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.