Paradoxically, success is one of the main reasons for the failure of good ideas, whether they’re religious, political, or “Agile”. Good frameworks appear simple, but they are generally deep. They require careful attention to be done well. They require learning and mindful application.

Yet when some framework of ideas gains success, it gains followers. The faster it grows, the more its adherents tend to be beginners. The more popular it becomes, the more its adherents are only superficially engaged with the deep ideas that contain the real value of the framework.

At the same time, the framework experiences great growth. More people want to learn about it. More people want to be part of it. The people supporting the framework see more and more people clamoring to get on board. They work to bring more people in, faster and faster. The framework supporters become more successful. The gold rush continues.

Unfortunately, this rapid growth adds adherents faster than it adds deep understanding. We get more and more members, yet the average understanding declines.

We’re popular. We’re just not very good, at least not on the average. Our average is going down. All of our children are no longer above average.1

Good ideas get so popular that there is a demand for people who can help shepherd others into the framework. We create teachers and coaches who, with the best of will, are themselves not yet very experienced. They do not fully understand the deep issues. But, because demand is high, they will probably be fairly successful, in that they bring more and more people into the fold.

I believe that Scrum and “Agile” caught in this cycle. More and more people who teach Scrum and “Agile” are caught and drifting. This is a primary cause of Dark Scrum.

By the numbers …

One way of seeing the problem is this: there are around 400,000 Certified ScrumMasters presently on the Scrum Alliance rolls. There are probably about half a million who have been certified, with around 100,000 of them having not even renewed their membership.

Have these CSMs improved their understanding? Have they gone deeply into Scrum and the related ideas? We have reason to doubt it. Even though it only takes three years of experience and a little personal study to move from CSM to “Certified Scrum Professional”, only about 4500 people have advanced to CSP.

Fewer than two percent of all CSMs have become certified Professionals. What does this tell us? Have none of these CSMs done the necessary few hours of self improvement? We have no way of knowing for sure, but if they have done the work, why wouldn’t they apply for the rating? It’s practically free. I fear that most of them may have stopped learning when they got the lowest-level rating.

It all seems to make sense.

Scrum is good.
CSM is good.
We need more CSMs.
We need more CSM trainers.
CSM trainers make good money.
Loop.

Meanwhile, the average ability of Scrum practitioners is driven down by virtue of the increasing number of beginners we pump into the pool. It’s difficult to sell them more training. It’s risky even to try. Meanwhile teaching the CSM course is less risky. There’s high demand for it, after all.

“Agile” is suffering the same fate …

We see the same thing with “Agile”. Many of my Manifesto co-authors have been arguing for years that “Agile is dead” and the like.2 At the big Scrum and Agile conferences, we see fewer and fewer vendors offering in-depth courses. We see more and more tool vendors, most of whom are old-style waterfall tools repurposed to help people “manage” their “Agile” efforts. We see more and more offerings aimed at “scaling” an organization’s efforts. What we do not see is a healthy ecosystem of offerings about how to actually do Agile Software Development.3

Unless something changes, this is a path to the bottom.

Hope from an enterprise focus?

Oh, some people offer hope. There is increasing focus on getting “Agile” ideas pushed up in the enterprise. There’s interest in “Agile Leadership”. Obviously a highly-placed “Agile Leader” can imbue more people with the true values, principles, and practices that lead to real success. Over time, this effort may trickle down to the leaves of the organizational tree, where the work is actually done. When that happens, more and more work will be transformed, and more and more workers will see their lives improve.

At least that’s the theory. I find it a bit difficult to see why a highly placed manager would take on the Agile values and principles without experiencing the resulting responsiveness to change that they promise. I see two possible outcomes that are more likely:

First, Scrum and Agile provide some measurable benefit even when done in a very oppressive “Dark Scrum” fashion. Unfortunately, this means that lip service to the values, combined with a focus on lots of iterations and feedback, can seem to be success. In Dark Scrum, management doesn’t ever really learn what it’s all about.

Second, Scrum done poorly doesn’t provide much value, though it does provide some. If leadership discovers that Scrum appears not to work very well — and done poorly it really doesn’t work very well — they are likely to stop supporting it and the whole thing goes away as just another management fad.

Some of my Manifesto co-authors would say that horse has already sailed. And perhaps it has.

I didn’t get into this stuff to help the enterprise continue itself. I got into it because doing XP and Scrum can improve productivity of teams, produce better products, and make people’s work lives more enjoyable. Is that still possible? I hope so. We’ll explore more possibilities as this series continues. Meanwhile …

Summing up

One way or another, what began as a good way for a group of people to produce really excellent results with software, while vastly improving their work lives and serving their organization better, has devolved into a very successful industry selling tools and training to the enterprise.

Scrum and “Agile” are very successful by the numbers, but the essential benefits are not much closer, and may well be further away. It’s good business. It’s even a bit good for business. In too many cases, it hasn’t been good for the people doing the work.

And Dark Scrum continues to thrive. The Jira reports look good, though. That’s nice.


  1. Perhaps we should call this the Keillor Effect, after the great Garrison Keillor.

  2. Apparently I am a slow learner.

  3. My colleague Chet Hendrickson likes to say that you can’t scale something if you can’t even do it. As these Dark Scrum articles are describing, most organizations can’t even do Scrum very well one team at a time. Yet they want to scale? I think not.