The Death Star Aimed at Your Scrum Team

I worry about many companies that are starting to use scrum for project management or product development. 

Note: You may already know this, but scrum is a team-based methodology for solving complex problems. It’s based upon a highly transparent and visible workflow, and it relies heavily upon the candid use of evidence to experiment and iterate. A full discussion of scrum is beyond the scope of this post; click here for an overview. 

I worry not because scrum doesn’t work. It surely can, and when done right, it can be a highly invigorating and effective process for all involved. 

I worry about companies that are starting to use scrum for two reasons:

First, some companies try to introduce scrum without guidance from someone who has been there and done that. Regardless of the intelligence of the team members, it’s exceedingly difficult to “do scrum” void of firsthand experience. It’s simply too different from the status quo for the vast majority of people to really “get” from only reading about it. Great companies with great leaders—like a current manufacturing client working with me and my world-class partners Mike Richardson and Chris Everett—understand this and get the coaching and support necessary to make the transition to scrum. Everett puts it this way, “You can read a ton about boxing, but that’s not going to help you a whole lot in the ring.” 

Second, and perhaps even more commonly, many companies introduce scrum without sufficient understanding among top management about how their own behavior must change to support scrum and overall organizational agility. This is the top of what Richardson calls the “T-shaped” approach to agility. The horizontal part of the “T” is all about executive processes and behaviors, with the verticals (there can and should be more than one) being core business processes. Those executive processes and behaviors at the top of the “T”—either intentional or unintentional—can become a “Death Star” aimed at the verdant, energized world created by the new scrum team. 

One example of this is “dark work.” Dark work comprises all of those tasks or projects that are unplanned and simply added on top of all the other tasks or projects that the team and others have already vetted for strategic importance and workload feasibility. It’s the unplanned “Hey, could you take a look at this?” or “Excuse me, would you help with this project?” If a team is using scrum correctly, its members are carefully and continually reviewing and prioritizing their task list. They’re making estimates based upon workload capacity—which itself is an estimate based upon their conversations. But if dark work creeps in, it can cause a team member to falter in delivering to other team members, eventually leading to a breakdown in the overall process. 

The key to success is two-fold: 

Scrum requires agile behaviors across the top of the organizational chart, starting with a hard look at strategy and strategic initiatives. Prioritization here is critical, too. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Top management needs to understand not only how their scrum teams are operating, but they also need to become more nimble themselves. This requires an honest appraisal of their current state along with an unvarnished, no-kidding set of agile operating principles to which they hold themselves and each other accountable. 

With regard to the “Death Star” of dark work specifically, executives need to realize that interrupting the scrum process has consequences. If the dark work really is a necessity—it can certainly happen—executives shouldn’t be surprised if the scrum team then reprioritizes its work due to the workload change. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of scrum, from my experience, is seeing the creative energy that it can bring to those involved. It’s a method of doing work, I think, that’s much closer to how humans work best than what happens in most organizations. 

At the same time, top leaders must be mindful that allowing a scrum team to flourish requires much more than simply giving a team the permission to work in a different way. 

It also requires agility within the top management team. 

And that often starts with every executive realizing that change always starts with one person in particular—the man or woman in the mirror. 

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: