Where can scrum NOT be used?

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I often get asked, “where do I think scrum cannot be used?”.

The background

The 2020 scrum guide was a major departure for Scrum in that most references to software development were deleted from the scrum guide.

The only reference that even hints at software development is the word developer, one of the accountabilities in Scrum.

The accountabilities

You’ve got:

  • Scrum master;
  • Product owner; and
  • Developer.

The meaning of ‘developer’

Developer in Scrum just means anyone:

  • Doing the work to deliver a done increment; or
  • Helping with the discovery to discover what we maybe should deliver.

Before you try it in your domain, think about this ONE constraint

Scrum could be used in all sorts of domains, but I would not be so arrogant to tell you it can be used in any domain.

It has been used and you can try it in pretty much any domain, but there would be one constraint holding back Scrum or holding back your ability to do Scrum: if you cannot deliver a done increment within 30 days.

Can you deliver a done increment within 30 days?

Scrum is designed for complex product development and for breaking down large problems, large opportunities in smaller chunks, but also not just doing work breakdown, actually doing experiments to discover better ways to deliver value to our customers, to our end-users, to the organization, to society.

If you cannot break down the work so that you can deliver value within 30 days, you will struggle with Scrum. I do see some people using Scrum to express, I saw it only this week, for example, in a team who was so predictable in their flow.

I was looking at their flow analytics and I could see that they had wonderful flow, but I smelled a problem and the smell that I got I think isn’t far off what’s really going on. I suspect the team is breaking down the work so it just fits within the two-week chunks, but actually, those two-week chunks do not deliver value.

That is not Scrum.

What does the increment need to be?

Scrum is about delivering value, about discovering value, and the increment needs to be:

  • valuable;
  • useful; and
  • usable.

If you cannot deliver an increment within 30 days, I don’t think you can use Scrum.

Alternatives

  • There are some frameworks like Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS), for example, where you have another variant called less huge, and it can be a struggle to deliver a done increment within one sprint within one month with many, many teams. They have coping strategies for how you can improve your definition over time, even over a number of years. Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS) does have a pathway to help you to use Scrum even if you cannot deliver value within days, but that’s in a huge scaling situation.
  • Consider example mapping to see if one example out of say 21 can be delivered in a sprint, in order to get feedback if we’re on the right track.

For a single-team Scrum, or even for Scrum up to just a number of teams, like eight or nine teams, you should be delivering value every 30 days.

If you can’t do that, I don’t think you should do Scrum. Maybe check out complexity instead, Kanban for complexity (Kanplexity).

Thank you.

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John Coleman executive guide, product leader
Agile Insider

Leadershum Power List of the Top 200 Biggest Voices in Leadership in 2023, agility chef, executive agility guide, product manager, creator Kanplexity & Xagility