Dark Scrum/Bright Scrum: From Checklists to Culture

Dark Scrum vs Bright Scrum

Scrum: An Oppressive Checklist or Enabler of Culture?

Scrum, the most prevalent Agile framework used today, can either be a beacon of effectiveness and engagement or when misused, a vehicle of stress and oppressive overwork. These two sides are referred to as Dark Scrum and Bright Scrum. The difference lies in whether Scrum is treated as an oppressive checklist or an enabler of a vibrant, adaptive culture.

While advocates believe in Scrum’s potential to fulfill and engage people, aiding their organizations in successfully navigating a rapidly evolving world, the reality often falls short of this ideal. We frequently witness organizations implementing a version of Scrum that is far from empowering. Teams are caught in the relentless churn of the JIRA ticket mill, fixated on Sprint burndown charts, and defending themselves against blame for incomplete tasks at the end of Sprints.

Even worse, some organizations exploit Scrum’s requirement for transparency to intensify micro-management. With tools like JIRA, every task’s progress is visible on managers’ devices around the clock, further fueling the urge to micromanage and decimate any vestiges of autonomy. This one-way transparency acts more like a surveillance system under the guise of management.
However, Scrum’s power can be harnessed positively. Organizations can unlock Scrum’s true potential by shifting from the rigidity of checklists in Dark Scrum to the adaptive culture of Bright Scrum. This article explores how teams can make this critical shift from Dark to Bright Scrum, a transformative route to thriving Agile teams.

Understanding Dark Scrum: A Souless Checklist

Ron Jeffries brilliantly coined the concept of Dark Scrum in his insightful article “Dark Scrum”. I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a read. Dark Scrum can be conceptualized as a twisted version of Scrum that materializes when Agile’s core values and principles are discarded, leaving behind only a mechanical shell. In other words, Dark Scrum results when the Agile heart is divorced from Scrum’s structural body.

Dark Scrum can be expressed in this simple formula:

 Scrum – Agile Values & Principles = Dark Scrum

In the formula I’ve shared, ‘Scrum’ is shorthand for implementing the framework’s artifacts, events, and activities, complemented by people bearing the role titles. It’s essentially a ‘checklist version’ of Scrum, appearing to fulfill the framework’s requirements yet lacking the underpinning culture that truly embodies Agile values and principles. For brevity’s sake, I refer to this as ‘Scrum’.

Dark Scrum Formula
Scrum - Agile = Dark Scrum

Defining Novice Scrum: The Learning Phase Isn’t Dark Scrum

It’s crucial to clarify that Dark Scrum is not equivalent to novice Scrum. When teams and organizations initially implement Scrum and Agile methodologies, they won’t nail it perfectly from the start. This learning curve is natural and expected. As long as there is a genuine intent to incorporate Agile values and principles and an active commitment to improving, this initial phase should be considered novice Scrum, not Dark Scrum. The decisive factor that differentiates the two is the underlying intent behind using Scrum.

Examples of Dark Scrum

Let’s dive into some examples of the Dark Scrum formula in action:

  1. Product Backlog Minus “Responding to Change Over Following a Plan”: When a team clings to a static product backlog, resistant to adapt and respond to new insights gained through the development process, it reflects Dark Scrum.
  1. Sprint Planning Minus “The Most Efficient and Effective Method of Conveying Information to and within a Development Team is Face-to-Face Conversation”: If Sprint Planning becomes a process where tasks are simply assigned to developers without meaningful dialogue, it is indicative of Dark Scrum.
  1. Daily Scrum Minus “Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools”: If a Daily Scrum is seen as a ritualistic process to report individual progress instead of a platform for the team to interact, coordinate efforts and discuss challenges, we’re in Dark Scrum territory.
  1. Sprint Review Minus “Working Software Over Comprehensive Documentation”: When the focus during a Sprint Review tilts heavily towards reporting and PowerPoint presentations rather than demonstrating working software, it’s a sign of Dark Scrum.
  1. Sprint Retrospective Minus “At Regular Intervals, the Team Reflects on How to Become More Effective, then Tunes and Adjusts Its Behavior Accordingly”: If Sprint Retrospectives become a mere formality without concrete action points or behavioral adjustments, it’s a slide into Dark Scrum.
  1. Scrum Master Role Minus “Build Projects Around Motivated Individuals”: When a Scrum Master acts as a taskmaster, focusing on delivering tasks rather than fostering a supportive environment for a motivated team, it signifies Dark Scrum.
  1. Product Owner Role Minus “Business People and Developers Must Work Together Daily Throughout the Project”: If a Product Owner operates in a vacuum and is unavailable, making decisions without close collaboration with the development team, often resulting in micromanaging through the product backlog.
  1. Scrum Team Minus “The Best Architectures, Requirements, and Designs Emerge from Self-Organizing Teams”: If Scrum is used as a tool for micromanagement, with every task assigned and monitored in Agile tools, it contradicts the Agile principle of self-organization and is an embodiment of Dark Scrum.

The Causes of Dark Scrum

Among the causes of Dark Scrum are Theory X management mindsets, Intolerance of Uncertainty, and viewing Scrum as a quick fix.

