Image by Anna Shvets

Scrum is a Crutch

May 16, 2024

If you've ever broken an ankle, gone through a procedure that immobilized part of your leg, or done anything else that required you to use crutches, you were probably very thankful for them. When you need crutches, you need crutches..

If the circumstances that require you to have crutches are temporary, you probably can't wait to stop using them. That means working hard through your physical therapy, using caution to make sure you don't aggravate your condition, or otherwise doing what you can to make sure you can get rid of them completely.

For somebody with a more permanent condition, having crutches is certainly preferable to not having them. Whether temporary or permanent, your crutches are there to increase your mobility when needed.

In much the same way, Scrum is a management crutch.

Management is hard. Often, managers just don't want to manage. "These are adults - I shouldn't have to explain to them how to do their jobs!" these managers might say.

At its bare essentials, management means working with people to coordinate what needs to be done. Sometimes that means helping those people grow before they can accomplish those things, and sometimes it means recognizing that they aren't going to be able to grow enough to fulfill their responsibilities. With this recognition comes making hard decisions.

So how is Scrum a crutch?

If an organization is dysfunctional and not being managed properly, implementing Scrum can probably move the organization in a positive direction. Sometimes you need a crutch, and there's nothing wrong with using scrum when it is the best option available - but hopefully you can evolve beyond it.

  • If everyone feels like the development cycle is a never-ending death march with no progress, then splitting your work up into sprints can be an effective way of breaking that cycle.
  • If nobody is coordinating what is being worked on, then doing formal sprint planning can provide a framework for getting that done.
  • When nobody is willing to talk about what's broken and how to fix it, sprint reviews can provide the mechanism for having those discussions.
  • In an environment with confusion about who is in charge and what everybody's roles are, designating a product owner and a scrum master can help wrangle responsibilities on the team.

If your goal is to be a truly agile organization, hopefully you can quickly grow out of the rigidity of Scrum. If a bunch of scheduled, regimented ceremonies doesn't sound particularly agile, then by all means be ready to grow past the regimentation.

An entire cottage industry of certifications has cropped up around validating that you can exactly and perfectly implement a development system. If that doesn’t sound agile to you (and why would it?), then pick and choose what you want from a methodology or a mixture of methodologies.

The strongest proponents of scrum mock an organization that deviates from it, calling the deviation "ScrumBut". As in, "We are Scrum BUT we don't like being forced into a pointless standup every morning when we are spread across multiple time zones". Instead of a sign of weakness, a well placed "but" can be exactly how you start to progress beyond the rigidity.

Don't feel obligated to do a daily standup. Is the team constantly in contact anyway as they collaborate throughout the day, with managers checking in frequently? Just "ScrumBut" that standup away.

Don't feel forced to wait until sprint planning to start working on the next thing. Do you have a well-managed backlog, with tasks queued up and ready to go? Why force rigidity when you can be agile instead? Come up with your own way of managing the necessary preparation and planning.

Scrum is a workable framework when you don't have something better - just as when you are bedridden, crutches are a great step towards full mobility.

If you can grow and evolve towards proactive, context-based management, you can free yourself from those crutches and start to move with actual agility. Treat your goals like a marathon, and work towards them as such. Adapt the way you work to what your organization needs, rather than blindly applying a system that apparently worked for some other team under very different circumstances a long time ago.

Yes, Scrum is a crutch. Feel free to use it as one, but only on your way to something better.