Breaking The Wheel

A picture of a factory, which are parts of institutions, which sometimes create conflict of interest. Also, scrum.

Conflict of Interest: The Fancy Mess of Scrum, Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I talked about the functional issues of scrum. In this post, I want to talk about the larger, economic problem with scrum. Namely, what was once an idea designed to support other industries has become an industry unto itself. And with that comes what economists would call a “conflict of interest.”

By Reading This Post, You Will Learn:

  • How the idea of scrum has become the institution of scrum
  • Why scrum is as much about marketing as it is about productivity
  • Why scrum is an “entrenched interest”
  • The definition of a “conflict of interest” and why the institution of scrum fits that definition

The Idea of Scrum Versus the Institution of Scrum

The Crow, Brandon Lee’s final movie, is so early 90’s it hurts. The soundtrack alone is a relic of a bygone era. It’s not a great movie, but I still have an indelible love for it. At the start of the final act, the villanous Top Dollar (player to a T by the ominously voiced Michael Wincott) has gathered his minions for a meeting. He desires a change of pace for their annual criminal endeavor, Devil’s Night. A pivot, if you will. “A man has an idea,” he proclaims. “The idea attracts others, like-minded. The idea expands. The idea becomes the institution.”

That’s how I feel about scrum.

Scrum started as an idea – a response to the challenges of software development, created by real professionals in a commercial setting. It was a good idea – a means to an end. That idea attracted other developers who also wanted to improve their processes. And then, much as Bruce Lee found with martial arts pedagogy, somewhere along the way the means became the ends. The objective of having an efficient, effect process was superceded by the end goal of having an authentic scrum framework.

The idea of scrum has become, quite literally, the institution of scrum. And I mean the literal version of “literally”.

Haters Gonna Hate (But I’m Not a Hater)

I am not anti-scrum. It was an essential starting point for me as a project and process manager. It offered a means for me to provide value for employers and clients. It’s a great foundation for effective production. Further, it’s great foundation for teams looking to improve their modus operandi.

That said, our goal should always be to increase efficiency, not to strictly adhere to dogmatic execution of a pre-defined framework.

A Note

This article assumes a basic knowledge of the scrum framework. Both describing and critiquing the framework in the same post would make for an excessively high word count.

There’s Nothing Like Marketing to Ruin a Good Time

Scrum is now undeniably, empirically, unequivocally an industry unto itself. There are scrum associations, scrum certifications, scrum conventions, scrum consultants†, scrum coaches, and scrum trainers. What was a means to ship products became a product unto itself. And while I don’t begrudge any of the people involved their livelihoods, this also creates a real problem of incentives.

Scrum Is No Longer a Solution – It’s a Product

First of all, there’s the issue of marketing. I have an MBA with a dual concentration in marketing and entrepreneurship. Which, essentially, means I have a degree in marketing and highly specialized marketing. What’s more, I earned that degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, renowned as one of, if not the best school for marketing in the world.

Point being: I know marketing when I see it.

Marketing has three essential functions: convince you that you have a problem, convince you to purchase a solution to that problem, and then convince you to increase your consumption of said solution.

Now let’s look at scrum. We have a clear problem: product development is hard. Scrum provides an effective solution to that problem in the form of training and certification. Okay fair enough. Now, for the third piece: consumption.

Do me a favor: go look at the Scrum Alliance website’s certification page. There are three tiers of certifications, each with multiple varieties of certificates. Each, in turn, carries it’s own training and certification costs, and many of which require regular re-certification (again, for a cost) and participating in ongoing “scrum education units” (also at a cost).

The Conflict of Interests at the Heart of Scrum

I’m not arguing that these certifications are worthless or fraudulent. But scrum has become a commercial enterprise unto itself. Many people now make their living not in product development but in selling some aspect of scrum. Those people depend on the existence and popularity of scrum as industry to put food on the table. And that, in turn, makes scrum an entrenched interest.

Economists refer to this phenomenon as a conflict of interest: “multiple interests, financial or otherwise, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation or decision-making of that individual or organization” (source: Wikipedia). The people who make their livelihoods propagating scrum are nominally (and sincerely) working to improve product development. But they also need scrum to remain the premier development framework, or their livelihoods dry up.

A Thought Exercise

Now, let’s say an empirically, verifiably better production framework came along. Like, let’s just imagine that there was no contest – this new framework wiped the floor with scrum. Further, let’s imagine that this new framework is gaining popularity – it’s a viable contender to scrum.

