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December 09, 2015

Why Your Scrum Team Is Failing and What You Can Do To Fix It

4 mins read

Do you ever get the sneaking suspicion that Scrum doesn’t really seem to work for you and you wonder when this Agile fad is going to pass? You’re not alone if you feel like Agile is not much more than weekly status meetings and demos of your work in progress. A key part of human nature is to seek comfort in what has worked in the past and avoid any change in the future. However, our past experiences are often marred by selective memory and forgotten details of our bad experiences. Weekly sprints, frequent retrospective meetings, test driven development, daily meetings, multiple code commits a day, pair programming and code reviews can feel like a chore and make your team members feel uncomfortable.

Scrum is an intentionally incomplete Agile framework that focuses on demonstrating completed work in an iterative and incremental fashion. Per the Scrum Alliance, Scrum is simple to understand and difficult to master. A prescriptive and complete framework may have been straightforward to execute and perhaps even understand. However, doing so would have resulted in a rigid framework that is impossible to execute. It takes a lot of discipline to completely follow the Scrum framework. Even when you do so, you may still find it difficult to achieve frequent success. First thing is first, though, you must practice Shu Ha Ri before trying to adapt the framework to your needs. Practicing Scrum and encouraging your organization to do the same, as strictly as possible, will give your team the best chance for success.

The Scrum framework assumes that your team is capable of self-organizing and requires functionally self-dependent teams. Personal experience in the execution of Scrum in high pressure, result oriented environments has allowed me to realize two important details. First, teams must be mature and second, members of these teams must possess an even distribution of skills amongst themselves. Without such a team, it is not feasible to establish consistent velocity due to team member outages and departures. Earlier I have claimed that Scrum is incomplete because Scrum itself doesn’t provide a way to build a self-organizing and self-dependent team, aside from the need for a team to continuously adapt and improve. In the real world perfect teams aren’t just hired or found; they don’t just happen. We must focus on transforming existing teams into better ones, but what does that really mean?


First, the team must realize what state it is in and what state it needs to be in. Roy Osherove defines 3 phases a team can be in. These are the Survival Phase, the Learning Phase, and the Self-Leading Phase. From a maturity perspective, these phases can be mapped into three different stages; Chaotic, Mid-Life, and Mature. A team must self-identify what phase and stage it is in and understand what it means to be in a given phase/stage. After all, without a compass and a roadmap, we wouldn’t know the direction we are headed in.

Elastic Leadership

An elastic leader is necessary to cultivate a great team. A team’s lead must adjust their leadership style depending on the stage the team is in. For a team that’s in survival mode, a more directive leadership style might be required, whereas the team matures, a more hands-off, laissez-faire approach is needed to allow team member growth. A mature team rarely needs constant direction or a manager, but rather an experienced coach willing to help and offer advice, when the team is in need.

Putting It All Together

Success with Scrum lies in not doing anyone of the things that I’ve mentioned, but all of them. You must practice all of Scrum; you must have a self-aware team dedicated to self-growth; and finally, a leader willing to adjust their leadership style to fit the needs of their team. It may take a few months or a couple of years, but in the end, your team will be far more efficient and effective than you ever thought possible.

Achieving success with Scrum requires a lot of patience, going against our beliefs and experiences when necessary, embracing open and honest collaboration, and before all, exercising a healthy amount of self-discipline. Scrum is not easy, it is pretty hard. If you are not willing to make the investment in building a self-leading, mature team, then you already have the answer as to why Scrum is failing for you.

Doguhan Uluca is Excella’s JavaScript Specialty Lead and a CSP (Certified Scrum Professional).

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