3 Mistakes Leaders Make that Hamper Scrum & Agile Adoptions

Many things can go wrong when organizations implement Scrum. And too often, the very leaders who pushed for an agile adoption are the ones who unwittingly create roadblocks and obstacles to its success. This article discusses 3 big mistakes I see leaders make when adopting Scrum or other agile frameworks, and what they should do instead.

Agile Mistake 1: Scrum is about them, not about us.

Probably the biggest mistake leaders can make is to believe that somehow embracing agility is someone else’s responsibility. Scrum is something the development guys over there need to understand. We don't have to worry about that agile stuff over here.

The Scrum-doesn’t-affect-me mindset is crippling to an agile adoption. Agile has tentacles. It reaches out. It touches different parts of the organization. Leadership has to be involved for it to work.

When leadership doesn’t understand the far-reaching implications of an agile adoption, it creates huge disconnects. One obvious one would be leadership in IT or development saying, “You guys can go off and ‘do agile.’ That's fine, you can go build things in an agile way. But to be clear, the approval process won’t change at all. I'm still going to need the full requirements document, the full project plan up on the wall, the full resource loading, the full risk model. I'll need all of that on the first day, when you have the worst possible knowledge you're ever going to have. Go.”

If the only people concerned with becoming more agile are the development team members, your agile adoption will eventually fail.

Agile Mistake 2: Managers & executives don’t need Scrum training.

A related mistake is when leaders don’t include themselves in Scrum and agile training. Years ago, this was nearly standard practice. Even three or four years ago, the best I could hope to get was 90 minutes with senior leaders over lunch time during a Scrum class. Over the past year, though, I’ve done at least ten classes that only were for senior management—it’s an encouraging evolution.

Historically, part of the problem might have been that many Scrum classes are taught from a development team perspective, so senior leaders often felt like most of Scrum training didn’t apply to their day-to-day work. But I’ve found that when you frame agile principles and practices in economic terms, technical people, managers, and executives can all relate.

I believe economics is the universal language of product development—understandable by everybody. If you're a business person, you think in terms of economics. If you're a technical person, you're always worried about the economics of your choices: If I do it this way, it'll take four times as long and could cost at least four times as much.

The concept of the economic framework is that we should couch all of our decisions in terms of the economics of the choices that we're presented with. Certainly, from a senior management perspective, this is a critical idea. That’s why so many of my blog posts talk about the economics of agile and Scrum, including “Economically Sensible Change” and “Make Better Decisions with Economically Sensible Scrum.”

Agile Mistake #3: Our teams are doing Scrum, so that automatically makes us agile.

Even managers who grasp the economics behind the application of agile principles or who understand that they might have to change a few processes to make Scrum work well for their teams, sometimes fall short of developing the agile mindset that is so critical for success. (It’s a mistake many teams make as well.)

Understanding Scrum practices—working in sprints, having daily standups and reviews and retrospectives—is essential to becoming agile. But more important than doing the right things is why you are doing those things in the first place—the underlying principles behind the practices. That’s why I devoted an entire chapter in Essential Scrum to agile principles such as validated learning and the balance between prediction and adaptation. You can read a summary of the “Agile Principles” chapter here.

At the end of the day, senior leaders have a business to run. That business has a lot of constraints, which no outside agile coach or trainer can fully understand. As an agile coach and trainer, my job, then, is to help executives and teams cultivate an agile mindset. I am less interested in whether their teams are using Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, LeSS or some other framework, than I am in whether they have an agile mindset. For example, retrospectives are good practices for teams to do. But more important to me is that everyone understands and embraces the concept of continuous improvement that the retrospective is meant to facilitate.

The shift to an agile mindset doesn’t mean that the business will change overnight. In many of my classes, I’ve watched as one of the principles strikes a chord with a CEO or COO. She'll spin around and look at her colleagues and go, “Do we do that? Are we doing that today?” or “Why aren't we doing that today?”

That’s an essential realization—this lights-on moment where the principles make sense. But I don’t believe for one moment that the executive will leave my class and immediately change all of their rules and practices. It takes time.

For example, I recently led a two-day class with a mix of development team members and company executives, including the CEO. I was describing the importance of outcome-based metrics, when someone from the development team said, “Yeah, we'll never do that. It won’t happen here.”

The CEO looked up and said, “Look, I'm not saying we're going to run off and change measurements tomorrow, but I'm saying it's on the table for discussion.”

Leaders don’t have to change their style, their processes, or their business model overnight, but they should take the time to understand the overarching reason behind what the business and its teams are doing with Scrum and agile.

For Best Results, Embrace Agile Principles Organization-Wide

Leaders want the benefits that result from an agile organization. But they often fail to realize the kinds of changes they will have to make to achieve the outcomes they are seeking. Executives must first understand that becoming agile will affect them personally, and not just their teams. Second, they must commit to training—to understanding the economic principles associated with agile frameworks. Finally, they must be prepared to go beyond simply doing certain practices to truly cultivating an agile mindset. When they do, the right changes will begin to happen. And that will make all the difference in becoming an agile organization.