Common Challenges

Scrum is not only a concrete set of practices – rather, and more importantly, it is a framework that provides transparency, and a mechanism that allows “inspect and adapt”. Scrum works by making visible the dysfunction and impediments that are impacting the Product Owner and the Team’s effectiveness, so that they can be addressed. For example, the Product Owner may not really know the market, the features, or how to estimate their relative business value. Or the Team may be unskillful in effort estimation or development work.

The Scrum framework will quickly reveal these weaknesses. Scrum does not solve the problems of development; it makes them painfully visible, and provides a framework for people to explore ways to resolve problems in short cycles and with small improvement experiments.

Suppose the Team fails to deliver what they forecast in the first Sprint due to poor task analysis and estimation skill. To the Team, this feels like failure. But in reality, this experience is the necessary first step toward becoming more realistic and thoughtful about its forecasts. This pattern – of Scrum helping make visible dysfunction, enabling the Team to do something about it – is the basic mechanism that produces the most significant benefits that Teams using Scrum experience.

One common mistake made, when presented with a Scrum practice that is challenging, is to change Scrum. For example, Teams that have trouble delivering might decide to make the Sprint duration extendable, so it never runs out of time – and in the process, ensure it never has to learn how to do a better job of estimating and managing its time. In this way, without coaching and the support of an experienced ScrumMaster, organizations can mutate Scrum into just a mirror image of their own weaknesses and dysfunction, and undermine the real benefit that Scrum offers: Making visible the good and the bad, and giving the organization the choice of elevating itself to a higher level.

Another common mistake is to assume that a practice is discouraged or prohibited just because Scrum does not specifically require it. For example, Scrum does not require the Product Owner to set a long-term strategy for his or her product; nor does it require engineers to seek advice from more experienced engineers about complex technical problems. Scrum leaves it to the individuals involved to make the right decision; and in most cases, both of these practices (along with many others) are well advised.

Something else to be wary of is managers imposing Scrum on their Teams; Scrum is about giving a Team space and tools to manage itself, and having this dictated from above is not a recipe for success. A better approach might begin with a Team learning about Scrum from a peer or manager, getting comprehensively educated in professional training, and then making a decision as a Team to follow the practices faithfully for a defined period; at the end of that period, the Team will evaluate its experience, and decide whether to continue.

The good news is that while the first Sprint is usually very challenging to the Team, the benefits of Scrum tend to be visible by the end of it, leading many new Scrum Teams to exclaim: “Scrum is hard, but it sure is a whole lot better than what we were doing before!”