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The biggest challenges with Scrum: key takeaways

At the beginning of 2024, Zenhub surveyed 30 Scrum practitioners and asked questions regarding their biggest challenges with implementing and maintaining the Scrum framework. 

In May, we brought together 3 Agile experts, Daria Bagina, Mike Cohn, and Klaus Boedker to discuss our findings in a roundtable webinar. We wanted to know: were the challenges mentioned really this prevalent? And, how can teams facing these challenges address these issues? 

In this article, we’ll review some of the key takeaways from the roundtable discussion and survey findings. 

Meet the panel: 

From left to right: Daria Bagina, Klaus Boedker, Mike Cohn.

The perception of Scrum as “time-consuming”

Survey findings: 33% of respondents mentioned there is a perception that Scrum is time-consuming and involves too much overhead–this is typically referring to Scrum events and project management tasks.

All panelists agreed being too “time-consuming” has always been one of Scrum’s biggest misconceptions. But perhaps this comes down to time management. “At about 5% of companies I work with, I’m encouraging them to spend more time on things. The other 95% of them, I’m trying to get them to spend less time on things,” Mike tells us.

The biggest culprits of time overspent? Retrospectives and sprint planning, according to Mike. “If it (Scrum) is feeling burdensome and time-consuming, we’re doing it wrong, and that’s when we need to get teams to switch their behavior,” he affirms.

Daria agrees with Mike, adding that “often, when the original event isn’t done well, it causes more meetings.” This can further the perception that Scrum is “time-consuming” and “pointless.” 

Speaking of having a point, Klaus emphasizes that “it’s about helping stakeholders understand the why behind Scrum events.” He assures us that when teams focus on the why behind the event, they get maximal value and then “it becomes less about the overhead and more about, yeah I see the value and the benefit of this.”

Scrum Masters juggle too many roles

Survey findings: 40% of respondents mentioned that while they have a designated Scrum Master, that individual often juggles multiple roles on the Scrum team. Other roles are often lead developer, QA tester, product manager/owner. 

Klaus has come across the issue of SMs juggling too many roles so frequently, he was surprised that only 40% of respondents mentioned this. “Here’s what happens when you’re a Scrum Master and have another role–when you’re in this sprint, you naturally want to start helping your team out. As a result, Scrum events will suffer for that,” he tells us. Ultimately, the problem with Scrum Masters having other roles is that “the Scrummaster role is often at the bottom of the pile of priorities.” 

Daria tells us that having multiple roles on a team often reduces the SM role to the bare minimum “which is administrative tasks,” she says. “While that’s important, its the least important part of what a ScrumMaster does.” Daria emphasizes the importance of hiring Scrum Masters who are more interested in coaching and teaching rather than organizing meetings, because that’s the real value of Scrum Masters. 

Challenges with first-time Scrum adoption

Survey findings: For first-time Scrum adoptees, 40% mentioned they experienced challenges when implementing Scrum efficiently, most of these challenges were due to a lack of formal training.

First-time Scrum adoption can be daunting–the struggle to form habits, problem-solve, and operate in a new environment can confuse and slow teams down. For Daria, “the most important thing at the beginning of Scrum adoption is to make sure everyone is on the same page about what Scrum is.”

“What often happens is everyone comes in with different experiences, different knowledge–they know their own version of Scrum. So, make sure that the whole team is aligned on what they are trying to implement.”

With that in mind, training makes a big difference: “I surveyed many of my clients who were successful, and all of the successful ones said they did a lot of training and wished they had done more,” says Mike.

“In terms of formal training, i think its important that the whole team experiences some kind of training together. Just to set the expectations around the roles and the rules,” Daria adds. 

The perceived value of Scrum Masters

Survey findings: 40% of Scrum Masters mentioned that they find it difficult to show their value to the organization and are concerned that others on the team don’t see their value.

This is a finding that was both surprising and concerning for everyone. Klaus’ biggest concern was that team members weren’t seeing the value of Scrum Masters. “As a team member, if your Scrum Master is doing their role correctly, you know because they help build an awesome team,” he says. Is it possible that SMs value isn’t apparent because teams they just aren’t building strong teams?

The other possibility is a misalignment between the expectations teams have of Scrum Masters and what they do. “What’s fairly straightforward about this is don’t play the game unless you know how you’re going to keep score,” says Mike.

“If you get a job as a Scrum Master, the first thing you should want to know is, how is my boss going to evaluate my performance? What are you looking for me to do? Are we improving quality and predictability? Are we helping them deliver the right things instead of the wrong things? Are we helping them deliver more quickly?”

Of course, companies aren’t hiring Scrum Masters without a clear need, so understanding that need will go a long way for SMs. Additionally, Mike adds that it’s important to make sure that the team understands what is expected of the Scrum Master “so the team knows what i’m there to help them with.”

The perceived value of Scrum events

Survey findings: In particular, 27% of respondents called out daily standups and retrospectives as being the biggest (perceived) waste of time among team members.

Given the findings, do you think all events are necessary?  “Yes I do,” says Daria. “ I know some people might disagree with me about that, but I feel that every event has a specific purpose,” 

So what should teams do if they feel these meetings hold them back? “Instead of canceling, shortening, or postponing, find a way to make these meetings as effective as possible. Find out why they’re a perceived waste of time. Because often the reasons are very easily resolved,” she suggests. 

Mike has opposing thoughts on this: “I’m going to say that all meetings are subject to change and that we may skip some of them,” he says. He sites the fact that, many of the principles of Scrum were created decades ago, and may no longer be as applicable.

 “For example, the daily Scrum originated out of the research that was done back in the 80s that revealed people weren’t communicating enough. Back in the 80s, that was true. Nowadays, with tools like Slack and Zoom, that may no longer be the case for some teams,” he explains.

Daria adds a caveat to Mike’s suggestion–that if you’re going to reduce or remove events, the team needs a preexisting thorough understanding of Scrum. “Oftentimes, teams will say, ‘I can just bypass retrospectives or not do the daily Scrum every day’, but, first, you need to learn the right way, get good at it, and then make changes,” Daria says. 

Final thoughts

Our survey and roundtable discussion with Agile experts has highlighted several key challenges in Scrum, including time management, the role of Scrum Masters, first-time adoption issues, and the perceived value of Scrum events. Addressing these challenges requires effective training, clear role definitions, and adapting practices to fit team needs. 

We’d like to extend a special thanks to Daria Bagina, Mike Cohn, and Klaus Boedker for providing this insight. To dive deeper into these insights and learn practical solutions, watch the full webinar here.

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