Avoiding a Clash Over Scrum

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By Laszlo Szalvay

As organizations compete in today’s complex business world, they increasingly turn to agile management practices to respond nimbly to emerging business realities and ship releases on-time and within budget. Scrum, the most popular agile management method, is a lightweight framework with relatively few roles, artifacts, and meetings. Unlike traditional project management, Scrum emphasizes adapting to ever-evolving business conditions through iterative and incremental development. By championing tenets of self-organization, frequent communication, and collaboration, Scrum focuses on the team—not the individual—to maximize efficiency and create better products that customers really want.

When an organization catches wind of a competitor’s success with Scrum, it’s easy for them to assume that Scrum drove the success. And, often enough, they’re right: Scrum’s iterative, incremental approach to development boosts productivity, reduces cycle time, and helps create products that customers want.

But what an organization might not realize is how much work is involved in re-orienting a company’s business toward Scrum.

Of course, enacting any organizational change is a challenge. There’s something in human survival instincts that makes us naturally wary of change. That attitude, of course, extends into the business world, where organizations create routines and processes that may not always maximize efficiency, but nonetheless become a part of the company’s culture. A process might be redundant or involve more individuals than is necessary, but it’s still “the way we do it here.”

The familiarity of such procedures and practices gives employees a degree of security in the workplace, it’s understandable that the changes necessitated by a Scrum transformation would trigger skepticism and resistance among employees.

Not only does Scrum ask that team members learn new terminology, roles, and practices, but it also asks that individuals reorient themselves to a new set of values. In that sense, Scrum adoption not only demands employees modify the way they work, but actually reconsider how they conceive of work.

Scrum emphasizes teamwork over individual heroism, championing frequent communication, tight-knit collaboration, and a shared commitment to organizational goals. It asks managers—or Product Owners in the Scrum paradigm—resist the urge to micromanage, while team members are vested with the power to self-organize and independently determine how to fulfill Sprint objectives.

For organizations transitioning from traditional management techniques, this marks a dramatic shift not only in its working processes, but in the principles that inform them as well. Because these transformations are disruptive and can be scary for employees, an organization must be feeling the pain of repeated failure to justify this seismic shift in its culture.

So how can an organization mitigate its employees’ discomfort when undergoing a Scrum transformation and prevent a “culture clash”? There are a number of strategies that Danube’s team of Certified Scrum Trainers have seen work consistently and, interestingly, they all succeed by upholding Scrum’s core tenets of self-organization, transparency, and frequent communication.

Inside Job

One of the simplest ways to avoid a culture clash is through the covert leadership of a delta agent within an organization. This individual, also commonly known as a change agent, is usually a tenured employee with considerable influence in the company—although his or her title may not reflect that authority.

Because of their experience and security within the company, delta agents are free to try new modes of working without necessarily obtaining permission from management. As early as 2004, we began observing that the most successful Scrum transformations were driven by individuals like these: Observing their team struggle through traditional project management, they independently investigate a solution and implement it “under the radar.”

Once the new solution—in this case, Scrum—has proven effective, these agents present the success retroactively to managers. How that information is received and put to use depends on the manager.

An effective manager will listen closely to a delta agent and, if Scrum has positively affected results, encourage him or her to continue investigating improved methods of working. When that happens, a delta agent has essentially created an environment where Scrum can generate a grassroots buzz throughout the organization.

From a management standpoint, the delta agent is a powerful ally with the ability to evangelize Scrum from the trenches, which is a considerably more effective approach than a top-down organizational mandate.

High-Profile Pilot

Another way to introduce a Scrum transformation while minimizing potential culture clashes is through a highly visible pilot project. When Scrum is introduced on a trial basis, its success can be a powerful illustration to both management and other teams of what Scrum can bring to the table.

Starting small, with just a single voluntary team, can help ensure that Scrum spreads organically and incrementally throughout the organization. As other teams see Scrum improve their co-workers’ lives and yield exciting results, they will be more eager to adopt it themselves.

Rather than creating an atmosphere of uncertainty or fear, an isolated pilot creates a non-threatening introduction to the framework. It allows team members to observe Scrum in action without experiencing an unwanted disruption in their own working patterns. Of course, seeing Scrum deliver results for other teams may inspire other individuals to volunteer for the next Scrum pilot.


Finally, a cultural resistance to a Scrum implementation can be softened by addressing the issue head-on and empowering team members with the tools they need to succeed. In this case, offering Scrum training to individuals is a direct way to assuage concerns about a new management practice, whether implementation originates at the top or through delta agents.

Indeed, in many instances, delta agents will bring their managers to Scrum courses to further illustrate why Scrum works. It’s very easy to tell who’s who: The delta agent is usually nodding and gesturing in agreement, while you can see the manager having a “eureka” moment.

Many providers now offer Scrum training programs that are certified by the Scrum Alliance. Participants can trust that these courses will provide a solid foundation in Scrum’s principles and practices, from its unique vocabulary and values to its roles and responsibilities.

The most common course is the Certified ScrumMaster class, which communicates the fundamentals of Scrum by focusing on the ScrumMaster role. Because the ScrumMaster is a facilitator who works closely with the Product Owner and the development team, it provides a complete view of each role and the philosophical rationales that inform them.

Providing teams with dedicated training that prepares them to succeed with Scrum, it sends an important message that management understands the challenges and wants to make sure their employees are comfortable tackling them.

When introducing Scrum at an organization, the sheer idea of change is often enough to trigger a culture clash. The degree to which individuals resist the change—from ignoring new processes to outright attrition—is often directly related to how the organization leads the transformation. When asking team members to step out of their comfort zones, direct communication—coupled with the best practices outlined above—is the best way to minimize fear and prevent widespread resistance.

Laszlo Szalvay is president of Danube Technologies, Inc., which provides Scrum tools and training.

This story originally appeared in the “Guest View” section of SD Times, issue no. 213, published on Thursday, January 1, 2009.

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