Do you think the collective entrenched interest of scrum would just fold up its tent and roll on out? Would all of the multiple people who make their livings from scrum all gladly call it a day and hit the unemployment line?

Granted some forward-thinking individuals would evolve with the times. But a large contingent of people would be incented to fight this new framework tooth and nail in order to protect the institution of scrum, and they would do so. They would fund research studies shitting all over this new framework. They would sponsor articles and opinion pieces in industry magazines and blogs calling it a sham or snake oil. Or, they would seek to ostracize, repudiate, and denigrate any figureheads associated with it.

This is not the paranoid rambling of a lone blogger. The historical record is pretty clear on this phenomenon: entrenched interests are conservative, defensive, and would rather fight change than adapt to it. Cab companies lobby politicians to ban or hinder ride-sharing. The macro brewers responded to the growth of the micro brew market not by making better beer themselves (clearly), but by leveraging anti-competitive practices. When the sugar industry wanted to increase consumption rates, it funded a study linking saturated fat to coronary disease to eliminate some caloric competition. Established automotive companies and dealerships are fighting Tesla’s direct-to-consumer sales model not with better practices but by leveraging political capital to enact legislation in favor of dealership-model exclusivity.

So What Do We Do Instead?

Why, I thought you’d never ask! Here’s where I pitch my new book describing my proposed framework.

In all seriousness, the last thing we need to replace one compromised framework is another. I’m not here to say to everyone, “Let’s toss out scrum and go with kanban!” (although I do think that would be a good start).

So my recommendation would be not to focus on frameworks as an end goal at all. Again, established frameworks like scrum are good foundations for production, but they are also problematic because they are provided as “one size fits all” and because they will, almost inevitably, lead to associations and entrenched interests down the line.

Instead, we should focus on our mindset. I don’t advocate for scrum anymore. Nor kanban. Instead I’m an advocate for lean production. Lean is less a framework than a philosophy: waste should be eliminated. Comprehensively, systematically, and ruthlessly. We need to analyze our activities from the perspective of value-adding and non-value-adding. We need to gather, analyze, and optimize the metrics behind our processes, not just at the macro, sprint or story level, but at the micro, step-by-step level. Rather than rigidly applying frameworks, we should rigidly apply the scientific method.

By all means, take good ideas from scrum, or kanban, or extreme programming. Use them as the starting point, the petri dish for your operations. But then synthesize them into something new and optimal for your company, project, and culture.

Further Reading If You Enjoyed This Post

Lean Development for Games – Game Planning With Science! Part 9

Video Game Art Pipelines – Game Planning With Science! Part 1

The Time Value of Fixes, Or: A Fix in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush

The Fancy Mess of Scrum

Now again, to reiterate, I am not anti-scrum. If my choices are between seat-of-my-pants management, waterfall, and scrum, I’ll take scrum every time. But scrum is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. And in talking with practitioners, it sometimes feels like we’ve forgotten that. “That’s not scrum” is a meaningless, vapid rebuttal to any process change suggestion, and yet I hear it invoked as it were a decisive argument.

Indeed, there are practitioners out there trying to move the framework forward (story mapping is a great example). But that progress is still done under the umbrella of scrum, which means it is subservient to the institution.

Bruce Lee summed up his disdain for the stagnancy of martial arts by describing it as a fancy mess. And that’s the danger I see ahead for scrum. The goal should be to maximize productivity and reduce cycle times, not to strictly adhere to dogma.

As Top Dollar said at the end of his speech, “The idea has become the institution. Time to move along.”


Key Takeaways

  • Scrum has mutated from a framework into an institution, and thus has become an entrenched interest
  • The institution of scrum shows the telltale signs of a marketing-led organization: selling a solution to a problem and working to increase consumption of said solution
  • The number of people who and groups that make their living from propagating scrum create an entrenched interest
  • This entrenched interest, in turn, creates a significant conflict of interest for people who make their livings from scrum
  • While there’s nothing wrong with using scrum as a starting point for effective production, the goal of effective management should be to eliminate waste and increase productivity, not adhere to dogma

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† Full disclosure: “scrum consultant” is my roll at one of my current clients. “Hypocrisy!” you cry, but the truth is I haven’t been on a scrum team at the client for over a year. I’ve made sure that the teams I’m on are using continuous flow processes, and I’ve been a consistent advocate for moving away from scrum.
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“Conflicts of Interest: The Fancy Mess of Scrum, Part 3” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



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