Is Scrum anti-maker? Is it anti-making? Is it useless marketing BS? Certainly there are issues.

I seem to be taking my text from the Very Reverend GeePaw Hill in recent days, and today is no exception. The eminent gentleman took a shot at Scrum the other day:

Scrum is useless marketing bullshit.

At its best, it was maker-indifferent. That was some years ago, tho.


It’s anti-maker and anti-making.

It’s fucking powerpoint.

He took a few shots around that time, but the one above pretty well sums up his overall viewpoint.

Now I think it is fair to say that GeePaw is generally skeptical of “movements” and “organizations” of any kind, and as I look around at the world today, I can see the point. So it may be that his text above is more condemning than my own thoughts, which I shall share forthwith.

What is Scrum?

I suppose we have to start here, talking about what Scrum is. And, like most interesting terms, “Scrum” means a lot of things, and they’re not all the same. Let’s think of a few, to kind of delineate the space.

The Scrum Guide
“Scrum is what’s in the Scrum Guide.” This is easy to say, and yet not a very good definition. The Guide changes over time. Did Scrum change, or was it just described better? And the Guide is subject to interpretation, as is all human language.
Someone’s Teachings
Scrum is what Alex teaches in their Scrum class. Alex is a certified trainer, and so we can assume that what they teach is legitimate Scrum. Of course Jan and Sam are also certified, and their teachings are not identical to Alex’s.
Someone’s Learnings
Avery and Blake took Scrum training, so Scrum is what they learned. Unfortunately, Avery and Blake don’t always agree on things.
What the Team Does
Scrum is what the team we’re looking at does. They have a part-time ScrumMaster and a Product Owner who brings them instructions from the VP of Marketing, and they use two-month Sprints and have never hit their required committed number of User Stories even once.

We begin to see some problems here. Even the best most favorable “definition” of Scrum is vague and things just get worse from there. What’s a body to do?

What is Bad?

Let’s try another angle. GeePaw seems to think that Scrum is bad. I think that’s a fair interpretation of his comments. And he finds it to be “anti-maker and anti-making”. I think this shines some light toward the meaning we’re looking for.

It seems clear to me that since Scrum purports to be a product development framework, the Scrum in this sentence is pro-making, not anti. And since I know many people in the Scrum biz, I am confident that they, at least, are not anti-maker. Many of them very sincerely recognize the needs of developers, and do the best they can to help them.

So Scrum as defined, and as taught, probably does not fall to the level of anti-making and anti-maker. At least not quite. And this brings me to another possible meaning for “Scrum”.

The Scrumiverse
Scrum, for our purposes, is the thought and action cloud around the word Scrum, around the Scrum “notion”. Scrum is what the whole Scrum system is and does.

How about that? Scrum is “the whole damn system”, the guide, the books, the trainers, the coaches, the students, the readers, the people doing the work, the work being done, the way that work is managed. Scrum is everything touched by Scrum. Everything influenced by Scrum.

Political Digression

Skip this if you wish. I want to touch on the notion of systemic problems, with some examples.

Systemic Racism
It can readily be argued that many of our world systems are biased racially. In the USA, it’s easier to get a loan if you’re white, easier to get a job, easier to get a raise, easier to get an education … and those things feed back into the system, making it easier for people to advance over time if they are white.
Systemic Sexism
We can make similar arguments about sexism, especially in STEM areas, but its clear overall that the system makes things harder for women and other genders than they are for men.

I could go on, but this is a digression. The point is, the world can be seen not just as individuals interacting, but as groups interacting as well. You can look at systems of ideas and practices as if they are “actors” in the system, even though we’d not argue that they are in any sense conscious and choosing actions.

I think the notion of systemic effects is an idea that not everyone shares. And that can lead to problems. If a person doesn’t appreciate that systems have a life of their own, then when they hear of “systemic racism”, they think they are being called racist, or they want to argue that the system is fine, it’s just that there are some racists in it.

They are mistaken. There used to be “red-lined” neighborhoods, and you couldn’t get a decent mortgage loan in those neighborhoods. Today, red-lining is illegal, but there are still neighborhoods where you can’t get a decent loan. And even the most generous friendly non-racist banker still can’t give you a loan, because he can only do loans that will pass through the loan software, and the software knows.

The software wasn’t written by a racist. It was written by a programmer who was told how to assess the value of a loan, and who coded that equation. And it wasn’t a racist product owner … and on and on … somewhere, maybe, you’d find someone with a racist theme in mind … or you might just find someone observing property values going up and down without knowing or wondering why.

The system winds up making decisions that are correlated with race in a way that is disadvantageous to people of color.

But I digress. We’re here to talk about Scrum.

The Scrum System

OK. We’re looking at the whole Scrum system, the alliances and orgs, the trainers, the coaches, the managers who bring in scrum, the managers who are given scrum to do, the trained scrummasters and product owners, the untrained ones, the people who’ve written the books, the people who have read them, the people who have heard the book titles, the people who just showed up at work on day and found themselves “doing Scrum”. The whole darn thing.

Is it fair to say that the whole darn thing, the Scrum System, is anti-maker and anti-making? (We may discuss at a later time whether it is “useless marketing bullshit” or “fucking powerpoint”. Then again, we may not.)

I think that the most pro-Scrum, Scrum-knowledgable person would say two things about whether Scrum is anti-maker and anti-making:

  1. Scrum is agnostic with regards to the details of making a product. It is intended to be of value in making any product, and thus properly provides no making-specific advice.
  2. Scrum is very much in favor of everyone on the team, everyone touched by Scrum, prospering. Done well, Scrum helps a team serve all the needs of all the team members, and it helps everyone in the entire organization. It’s certainly not anti-anyone.

