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What are the primary risks in scrum and how are they dealt with?

What are the primary risks in scrum and how are they dealt with?

Welcome to part 52 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.

A lack of understanding about Scrum

Many people think they understand scrum, but in my experience, very few do. Many people use the scrum terminology, refer to the scrum events, and so forth but aren’t using them effectively nor do they deeply understand the purpose of scrum events and artefacts.

So, you often come across organizations or teams who are doing scrum, but on closer inspection, they don’t really know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to do it effectively.

They are following the mechanics of scrum, to some degree, just going through the motions and checking boxes along the way, but they aren’t a high-performing product development team that leverages the agile framework effectively.

This often happens when a team leader or manager reads the scrum guide, a book or article about the process, and decides to have a crack. They call in the team, tell them how things are going to work from now on, and voila – a scrum team is born overnight.


Scrum training, coaching, and consulting go a very long way in this scenario.

Helping people to understand the thinking and lines of reasoning that underpin scrum, the events, and the artefacts helps them develop a conceptual understanding for why they are investing in this form of product development, and how it can help them continuously improve with each iteration.

Sometimes, you just need someone to show you how to do something properly and you’re good to go and grow from there. A great agile consultant can help organize the team around value creation, and walk them through each element of the scrum framework until they have the basics mastered.

At intervals down the line, that agile consultant can make key interventions to help the team level up and master a new level of complexity. Master a new level of capability.

An agile coach can help the team achieve clarity around vision, mission, and purpose. They can help them achieve clarity about what truly matters to the team, the organization, and the customer and help them decide what the best, most appropriate next step in their development might be.

As they invest more time with an agile coach, they learn to think more effectively, and they have a deeply considered, valid response to what happens in their environment. They think deeply about the impact of their behaviours and actions, and reflect a great deal on what is working, what needs work, and how to be more effective in their accountability or job function.

Leadership don’t support or want change.

This is a tough one.

Traditional management and project management environments generally thrive in complicated environments where everybody knows what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Something that has been done a hundred times before and will be repeated a hundred times in the future.

You could do this with your eyes closed. Like moving a brick from point A to point B.

In complex environments, traditional project management falls over because we don’t know what to do upfront – the problem has never been solved before and the solution has never been built before – and we need to find a framework that allows us to discover and create the solution.

It requires a very different style of work, a different culture of innovation and excellence, and a mindset that embraces uncertainty and complex challenges.

About as far as you can go from the cushy job in the corner office where you simply need to keep an eye on things and make sure it’s business as usual.

So, the senior managers want the teams to do scrum, because they think it’s a more efficient or effective way of getting products out the door, but they don’t want organizational agility. They don’t want to abandon the behaviours and practices that made them successful within the organization, nor do they want to embrace the responsibilities, behaviours and practices that are required for the organization to grow business agility and rapidly respond to opportunities and threats.

Teams are quick to embrace scrum because it actively solves many of their problems, empowers them to make more effective decisions, and allows them to build momentum in a way that delights customers.

There are, however, many things that fall outside of the control and influence of the scrum team and they require leadership teams to actively champion agility and effectively resolve impediments and problem areas.

If that leadership support and engagement is not present, the team spiral and all the ground that has been gained is lost. It causes a lot of frustration, resentment, and often results in a team simply going back to how they did things before.

The way things have always been done around here.


Gather data and evidence of what is being achieved in your organization, and other similar organizations, because of scrum and the agile approach. Present a business case to the most supportive and engage leaders you can find, and make the business case for scrum.

Teach them how scrum works, why it is so popular and effective, and why it is the solution to the current problems they face. Demonstrate how scrum teams can overcome these challenges and achieve the business objectives that leaders truly care about.

From there, you’re consulting and coaching.

You need to help the leadership teams understand what needs doing, why it matters, and how to go about cultivating and nurturing their own agile leadership capabilities. Guide them through the maze and demonstrate how their behaviour and actions is having a positive impact on the team.

You’re building a business case for agile leadership in the process, so document everything, employ the metrics that matter, and use that business case and evidence to pitch more resistant leaders within the organization.

At the end of the day, each manager wants their department to shine because they care about legacy and promotion, and so demonstrating how small changes in their world lead to impressive results and outcomes a rung or two down the corporate ladder.

So, a combination of training, coaching, and consulting can go a long way to getting leadership teams to firstly support, and then champion, agility within the organization.

I’m a big fan of using the sprint review as an opportunity to recruit leadership support.

They see customers, stakeholders, and product development teams all in the same room. They see the level of engagement, they see how delighted customers are with progress that has been made, and they see how customers and developers cocreate the solution moving forward.

It’s an event that allows them to witness the power of scrum.

All the boxes they want to tick are present.

  • Engaged, satisfied customers.
  • Engaged, satisfied teams.
  • Productive, valuable outcomes being delivered on a frequent, continuous basis.
  • Feedback on what is working, what needs work, and how best to work in the future.
  • Feedback on what prevented the teams from achieving their goals.
  • Feedback on organizational impediments and policies that prevent progress.

And so forth.

It is a powerful event to bring leadership teams into to convince them that the scrum approach is healthy, thriving, and is actively developing product development capabilities in each iteration.

So, those are the two primary risks of scrum that I encounter the most, and these should be useful interventions that you can make to turn the ship around.

About John McFadyen

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