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Abandoning Scrum: Can a Scrum Team Decide to Quit Scrum?

TL; DR: Abandoning Scrum

Can a Scrum team simply decide to abandon Scrum? After all, the Scrum team is self-managing, according to the Scrum manual, also known as the Scrum Guide. So, let’s explore this question at the very heart of team autonomy.

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Abandoning Scrum According to the Scrum Guide

There are several references to self-management and team autonomy in the Scrum Guide 2020. However, no paragraph is addressing the question of when and how to abandon Scrum directly:

  • Page 4: Adaptation becomes more difficult when the people involved are not empowered or self-managing.
  • Page 4: These [Scrum] values give direction to the Scrum Team with regard to their work, actions, and behavior. The decisions that are made, the steps taken, and the way Scrum is used should reinforce these values, not diminish or undermine them.
  • Page 5: [Scrum Teams] are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.
  • Page 5: They are structured and empowered by the organization to manage their own work.
  • Page 6: The Scrum Master serves the Scrum Team in several ways, including coaching the team members in self-management and cross-functionality.
  • Page 7: The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including leading, training, and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption.
  • Page 7: The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including planning and advising Scrum implementations within the organization.
  • Page 8: [Sprint Planning: How will the chosen work get done?] How this is done is at the sole discretion of the Developers. No one else tells them how to turn Product Backlog items into Increments of value.
  • Page 9: The Developers can select whatever structure and techniques they want, as long as their Daily Scrum focuses on progress toward the Sprint Goal and produces an actionable plan for the next day of work. This creates focus and improves self-management.
  • Page 11: The Sprint Backlog is a plan by and for the Developers.

Source: Scrum Guide 2020. (The aggregation is taken from the Scrum Guide 2020 Reordered.)

Given the Scrum Guide’s emphasis on empowerment and Scrum team autonomy, I am tending towards the notion that a Scrum team is eligible to abandon Scrum. However, before taking that step, they need to have identified a better way of creating value for the customers and a sustainable business for the organization.

Why Teams May Consider Abandoning Scrum

In my experience, Scrum teams that consider quitting Scrum fall mainly into three main categories:

  1. There is a better way of creating value: Within the organization’s constraints, the Scrum team identified a more effective way of creating value for the customers. Often, this happens within organizations operating in highly regulated markets. Or the organization faces structural debt that cannot be resolve in the short term, thus impeding the proper application of Scrum. Alternatively, the use of Scrum has been mandated across all teams, and Scrum would not make sense given the usual tasks that “our team” is facing in everyday work. (You do not need Scrum to make a hamburger with fries.)
  2. The team is tired of preserving the facade of being agile: Officially, the organization practices Scrum. However, in practice, the management pays only lip service to the idea of autonomous teams, practicing a sort of Scrumbut or cargo cult Scrum. Being tired of the lack of openness, the “Scrum team” decides to abandon what they never practiced in the first place.
  3. The team members are unwilling to accept more accountability: Despite what Dan Pink advocates in his book Drive on what motivates knowledge workers — autonomy, mastery, purpose — these team members do not want to accept more responsibility. Some just want to trade time for money in a regular 9-to-5 job. Consequently, they ask to be told what to do. (Of course, we want missionaries on our teams, not mercenaries. However, Scrum is not for everyone, and asking for a 9-to-5 job is legitimate.)

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Abandoning Scrum — Conclusion

Scrum cannot be pushed. Scrum needs to be pulled. Scrum comes with a lot of additional accountability. Not all people enjoy this fact. Mercenaries just want to trade time for money. Some organizations embrace self-management just on paper but not in practice which is frustrating missionaries regularly. Scrum is not your one-size-fits-all solution on the path of becoming agile. There are areas where Scrum is a waste of money, brain, and time. Hence abandoning Scrum for something else that creates more value for your customers is a good move. What you should restrain from, though, is abandoning Scrum merely because it is hard to establish, difficult to make successful. Because there are frustrations among the team members, set-backs, and anti-pattern everywhere you look. First of all, give Scrum a decent chance.

Have you met a Scrum team considering abandoning Scrum or who did so? Please share your learnings with us in the comments.

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Stefan Wolpers: Stefan—based in Berlin, Germany—has been working for 14-plus years as an agile coach, Scrum Master, and Product Owner. He is a Professional Scrum Trainer (PST) with Scrum.org. He has developed B2C as well as B2B software, for startups as well as corporations, including a former Google subsidiary. Stefan curates the ‘Food for Agile Thought’ newsletter and organizes the Agile Camp Berlin, a Barcamp for coaches and other agile practitioners.
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