Transforming a group of people into a high-performing team is one of my passions. Such achievements light my fire. Some years ago, I considered becoming an Agile coach to experience something outside product management. I wanted to try something different and thought Agile coaching would fit my skills and motivation.
When you think out loud, someone could be listening. It was a sunny spring day, and I was heading to an intensive round of interviews for an Agile coach position. My thoughts moved fast; I reflected on my journey, from developer to business analyst and then to Product Manager. I truly believed I could help teams unleash their potential. The interviews would be with the product managers, business stakeholders, and Scrum teams. I felt prepared and motivated.
The first meetings went great. I felt I was nailing the interviews until I had my conversation with Tom, the Tech Lead. It went more or less like this.
Tom: “David, I need to be honest with you. Our team has worked together for three years. We are doing great, and we continue to increase our throughput. What can you bring to us?”
David: “Thanks for being honest with me. I appreciate that. I am curious to know more about how you work before I offer my ideas on how to add value. My first question is, when was the last time you failed?”
Tom: “Failed? Do you mean the last time we screwed up?”
David: “I mean, the last time you tried out something and it didn’t work as expected.”
Tom: “Failure is not part of our dictionary. I only remember success over the last three years. And that’s the reason I don’t see how you can help us. We have a solid process and sound quality, and we don’t need anyone to schedule meetings for us or facilitate retrospectives.”
David: “It’s clear that you’re proud of your achievements; that’s good. But I am surprised you haven’t failed at all over the last three years. I perceive failure as a step towards innovation. If teams are not failing, they are not stepping outside their comfort zone. The only way of failing is by trying something new.”
Tom looked reflective for a moment. I let that sink in for around 15 seconds and then continued.
David “Also, I feel resistance towards the Scrum Master role; you even reduced the responsibilities. A great Scrum Master should help the team advance and become a stronger team. Out of curiosity, how often do you have Sprint Retrospectives?”
Tom: “We have worked without a Scrum Master for six months. After Peter left the company, we didn’t find anyone convincing for our team. And regarding the Sprint Retrospectives, we stopped having those a while ago. We don’t need a meeting to say what worked and what didn’t. We do that daily. And to be honest, we dropped Scrum because we reached peak performance. So let’s get to the point. What will you be adding to our team if we hire you?”
David: “Given what you said, I see many opportunities with your team, but you’re not going to like what I am about to say. You will never reach your highest potential because Scrum has no such thing; you can always become a little bit better as a team. No team is too good to have nothing else to learn. You can expect me to help you discover what you don’t know and identify opportunities to evolve as a team.”
Tom: “Hum. I see, but I am not sure if I agree with you. But please, continue.”
David: “You might disagree with me now, but a fresh perspective can surprise you. The journey will be revealing and challenging, but the outcome will ultimately be a better team than you are right now. Now it’s up to you. The choice is between staying in your comfort zone or giving yourselves a chance at excellence.”
Tom: “You made me think. I am both encouraged and skeptical. For years, we worked with Scrum and didn’t see its value. That’s why we ditched it. I need to reflect on the direction we want to take.”
After this exchange, I went home, engulfed in thought. This team was clearly against working with Scrum, and they seemed forced to do so. Now, without a Scrum Master, they worked how they wanted. In general, the Product Owner wrote precise requirements and the team implemented them. I saw an excellent opportunity for change, but change cannot be forced; it needs to be embraced.
Two days later, I received a call from the hiring manager. I had mixed feelings and a bit of anxiety about their decision, but he was brief. He told me, “David, you are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but we decided to put the position on hold for now, and we cannot make you an offer. Sorry.” I didn’t know how to take that, but I was sorry for them because I saw a huge missed opportunity.
Let me share what I learned from teams dropping Scrum.
We Reached Our Highest Potential; Let’s Drop Scrum
Picture the following: You;re working in a Scrum team that is known to walk the talk. Over the last six sprints, you delivered on your promises. The team became 100% predictable, and you feel like you’re nailing Scrum. The organization respects you, and you think that you’ve reached your highest potential. Now, stop and reflect a bit. Would that be true?
If a team delivers on its promises, wouldn’t that mean the team isn’t experimenting with anything new? It seems the team is playing safe instead of being bold. In my experience, when teams believe they are at their highest performance, they cannot see opportunities, and they need a fresh perspective to advance.
I’ve also noticed another pattern: many teams criticize Scrum, and they often believe they would be better off without it. The question is, does it make sense to ditch Scrum? Let’s analyze the interview I had. Tom was clearly against Scrum because he believed his team was doing great. Curiously, within half an hour of conversation, I uncovered many opportunities to help them become a stronger team.
When the confidence is too high, the chances of becoming a stronger team become too low
There’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance. Confident teams know their skills and trust themselves; meanwhile, they are brave to embrace the unknown and learn. However, arrogant teams perceive themselves as perfect and block anything that would change how they work. Considering the case with Tom, here are the anti-patterns I identified:
- No Failures: Over three years, Tom didn’t have any failures. So I wonder, what did they learn during this time? Failure isn’t bad, but arrogant teams would perceive that as judgemental and therefore protect themselves against it. The only way to innovate is by experimenting as quickly as possible. Without failure, little knowledge is created.
- No Retrospective: Tom’s team stopped having retrospectives because they “do it daily,” and he mentioned a retro wasn’t needed to “inspect and adapt.” Although he is right, he missed the mark. A retrospective is a moment to stop, evaluate the team and identify measures to evolve and become stronger. You can skip the retro if you don’t want to grow as a team.
- Faulty Scrum Master Perception: Tom seemed happy not to have a Scrum Master. He eliminated the Scrum Master position and wasn’t open to feedback. That was a sign that the team was living in fake harmony; that it is dysfunctional and not high-performing.
- Comfort Zone: The enemy of growth is comfort. Just because you’re doing “great” now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t step out of your comfort zone and try new things.
Teams cannot unleash their highest potential if they are afraid of reinventing themselves.
I am not dogmatic about Scrum. On the contrary, teams should play the game the way it suits them best, but they shouldn’t fool themselves. If you want to ditch Scrum, do it. However, before making such decisions, do a brutally honest evaluation of how you work. I think you may be surprised by the number of opportunities you might be missing. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- When was the last time we tried something new?
- When was our last failure?
- What did we learn from our last failure?
- How often does the team have passionate discussions?
- How do team members react to feedback?
- How often do you give feedback?
“Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.”
Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
The goal of Scrum is to create value sooner. If you’re not reaching that, you’re probably missing something, and that’s fine. Most teams take years to benefit from Agile frameworks. It’s easy to understand and hard to master.
What matters most is the journey. To thrive, you need to remain humble and continuously search for opportunities to grow as a team. Don’t let the comfort zone fool you. It might be a pleasant place, but it’s not a place to stay in if you want to achieve high-performance.
I started this article with the question: Should teams drop Scrum when they reach their highest performance? I don’t think any team will ever truly become top-level because there’s always room to improve. When somebody comes to you and shares that they don’t do any more retrospectives, you can be sures there’s huge room for improvement.
Still, Scrum isn’t a silver bullet to ensure you progress towards high-performance. At the end of the day, it’s up to you. Your mindset is key to success.
A growth mindset will ensure progress, while a fixed mindset will lead to mediocrity