When Scrum Feels Like Dressing for Dinner

Previously published on DZone

In a recent article titled Why Do Many Developers Consider Scrum to Be an Evil Scam, Scrum consultant Willem-Jan Ageling bemoaned the clear impression that people outside his professional circle didn’t share the same devotion to the framework, “I am a Scrum enthusiast. When I’m in my Agile bubble, I have the pleasure of having great conversations. We may have different opinions about approaches, but in the end, we mostly agree on the merits of Agile and Scrum. But when I leave my bubble, I often receive backlash. The worst thing I have been called is a snake oil salesman, selling an evil scam”.

I won’t unpick his arguments in detail. I don’t think Scrum is an evil scam and I don’t think Mr Ageling is a snake oil salesman. Yet I have seen Scrum being misapplied too often to ever become an enthusiast again. Here are my very personal reasons, based on first-hand evidence. It’s biased, but then I don’t pretend to speak for ‘many’ developers, let alone all.

  • The tech world has been infatuated with Scrum to the point of becoming blind to alternatives. It is adopted without question and considered appropriate, even essential, for every software project.
  • Yet most tools and techniques are not a good fit for every creative process. Each should be evaluated for its usefulness depending on the circumstance.
  • Scrum is usually imposed by the organization company-wide. When not at liberty to ignore it, people go through the motions. Ceremonies feel like dressing up for dinner. Nobody likes it or sees the point, but we do it as a matter of etiquette. 

Framework Infatuation

It’s fine to be enthusiastic about a technique of framework, but when you refer to a circle of like-minded individuals as a bubble – twice in the same paragraph no less, it speaks of more than rational professional preference. It speaks of fandom. The risks of that are obvious. It keeps you from throwing out the old when something better comes along. We don’t do that with people we love, and we’re loath to do it with cherished ideas. When something is close to your heart, faith too often trumps truth. In rational matters, this pushes science into religious territory. 

Save your love for other people or a more worthy cause. You are a human being before you are a Java professional. It’s okay to be pragmatic, even mercurial about picking tools and techniques to further your career. You’re not swearing an act of allegiance to Java or Microsoft. If you fall in love with C#, James Gosling won’t mind. I have invested heavily in the Java and JVM ecosystem over the past fifteen years, but I’ll go with the flow if the world moves in a different direction. Once I did a lot of Google Web Toolkit. It’s obsolete tech now, and rightfully so. I had fun, made good money, and moved on. No harm done.

Besides an inability to recognize better alternatives, tool infatuation leads to the anti-pattern of the Golden Hammer. You think it’s essential and indispensable because you like it too much and don’t care to know what else is around. 

Sure, we can’t know all. We must separate the essential from the optional, given our limited cerebral resources. We must pick our fruits from the tree of knowledge with care because they take time to pick and go bad quickly. At the Devoxx 2022 conference, a frankly intimidating chart was handed out that covered many of the hard skills in the Java ecosystem, categorized into essential, good to know and nice to know. A commendable effort, which didn’t even touch on soft skills and said nothing about the required depth of each domain. Many branches in the tree had bookshelves and conferences dedicated to them.

Radical Distraction Elimination

Thankfully not everything in the Java domain is indispensable for every project. De-facto standards like JUnitand SLF4J spring to mind (pun intended). It all depends. Sometimes you need to go deep on a technique you haven’t used before. You can become the number one Quarkus guru in your postal district for a year and then not touch the framework for the next five years. 

I believe the successful developer of the future is a radical distraction eliminator and productivity optimizer. She’s looking for the human advantage over AI and knows that it is no longer in solving math puzzles or the nitty-gritty of the arcane Unix command lines. Time will tell how we can beat the machine and be worth our paycheck, but time and effort spent on something that doesn’t provide a business advantage or makes you cleverer is always wasted.

This brings me back to Scrum. Management frameworks should be treated no differently from hard skills and software libraries. If they don’t help the team here and now, in this project, they hinder. Mileage always varies, whether it’s with a set of generic best practices or someone’s personal ‘secret to my success’. I’m sure every aspiring horror writer would love to know the routine that kept Stephen King so prolific for fifty years, but even if he does have a method, it’s his method. Scrum is not the method.

Scrum is not tailor-made. It implements a generic support function that is nevertheless prescriptive, inflexible, and usually imposed as a mandatory way of working on a team.

A prescriptive framework is about rules, not recommendations. You cannot use your own judgment to bend or suspend the rulebook at will, like in air traffic control. This is good when lives are at stake. But mandatory rules must have a firm scientific basis to justify their generic usefulness. This basis is lacking in Scrum, and neither do we find it in very opinionated statements from the Agile Manifesto about team autonomy and the superiority of oral communication.

All this wouldn’t matter if teams had the liberty to just ignore Scrum and settle on a mode that suited them best. We know that’s not the case, especially not in the enterprise world. Scrum is usually imposed from on high and facilitated by people whose livelihood depends on it. Great facilitators and coaches understand that Agile is about context-dependent principles, not rigid procedures. These people possess a treasure trove of experience and an extensive toolkit from which to suggest what is needed at the moment, whether it’s from a proprietary framework or not. I haven’t met many of them.

Dressing for Dinner

Like every other member of the British upper class, the aristocratic Crawley family in Downton Abbey would dress for dinner. Even on a drab Monday, with no guests and nothing to celebrate. It was time-consuming and uncomfortable, yet nobody questioned its usefulness. They knew there wasn’t any. Their elaborate dining etiquette came with the job. They went through the motions. Ingrained habits will do that.

More than once I have felt like that in standups and retrospectives, even in very casual attire.