Fragile Development: Scrum is terrible, and you should ditch it

Posted on Tue 05 July 2016 in blog • 5 min read

This is a writeup of an Ignite talk I gave at OpenStack Israel 2016. The paragraph headings below approximately correspond to the content of my talk slides; the paragraphs themselves are an approximation of what I said. If you’re interested in the exact slide content, you can find that here.

Zero flexibility

_____‘s roles, artifacts, events, and rules are immutable and although implementing only parts of _____ is possible, the result is not _____.

When you see a statement like this and wonder what should be filled in for the blanks, it’s rather quite likely that you would guess either a radical political ideology, a very strict religious sect or cult, or something to that effect. You couldn’t be further from the truth.

Scrum‘s roles, artifacts, events, and rules are immutable and although implementing only parts of Scrum is possible, the result is not Scrum.

Yes, that’s a direct quote from the Scrum guide. Scrum, by its own definition, can either be implemented completely — that is, with all its roles, artifacts, events, and rules unchanged — or not at all. This sounds ludicrous enough as it is, and any sane, thinking person should reject or at least resent any such statement outright. But let’s give Scrum the benefit of doubt, and let’s actually start examining some of its postulates.

Teams are self-organizing

Scrum hinges on the idea that teams are comprised of capable individuals forming teams, which then self-organize. Now I’m sure nobody would argue that self-organizing teams cannot exist, so this postulate does not invalidate itself outright.

However, it is missing an important prerequisite: teams can self-organize if they are stable. And team stability is a precondition that almost never exists in the software industry: our industry is growth-oriented, and driven by quickly-growing startups, so in a successful organization having a new colleague every other month is not unheard of. It is also highly competitive for talent, so having a colleague leave every few months isn’t unusual either. The moment a new person joins or leaves, you have a new team. Team stability goes out the window, and with it any reasonable expectation of self-organization.

Sprint after sprint after sprint

The Scrum Guide explicitly states that every sprint (a time frame of one month or less, in which the team completes objectives agreed to for the sprint backlog) is immediately followed by the next sprint.

This is mind-bogglingly ludicrous and outright dangerous to your team’s mental health. Software development is a marathon, and running a marathon as an unbroken series of sprints leads to collapse or death. In software development, it’s likely to cause burnout.

The Daily Scrum

One of Scrum’s immutable events is the Daily Scrum. The Scrum Guide defines this event as a specific, daily occurrence, time-boxed to 15 minutes and involving the entirety of the development team.

This is staggeringly out of place in the modern development team, which may well be spread out over multiple offices and timezones, and may not even physically be in one place more than a handful of times a year. Even in the unlikely event that everyone can get together in one room for precisely fifteen minutes each day, have you ever been in a meeting involving more than 3 people that got anything accomplished in 15 minutes?

And remember, 15 minutes. Time-boxed, immutable. If you think your Daily Scrum can be 30 or 45 minutes, or you can do it just every other day or maybe thrice a week, recall: if you do that, you’re no longer doing Scrum.

No planning beyond the current sprint

Scrum is quite emphatic that the only thing developers should be really concerned about in terms of planning is the next 24 hours (the plan for which is ostensibly being laid out in the Daily Scrum), and beyond that, the current sprint at a maximum. Now, while the idea of freeing people’s minds and allowing them to focus on a single task at hand is certainly laudable, the practical implications of having no medium to long-term planning is insane.

I’d venture a guess that an approach where no planning is for more than a month out is viable, under one condition: having exactly zero users and/or customers for the product you are developing. I leave it to you to decide how valuable it is, then, to develop the product in the first place.

Permanent emergency mode

Arguably, some of the methods proposed in Scrum are quite suitable for emergency situations. In a situation where you need to come up with a solution that requires creativity, hustle, and speed, you may well sit down, put down a requirements list, elect a coordinator and spokesperson for your team, and just start hacking. I’d fully agree that such situations can be extremely challenging, and quite satisfying to come out of with flying colors.

But if your organization is permanently operating in this mode, quit. It doesn’t matter which role you’re in: as a developer, you’re headed for burnout. As a manager, you’re herding your team into burnout. Either way, you shouldn’t be doing this job, either in your own interest or in that of others.


Scrum proponents frequently argue in its favor as the antithesis of the obsolete waterfall model, where all deliverables are defined from the outset and there is no room for deviation, leading to products that are either broken, or outdated, or both the moment they are completed. If you think we only found out recently that waterfall is bad, you’ve been asleep at the switch for over 30 years. In his seminal Mythical Man-Month essay collection from 1975, Fred Brooks pointed out some weaknesses of this model, and in his 1986 follow-up No Silver Bullet, he proposes organic, incremental software development as an alternative.

Your team can’t work with Scrum?

Scrum advocates frequently argue that if Scrum doesn’t work with your team, chances are that your team is the problem. This means that you should either replace them, or at least educate them in the ways and means of Scrum, so they can become a better-performing team.

At this point, it should be fairly obvious that if Scrum doesn’t work for your team, the problem is not your team. The problem is Scrum.

What if Scrum doesn’t deliver?

And finally, Scrum proponents usually argue that if Scrum fails to deliver adequate results in your organization, it’s likely because you aren’t applying its central tenets correctly. In other words, you must come to your senses, and implement Scrum as designed, and which point results with magically appear, and your team will be in a constant state of flow.

This is nonsense. If you were able to actually do Scrum (meaning in its pure, immutable, One True Way), it would surely lead to disaster. But, it’s impossible to do so anyway, so go ahead and ditch it — stop being a scrumbag.

This article originally appeared on my blog on the website (now defunct).