on the will to change.

    I once heard someone use the next phrase when talking about companies adopting scrum:
    “A company is ready to start with scrum when the pain of doing scrum is less than the pain of not doing scrum.”
    The first step towards the desire to change should be the desire to know what is going wrong. I’ve seen a lot of companies trying to use scrum as a duct-tape solution without actually looking at the problems they want to solve. If you can visualize the impediments you are facing, the next logical step is dealing with those issues.
    If you look at it like that, it does have some similarities with an addiction. You first need to see what is going wrong. Sometimes other people can help you with that. But as long as you can’t admit to yourself that you are having a problem, there’s no use in looking for a treatment.
    The will to change your way of thinking or doing business has to come from within. I agree that you can’t convince people to want to change. You can only try and help them realise that they actually want to change.

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