Scrum Doesn’t Solve Problems

I saw a post on Twitter a few weeks ago that I can’t get out of my mind:

Jeffries can be cantankerous (which is awesome), but he’s dead-on with this one. He’s talking about software companies and teams. Companies implementing Scrum tend to have one of a few major problems (based on what I’ve read):

  • implementing Scrum without addressing waterfall or traditionalist company culture issues that will ultimately doom an Agile approach
  • implementing “Scrum-but,” basically halfheartedly starting to do Scrum without all of the actual pieces of the framework (“We do Scrum, but we don’t do stand-ups or cross-functional teams.” – uhh, that’s not Scrum, dude).
  • implementing Scrum, and expecting it to magically resolve all of the companies’ problems, then getting disillusioned when it doesn’t.

Scrum is a framework, not a panacea or a quick fix for culture issues, team dysfunction, top-down management interference, lack of trust and respect among employees. Companies that implement Scrum without a true commitment to the entire framework might feel blind-sided when these issues reveal themselves. Companies that know about their dysfunctions and implement Scrum with integrity are prepared to address these issues as they are more clearly revealed.

Scrum is really hard to implement in organizations that don’t start out Agile. There is often too much legacy culture and “how we do things around here” to get past, and the commitment required to do it is often just not there. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, right?

What the heck does this have to do with faculty and higher ed? Sure, it’s not a direct correlation, and really what I’m preaching in Agile Faculty could be considered “scrum-but.” But just imagine trying to run your institution with Scrum, flipping a switch overnight. Or even just your department. Academic culture is rock hard and possibly impossible to break through at existing institutions.

Scrum can work for individual faculty and small groups like research teams and committees. I wouldn’t have written the book if I didn’t believe that. But we also have to remember that we are facing centuries of ingrained academic culture, much of it so far in our heads we don’t even recognize it as our operating system. On an individual level, remember that Agile and Scrum won’t simply solve your productivity problems right away (sorry) and they might reveal to you some other problems, maybe in your workload, priorities, values, approach to self-care. That’s valuable insight. I’m on that journey and have those personal revelations at different points along the way. Scrum can be transformative in helping you know yourself and achieve your goals, but it’s not a cure all. Scrum won’t fix your problems, though it will likely reveal some. It’s up to you to fix them.

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I am a faculty teaching and learning specialist in the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech and have 17 years of experience teaching professional writing and rhetoric to undergraduates. From a faculty development lens, I care about helping faculty create vital careers through meaningful productivity, powerful teaching, and life-long curiosity. My book, Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching (2017), is available from the University of Chicago Press, and my co-edited collection, Redesigning Liberal Education, will be available from Johns Hopkins University Press July 2020. @RPR_Agile on Twitter

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