Anti-Patterns: When Scrum Becomes Ordinary

Scrum was named for the formation of a Rugby team that is contesting possession of the ball during a Rugby match. It is characterized by a unified front formed by the entire team. Teammates are literally locked together arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder. Everyone on the team is intensely focused on the same objective: get the ball. When there are two teams lined up against each other like this, you can tell that it is a herculean effort. It is a contest of strength, of will, of iron resolve. It’s tremendously exciting to watch. There is nothing ordinary about it.

Scrum shares many of these attributes with the sport of Rugby. The team is focused on the same goal. It is a unified effort that is driven by the strength, will, and iron resolve of a team. Think back to those first few times you worked with a Scrum team. Were you energized? Did you believe in the promise of agile development? Did you really want to see it work? It’s normal for a team to be very enthusiastic at the beginning of a project. If your team isn’t enthusiastic at the beginning of the project, you probably have a problem on your hands.

Regardless, teams march forward, sprint after sprint, chasing the ball. After doing it for a while, it’s easy for complacency to set in. You do the planning, the daily scrum, the review and retrospective, rinse, wash, and repeat. Simple. Somewhere along the line, the team gets into a rhythm and everyone knows what to expect next. The customer is seeing increments of product value, the team is delivering, and everybody is happy. This is when a Scrum team is most vulnerable to its greatest enemy: The Ordinary.

The Ordinary is very seductive. It whispers warmly in the ears of your teammates, “Why change now? Why mess with a good thing?” The Ordinary croons some of my favorite tunes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And “Good enough.” The seeds of The Ordinary seek to take root everywhere: in your goals, in your user stories, in your code, in your impediments. When things get “ordinary” on an agile project, it’s really the beginning of the end.

What do I mean by ordinary? Let’s go to the dictionary (Mirriam-Webster):

Main Entry: 2ordinary
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English ordinarie, from Latin ordinarius, from ordin-, ordo order
1 : of a kind to be expected in the normal order of events : ROUTINE, USUAL <an ordinary day>
2 : having or constituting immediate or original jurisdiction; also : belonging to such jurisdiction
3 a : of common quality, rank, or ability <an ordinary teenager> b : deficient in quality : POOR, INFERIOR <ordinary wine>
synonym see COMMON

I’m talking about definitions 1 and 3. Some people might argue that an agile team becoming ordinary is a desirable thing – not me. Ordinary is the archenemy of inspect and adapt. A team that settles for the routine, the usual, is not looking for ways to improve themselves. They’ve become set in their ways and stopped looking for new ways to improve. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. The teams start out gung-ho and launch themselves up the agile learning curve with great gusto, only to stall out midway to their goal. I’ve seen it so much that I think of it as an agile anti-pattern. I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice this – in fact I’m willing to bet that someone else has coined a term to describe it (but I won’t let that slow me down).

What are some of the symptoms of the ordinary in a scrum team? Here are the top 4 places I look for the ordinary on an agile team (in order of importance):

1. Impediments – Missing or failing to resolve them

2. Failing to Act on Retrospective Action Items

3. Meaningless or Missing Sprint Goals

4. Boring Stories

Whenever I go to a standup meeting and one by one everyone says, “No impediments” I know the team has succumbed to The Ordinary. They’ve lost the will to keep seeking improvements. Impediments often seem like deceptively bad things. Impediments slow you down, right? No! Impediments are opportunities to speed up your team! Impediments are a gift, a chance to make things a little better. They are tiny things with subtle impact. They are EVERYWHERE! We live in a veritable soup of impediments every day. That’s part of the problem – we have gotten so used to them that they have become ubiquitous. We fail to recognize them because we have gotten so used to accommodating them. Finding impediments can be hard because we have conditioned ourselves to ignore them. It’s easy to come to the daily stand-up and report, “No impediments.” And get on with the rest of your day. After all, if it was a serious problem it would be staring you in the face, right? No! I would propose that you think of your stand-ups differently. Think of the 15 minute standup as your one golden opportunity to do one small thing to help out your team. Count on it – this is a chance to make big difference to your team. You have just a few brief seconds to identify what you did yesterday, what you’re going to do today, and identify an impediment. An impediment is a gift that you bring to your team every day. Everyone should strive to find one every day – and the scrum master should be striving to eliminate them by the end of the day. Conversely, failing to identify an impediment every day is letting your team down when they need you.

One area that I have failed my team as a scrum master is with the Retrospective. Here is what I mean, part of the Retrospective is to identify the things we would do differently in the next sprint. It’s another one of those golden opportunities for change. However, it is deceptively easy to walk away from the retrospective and forget about those things. It’s almost like we treat it as a purgative experience. We flush out all the bad ju-ju, wave a magic wand, and move on to the next sprint. We sit around and share what went well, we anguish over what didn’t go well, we feel each other’s pain…and everybody goes home. We come back the next day all refreshed, and we continue to work as normal. What’s up with that? When nothing changes, The Ordinary has won again.