These people are talking about Scrum-as-intended, Scrum-as-defined, Scrum-as-it-should-be. They’re not talking about Scrum-as-it-is, the Scrum System.

When we look at the system as a whole, we see something very different, and very telling.

If we look into the Swirl of Scrum, we do find people working to provide Scrum value to makers, that is, to what Scrum calls “the dev team”. We see trainers, coaches, writers, all trying to help makers. Those people are very much in the minority, but they are there. We also see the results, which, last I knew, were that for every 100 Certified ScrumMasters, there is less than one certified developer. So, yeah, maybe there are pro-maker things going on, but the net effect is terribly weak.

The Big Scrum Business

If we look at the incentives for the alliance and org, we can guess that they measure their success primarily by the number of people they certify, and perhaps by the number of people who come to their conferences. To increase the number of people who come to the conferences, they broaden the conference content, moving very much away from anything about “making” and toward coaching and managering and scrummastering and product ownering. All those subjects, as difficult as they are, are easier to teach than is scrum development. (I’ll be happy to debate that with anyone. Anyone should expect to lose the debate.)

If we look at the position of the Scrum Alliance on helping developers, it’s summed up in what its Chief Product Owner told me:

Hi @ronjeffries I’ll be brief here.

It looks like you are gaining together some ground swell of community members that are in the trenches doing the work to help effect change in the world. This seems like a good strategy, as these are the people invested in making a difference ( with there clients and with our programs) I’m open for a proposal of the team that might lead this.

We have always been a “ By the community, for the community” type of place. When ideas have enough buy in from a cross section of peers, it makes them far more actionable.

So - you are reaching the right people. Carry on.

I called that a “Polite Brushoff” in the article reporting that reply. If you were to try to make the case that they are not “pro-maker”, you might start with that quotation. Sounds a lot like “not my problem”. “Nie mój cyrk. Nie moje małpy”1.

The Small Scrum Business

If we look at the scrum-supporting small lbusinesses and individuals out there, we find very many who specialize in the scrummaster, a fair number who support product owners, some who coach teams or enterprises, and very very few who even try to provide services for developers. And they’ll all tell you that the market is weak: it’s hard to sell developer training and coaching.

And it is. It’s not that there’s no need, but the market itself is not strong, and no one knows how to crack it. The difficulty isn’t germane to our topic here. The fact is, neither Big Scrum nor Small Scrum is effectively serving the making side of the Scrum equation.

Scrum on the Ground

If we look at the Scrum installations on the ground, we can of course find some really good ones, and we’ll find many where someone will tell you things are better than before Scrum. But in a very large number of cases we will also find teams that are under terrible pressure, teams that honestly do not know how to deliver software every week or two.

We’ll find huge swaths of Grey Scrum, shading to Dark Scrum … and we’ll find some Nice Shiny White Scrum as well. But there are vast tracts of Scrum that are not doing effective making, and where that’s the case, Scrum appears not to be helping, and the kind of Scrum they’re doing, be it by the book or not, is in effect anti-maker and anti-making.

Guilty As Charged

If we look at the System That Is Scrum, I am inclined to agree with GeePaw that Scrum is anti-maker and anti-making.

What fascinates me is that you probably couldn’t find a single individual in the Scrum Community who is actually anti-maker or anti-making. I can’t think of one. What you would find is people of good will, who are probably mostly even generally in favor of making and makers. but whose own priorities (and abilities and incentives) are different. Their job is to increase the number of certifications, or to coach the enterprise, or to write up what Scrum is in yet another excellent What Scrum Is Book. Their chosen line of work is to help people understand how to manage a product development using Scrum, or how to look at a product need and slice it into Scrum-sized bites, or any of a myriad of other important and valuable things.

And the resulting system has very little good in it for making and makers, and the net impact of all that very little is that the things that impact makers and making are under-served, and, in the end, Dark Scrum results.

What Can We Do?

At this point, it’d be pretty easy to be a glass 85% empty person and join Hill in his impassioned cri de cœur. He’s not wrong. Scrum, seen as the whole system, is very much anti-maker and anti-making, despite the good will of everyone I know inside that system.

I suppose another way of looking at it is that there is a huge unserved market out there. That it is a market that seems either to have no money, or not to know that it needs help, “just” means that you’d have to educate the market before you can educate the market. Of course, those of us who can help the makers are generally on the low end of the “how to sell anything” scale, though there are some exceptions.

Be that as it may, there does seem to be plenty of business out there for the development-oriented mentors and coaches who exist, so, in the small, all those individuals can feel good about what they’re doing, and can mostly make a living at it.

But at scale? There must be five million makers working under the thumb of Scrum, and most of them simply do not have the skills you need to work effectively in Scrum.

I’m sure that someone said “the future is in our hands, but our hands are weak”, though I can’t find the quote just now. It’s true anyway. GeePaw, and I, and all the dev-oriented folks I know, look at this huge problem and realize that we can’t solve it.

Unless … if each of us can help two people or ten people, and those two or ten help two or ten … maybe, just maybe, we can grow and grow and one day make enough change so that we can’t just offhand prove that Scrum is anti-maker and anti-making.

You have to have hope, I guess.

And you also have to face facts. And the facts do seem to support GeePaw’s view.

But hope. There is hope. We have to keep trying.

  1. “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.” But it is their circus and monkeys. It is.