  1. Theory X Management: This management style, written about by Douglas McGregor in his book The Human Side of the Enterprise, is based on the belief that employees are inherently lazy and unmotivated, requiring strict oversight and control to ensure productivity. It’s essentially a pessimistic view of human nature. Agile principles of self-organization and intrinsic motivation are often overlooked in such environments. Scrum’s transparency can be misused as a surveillance tool, stymieing creativity and reducing autonomy. This misuse fosters a climate of Dark Scrum.  In contrast, Theory Y management is based on the belief that employees are inherently motivated and capable of self-organization. Adopting a Theory Y mindset aligns more closely with the Agile principles and fosters Bright Scrum, which we’ll discuss later in this article.
  1. Intolerance of Uncertainty: The psychological phenomenon labeled Intolerance of Uncertainty can also contribute to Dark Scrum. When managers or team members are uncomfortable with ambiguity and unpredictability, they may resist the flexibility and adaptiveness that are hallmarks of Agile and Scrum. They may default to strict control mechanisms, rigorous planning, and inflexible backlogs – all symptomatic of Dark Scrum.
  1. Scrum as a Quick Fix: This is a common misconception among management, viewing Scrum as a rapid solution for all organizational ills, particularly to expedite output. Such a perspective neglects that Agile and Scrum are more about changing how we think about work, not merely our processes. Implementing Scrum without the necessary structural and cultural changes leads to a hollow shell of the framework, devoid of its agile values and principles.
Causes of Dark Scrum
Scrum when seen through certain mindsets, results in Dark Scrum.

Understanding these causes can help us counteract Dark Scrum, moving towards a more positive application of the Scrum framework, which I call Bright Scrum.

The Bright Scrum Formula: Embracing Culture

Now, let’s turn our attention to the Bright Scrum formula, where Scrum is harmoniously combined with Agile values and principles:

 Scrum + Agile Values & Principles = Bright Scrum

Some signs of Bright Scrum may be:

  1. Product Backlog Plus “Responding to Change Over Following a Plan”: A team that dynamically adjusts the product backlog, adapting in response to new insights gained throughout the development process.
  1. Sprint Planning Plus “The Most Efficient and Effective Method of Conveying Information to and within a Development Team is Face-to-Face Conversation”: Sprint Planning is a process where tasks are collaboratively defined through meaningful dialogue, with all developers actively participating.
  1. Daily Scrum Plus “Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools”: The Daily Scrum is seen as a platform for the team to interact, coordinate efforts, and discuss challenges, rather than just a ritualistic process to report individual progress.
  1. Sprint Review Plus “Working Software Over Comprehensive Documentation”: During a Sprint Review, the focus is on demonstrating working software rather than heavy reporting and lengthy PowerPoint presentations.
  1. Sprint Retrospective Plus “At Regular Intervals, the Team Reflects on How to Become More Effective, then Tunes and Adjusts Its Behavior Accordingly”: Sprint Retrospectives lead to concrete action points and tangible behavioral adjustments, rather than being a mere formality.
  1. Scrum Master Role Plus “Build Projects Around Motivated Individuals”: A Scrum Master who fosters a supportive environment for a motivated team, focusing on people over the mere delivery of tasks.
  1. Product Owner Role Plus “Business People and Developers Must Work Together Daily Throughout the Project”: A Product Owner maintains close collaboration with the development team, is available and approachable, and decision-making is collective.
  1. Scrum Team Plus “The Best Architectures, Requirements, and Designs Emerge from Self-Organizing Teams”: Scrum is used as a framework for enabling autonomy, with tasks being pulled and self-managed by the team members.

The Bright Scrum Formula
Scrum + Agile Values = Bright Scrum

The Conditions for Bright Scrum

To counteract Dark Scrum and nurture the conditions for Bright Scrum, we need to consider the positive counterparts of the causes that led us astray. Let’s explore how the inverse of each cause of Dark Scrum can serve as an enabler for Bright Scrum:

  1. Theory Y Management: Contrasting with Theory X, Theory Y management presumes that individuals are intrinsically motivated and capable of self-management. Managers with a Theory Y mindset create environments that foster self-organization and intrinsic motivation. They leverage Scrum’s transparency as a tool for shared understanding and alignment, not as a means of surveillance.
  1. Tolerance for Uncertainty: Agile and Scrum thrive in environments that embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. Those who are comfortable with uncertainty and willing to adapt to change foster a Scrum environment that is flexible and responsive. This attitude turns the inherent uncertainty of projects into an advantage, promoting innovation and adaptability.
  1. Scrum as a Strategic Culture Change: Viewing Scrum not merely as a quick fix but as a strategic change in how we think about and organize work paves the way for Bright Scrum. When the necessary cultural and structural changes are made, Scrum becomes more than just a process—it becomes a catalyst for organizational transformation.
Conditions for Bright Scrum
Scrum when viewed with certain mindsets, results in Bright Scrum

Turning Up Bright Scrum, Dimming Dark Scrum

The journey from Dark Scrum to Bright Scrum involves embodying Agile principles. This shift calls for adopting a Theory Y mindset, tolerating uncertainty, and viewing Scrum as a strategic cultural change.

This transformation, though challenging, offers substantial rewards. By upholding Agile values within Scrum, we enhance productivity, improve quality, and bolster job satisfaction. Thus, the shift to Bright Scrum is the route to cultivating thriving Agile teams.

By fostering an environment ripe for collaboration, continuous learning, and adaptability, we cultivate a culture that can withstand the uncertainties and fluidity of Agile projects, thereby mitigating the pitfalls of Dark Scrum. Embracing this change demands more than a quick fix—it’s a journey that requires steadfast commitment, authentic leadership, and flexibility. 

Lastly, remember, friends do not let friends do Dark Scrum.

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