Scrum Without Innovation Culture is a Car Going Nowhere

I gave a presentation in Denmark today to the board of directors of an international company. They were especially curious about Agile & Lean Startup. I steered my presentation in the direction of Innovation Culture, which wasn’t actually what they had asked for. But I knew: it was the answer they were looking for, even though they didn’t realise it yet.

Scrum and Lean Startup are easily explained and compared based on their underlying principles and structures. I usually put all the information in a clear presentation, and add some movie clips to make it a bit more entertaining. Easy as pie.

Scrum zombies

Things quickly get more interesting when I start explaining that a seemingly perfect Scrum process doesn’t actually have to be a successful one. I call this Scrum zombieism — and yes, that is an ugly word. Scrum zombies are Scrummers whose use so many sticky notes it is as if they have shares in 3M, but in actual fact they are not using Scrum at all. They do everything they have to do on paper, but in practice they don’t actually show the progress that the company is aiming for. Things just aren’t… moving. At that point it’s important to realise that the most important aspect of Scrum is something you cannot see. It is Innovation Culture and it is, as the by-now-familiar Spotify clip tells us, “invisible like the air we breathe.”

Sure, Scrum and Lean Startup can help to transform your Innovation Culture, but they are no panacea. No, transforming the culture needs to be a goal in itself. Everybody involved has to understand the need for change, and that Scrum is a means to an end, not an end-goal in itself.

Compare Scrum to a car. Only knowing how to steer and shift gears is not enough; first, everybody in the car has to know where they want to go, together. They have to give each other some space, they have to keep each other’s spirits up, admit they were wrong about the right way, point out the sights to each other and loudly sing Bohemian Rhapsody. Only then will it become a voyage of discovery.

I think that an organisation that has its Innovation Culture where it should be, will have no difficulties in applying Scrum or Lean Startup. This almost implies that a good Scrum master or Agile Coach is automatically also someone whose primary task is to facilitate the movement to a great Innovation Culture.

Agile coaching is change management

This requires much more than just explaining the Scrum procedure; it means continuous communication on the meta-level. So rather than the technically correct remark “You should discuss all your post-its” you should be saying things like “I’ve noticed that you’re a bit quiet during the daily stand-ups. Why is that? Can I help you with anything?”

In other words, Agile Coaches need very different skills than one might expect at first glance. It’s about communicating without values. About creating safe spaces, discussing personal drives, learning to embrace a communal goal. About bringing hidden hierarchies out into the open, deeply believing that every team member is good and valuable the way they are. About sharing, defusing political undercurrents, talking about underlying tensions. It’s all a bit wishy-washy, I can’t deny it.

My impression is that in many companies, the above matters aren’t touched on at all. I wonder, therefore, if this explosion of Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters isn’t leading to a whole host of Scrum zombies, which will then lead to the conclusion in three years’ time that Scrum was a bit like drinking orange juice from jam jars: silly hipster shit. The emperor’s new clothes. Because nothing will actually have changed.

For this reason, I believe that Agile Coaching should be mostly change management. It should be about creating a culture of continuous innovation. Each Scrum Master or Scrum Coach who does not understand this, and only implements Scrum’s methodological aspects, is doing the company more harm than good. These people bring the gift of a car for exploring the world, but none of the passengers actually want to leave home, so they sit there and wonder why they’re not getting anywhere, who they can blame for that and why everything just feels so unbelievably unsatisfying.