Meaningless or missing Sprint Goals are another sign of the Ordinary. When sprint goals are missing, it says to me, this team isn’t willing to take the time to come up with a real reason for accomplishing this sprint. It tells me that they are content to trudge onward without a goal. One story after the other, one foot after the other, marching forward without a goal. That just sounds like drudgery to me. In rugby terms, the objective goes from “Score a goal and win the game” to “get another 5 yards”. The reason, the passion, the objective for why you are doing what you are doing is completely lost. This isn’t a team pushing the envelope – this is a team that forgot to lick the stamp!

I’ve already written about “Passionate User Stories” before. Who wants to work on boring stuff? If you can’t bring any passion to your work, who is going to sign up for those stories? Are you really going to get the team to work hard on something that bores them to death? I don’t think so. The teams that win consistently are the teams that put an equal amount of passion and zeal into everything that they do. Nothing is too ordinary to be elevated and made worth truly doing. When I read boring stories that lack passion, I know that The Ordinary has set up house with that team.

So how do you defeat The Ordinary? You don’t settle for the status quo. You keep pushing yourself and your teammates to bring greatness to your team. Set audacious goals. If you aren’t trying to become the best agile team in your company, then your goals are too low. If you don’t want to be the absolute best, then scrum probably won’t be much more effective than any other methodology. In fact, you have to do more than want it – you have to demand it. You have to expect it of your team. You have to seek out the The Ordinary and root it out where ever it hides. You must hunt it down, identify it, and exterminate it relentlessly.

So what is your job? Your mission is to perform The Extraordinary and settle for nothing less.

11 Responses to Anti-Patterns: When Scrum Becomes Ordinary

  1. Adrian Carr says:

    Hello,
    I came across your article after googling “sprint goals”. This is a great article, and I love your attitude. I agree about being the best team you can possibly be, and avoiding the ordinary. Very well done. Thanks for writing it.
    Adrian

  2. Max says:

    Hi,

    Great insight into how agile teams get bored over time like any other processes in the past. As they settle down, people get comfortable and become less inspecting and looking inside. I have witnessed the phenomenon at many client sites. Everyone seems to be very enthusiastic and pumped up in the initial 6-8 sprints or 1-2 releases. Then the ‘Ordinary’ kicks in.

    Max

  3. Tom says:

    Scrum is a terrible approach to software development. All those that replied positively good luck with getting rid of the kool-aid.

  4. Tom Perry says:

    What a bummer. And here I thought Agile might help. Geez, wait until the team hears this. We thought we were doing something worthwhile. Now I find out we’re all going to fail! Fail! FAIL!

  5. Tom says:

    Scrum is not a methodology. It is a form of micro management. Time boxing is not agile!

  6. Tom Perry says:

    OK. I can honestly understand why someone might see Scrum that way. Fortunately there are plenty of different ways to develop software aside from Scrum.

    My point in writing that article is that if you are going to take on a new methodology (I don’t care what it is), jump in with both feet. Otherwise, get out of the pool. Doing any methodology without a commitment to seeing it succeed is a waste of time.

  7. […] Standup Meetings  – Martin Fowler AntiPatterns for Daily Standup Meetings  – Mr Ed AntiPatterns – Ordinary Scrum  – Agile Tools Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  8. I don’t believe that you can escape what you call ‘the Ordinary’ when only a small part of your being experiences the (relative) freedom and autonomy that Agile working practices promote. As soon as you look outside your team, or look to the larger picture behind the ‘stories’, meaning and relevance, autonomy and freedom are hollowed out, exposed as serving goals from which you are alienated.
    As it seems you are suggesting with your Project anarchy post, experience of freedom is a one way street.

    • Tom Perry says:

      Wow. I’ll be honest: I’m having a bit of trouble following that. It sounds really interesting. I’ll admit that more than a little of my writing probably conveys a sense of some alienation.
      Escaping the ordinary probably comes down to the individual and their ability to transcend the team, the project, and the work and see things in a broader context of their own personal mission and goals.

      Or maybe not🙂

      • Sorry – over-dense…
        I suppose what I’m saying is that staking out a space to work in an agile way within a larger context is great, but if the larger context doesn’t offer true freedom, then after a while you might feel as if you’re in the same situation as before, just with a longer tether, in a bigger cage.
        Only now you have the taste for freedom…
        Thanks for your blog, by the way!

      • Tom Perry says:

        Thank you! Totally makes sense, and I think it’s often the challenge that some teams face, especially when they are transitioning to agile in larger organizations.

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