“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.”  – Daniel J. Boorstin

Here’s something your team should look to avoid – Cargo Cult Scrum.

Members of the John Frum cargo cult, photo by Ursa Waz

Members of the John Frum cargo cult

Cargo Cult Scrum is what happens when you adopt the practices, vocabulary, and artifacts of scrum but you don’t understand why or how they work. Cargo Cult scrum is bad. It is accidental and is based on ignorance.

Here’s a tiny piece of what Wikipedia has to say about cargo cults:

“A cargo cult is a type of religious practice that may appear in tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced, non-native cultures. The cults are focused on obtaining the material wealth of the advanced culture through magical thinking, religious rituals and practices…”

When we talk about cargo cult implementations of scrum we are talking about people who seize on the advanced ideas of scrum and expect magical, unexplainable benefit to come from them, not realizing that informed usage is required in the bargain.

Craig Larman and Bas Vodde talk briefly about Cargo Cult Scrum adoption in their excellent book “Scaling Lean & Agile Development” in a section titled Avoid…Fake ScrumMasters. Fake ScrumMasters are created by “…Changing the title of someone to ‘ScrumMaster’ while he acts like – and is encouraged by the organization to act like – a project manager.”

They go on to describe the ultimate cargo cult scrum implementation:

“We adopted Scrum. Our Sprint length is the length of our project. The Product Owner decides the items in the Sprint and the project manager acts as ScrumMaster. He makes the Sprint Backlog and assigns the tasks to people in the team.”

So what does Cargo Cult Scrum look like?

Here are some examples that I’ve seen in the field:

  • I recently attended a meeting at a company that considers itself to be agile. It was a regular meeting that occurred every two weeks. It was not attended by a scrum team, but instead by a bunch of people from two different groups. The three questions were not used. The meeting was scheduled for, and took, 30 minutes. Yet the meeting was called a scrum. Other meetings at this company are called scrums, so much so that ‘scrum’ has become a synonym for ‘meeting’. This is a cargo cult. The true meaning of ‘daily scrum’ has been lost, if it was ever apprehended in the first place.
  • I’ve also seen organizations in which people call every item on the Product Backlog a User Story (which is not the same thing as every item on the Product Backlog actually being a user story).
  • Another example is this actual [paraphrased] conversation I had with a potential customer:

Customer: Oh yes, we’ve been doing agile for a while.
That’s great! So you haven’t had any trouble getting the Product Owner to work closely with the team?
Well, we…uh…don’t really have a Product Owner.
Oh. Well, who keeps the Product Backlog in shape?
Well, we…uh…don’t really have a Product Backlog, per se.
Oh. So how do you plan your sprints?
Well, we really don’t do that in a very formal way. But we do meet every morning. That’s what it’s all about, right?

  • And my all time favorite. I was once told by a manager of a supposedly Agile group: “We like things the way they are. We know it’s not perfect. We don’t want to change.”  Yikes. So much for Continuous Improvement.

Though you shouldn’t do Cargo Cult Scrum for any reason, the reality is that any step down the road to scrum is usually better than whatever preceded it.

Don’t feel bad if your scrum implementation isn’t the same as what’s in the books. Feel bad if you are have stopped trying to make it better.

About the Author: Alan Atlas is a Musician, Certified Scrum Trainer, and Agile Coach at Rally Software Development. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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