Marcus Aurelius on how to implement Scrum

Being an Agile coach I help organizations to improve their way of thinking and working based on Agile mindset, values and principles. Part of that is providing training on Agile and Scrum. I teach participants what Agile values and principles are, what Scrum is and what is is not, so as about Growth mindset, team-based organizations, collaboration, frequent customer feedback and customer value maximization. I usually get the same reaction about Agile and Scrum, especially from people from big companies. Their concerns can be summarized as “it will never work here”:

  • We need a collocated/cross-functional/self-organizing teams so it will not work here
  • We can’t release every Sprint because of regulatory requirements so it will not work here
  • We need a business-person with a lot of decision making power as Product owner but such a person might be a C-level so it will not work here.

It is a pretty common idea that in order to do Scrum (and be agile, broadly speaking) one needs to changes the organization so that it would be a perfectly Agile and its processes 100% compliant with Scrum guide. Who would not like to have all the Agile things in place: co-located team, autonomy and self-organization, continuous deployment, agile budgeting and all the other. The problem with this viewpoint is that it’s often too hard to do so much change at once. So it demotivates and leads to “this will never work here” attitude.

But is it really an all-or-nothing game?

Do we really need to be absolutely, 100% perfect?

I study (and practice) Stoicism, partly because I believe it’s a life philosophy that fits best for me (at least among those that I am aware of). And partly because it is a very practical philosophy, and it helped (and continues to help) me to improve my personal life, family relationships and work. One of the best advice on Scrum adoption (and any changes in general) I got from Marcus Aurelius. He was a Roman Emperor about 2000 years ago and wrote a diary that was later published and became a thought-provoking, guiding and inspiring book for many generations of thinkers. This is what he wrote in book 8 paragraph 32:

You have to assemble your life – action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.
– But there are external obstacles…
Not to behaving with justice, self-control and good sense.
– Well, but perhaps to some more concrete action.
But if you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself – another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action.

This is an approach to organizational change that I believe in. You need to know what your vision is. For Scrum, the vision that you are aiming at is described in the Scrum Guide. Once you define your vision, the best is to aim at some possible step toward that vision. You take a step – the one that is possible. Then you observe. Probably you will open some new opportunities for action. Align yourself with your vision, and take the next step – the one that is possible with what you have. Repeat. Over and over. Action by action. Make a change. One step at a time. Inspect and adapt. What is important is to keep moving.

You don’t release every sprint? But you reduced release cycle from 18 month to 4. You don’t have a cross-functional team? But your testers started to talk with developers rather than just sending each other documentation. Your team is not 100% self-organized? But you agreed with your manager on some areas that your team has full authority rather than asking him for every smallest decision. So people say that you are not doing Scrum? The goal is not to “do Scrum” per se but to maximize value. Keep the Scrum guide in mind and keep moving.

You might never get to the ideal, but what is cool in the idea of continuous improvement – there is always something that you can make a bit better. So master the art of possible, and change for good. Action by action.