Rhetorical Anti-Patterns in Scrum and XP

Let’s face it. There are lots of people with good ideas and a great ability to share their thoughts in an effective manner.

However many “movements” have their more radical Zealot side, and that is certainly a factor in the “Agile” movement.

Many Scrumdamentalists and XP Zealots — and that unfortunately includes practioners at the highest levels, often engage in flawed rhetoric and dysfunctional communication patterns in their online discourse.

Any self organizing team is going to have internal debates amongst themselves.

These debates internally must be conducted in a positive and productive manner; one would hope that these types of good debate techniques would be instilled as “Scrum” or “XP” or even “Agile” philosophy and their students trained in good techniques.

Unfortunately many “Scrum” and “XP” luminaries, as well as their newly minted “Masters” have demonstrated that they use flawed logic and conversational antipatterns that any self respecting team should reject as a matter of policy.

Although it has been been pointed out that it is not only “the Church of Scrum” that suffers from these anti-patterns, and that is true, few groups seem to rely on these anti-patterns as almost the norm.

Go read a Scrum blog, remove everything that falls into one of these patterns, and see if there is any content left.

Some examples of these Anti Patterns

1) Grandstanding — Example: “Everyone knows that …” “All professional programmers …”

2) Firebreathing — Demonizing the opposition — “All Waterfall projects fail”…”That’s Waterfall thinking”..”If you don’t do X, you’re not doing Scrum”….”People who don’t adopt Scrum will fail at the project/or individual professional level”…etc

3) Humiliation/Bullying/Fear Uncertainty and Doubt/Ad Hominems — the above quotes illustrate that as well as “If you don’t adopt XYZ practice, you will fail”, “You’re not a team player”, “You just don’t want to change”, “You’re not a top developer”, etc.

4) Wanton Disregard of the Facts — “All Waterfall projects fail” “Major Releases are a Curse on Mankind”…. Wow I guess that Windows 7 was that curse that all the Vista people had been waiting for…and those pyramids never got built.

5) Emotional Appeals — “Just try Scrum!” “It works, trust me” “This is the way to organizational enlightenment”

6) Irrelevent Parables based on New Age/Eastern Thinking — instead of a cogent argument, an irrelevant reference to fortune cookie level “eastern” thinking is quoted. This smoke and mirrors approach is widely used. “Origami masters teach us that…”

7) Demanding Proof of others but supplying none themselves — This is all too common. The agile zealot will demand proof from others but supply none themselves. When asked to be specific they will respond with “you’re not in a learning space” or “you’re not open to a new approach”

8 ) Suppression/Removing your ability to comment — “You haven’t tried microwave pudding….so how can you say that it’s not tasty”…”You’re not shu-ha-ri enough”…”You haven’t done Scrum for 10 years so how can you say this is a waste of time”…etc..

This is especially hypocritical, since whatever product you are creating, hasn’t been done before, ergo, noone can talk about it… Clever.

9) Personality Cult — “Rush Agile-Author teaches that…” “The manifesto informs us that….” “Some books say that…” “Many people trying to sell us something claim that…”

10) Censorship — Unfortunately, many popular Scrum and XP blogs/etc routinely censor postings that question anything about the process. This creates an illusion that everyone agrees with the party line. Many people including luminaries have reportedly been banned from various Scrum, etc, discussion groups. Whatever happened to courage, trust, introspection and transparency?

11) One sided “research” — Many documents purporting to be “research” or analysis are nothing but one sided pieces created by the vendors themselves…using questionable datasets and small sample sizes. There is little (if any) credible third party or academic evidence to support the positions espoused by these people so they create their own research and use it to support their sales efforts.

12) Falsely claiming that someone is using one of these anti patterns– is also an anti pattern.

13) The One True Way — the mistaken belief that there is one best way to accomplish development, and that one true way is applicable and best for every situation

14) Extrapolation — “it worked for XYZ therefore that means it will work for …” Lots of things work for some people; that doesn’t mean that it will work for everyone. What’s best for a small web shop might be completely inappropriate for a larger organization, etc. It is an anti-pattern to assume that since something (allegedly) worked that that means others who adopt it will attain similar success.

etc…) I could go on and on.

When I wrote this piece originally I had not yet seen this video, which uses many of the above mentioned anti patterns.

Trust me, when you have your team discussing whether they should do X or Y, you would want them to have a resonable discourse! That means

1) Respecting the opposition

2) Realize that there are multiple paths to success for any given problem

3) Decisions will be made based on reason and practicality, not on academic, philosophical, bullying, emotion, demonizing or any of the above mentioned anti patterns.

4) Argue your case — nicely — supported by facts.

I look for more suggestions on how to improve discourse.

I also look for Scrum and XP leaders to be mindful of how they conduct themselves in their online discourse.

It certainly hurts the credibility of the movement, when a mockery is made of words like “trust, honesty, transparency, courage” etc are used by these individuals one minute, and rhetorical anti-patterns or actions that demonstrate the opposite the next.

And I would certainly be wary of hiring any “Certified Master” who has been indoctrinated in harmful conversational antipatterns by these Trainers who have demonstrated that they use dysfunctional antipatterns as a routine matter – that would be an impediment to any smooth running team.


About postagilist

Architect, Manager, Developer, Musician, Post-Agile thought leader
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8 Responses to Rhetorical Anti-Patterns in Scrum and XP

  1. Chance says:

    Hi, I have been a long-time believer that Scrum/Agile is snakeoil – designed to give nominal control of projects to developers without any regard for the wider commerical pressures influencing more traditional approaches (the need to agree the deliverables, deadlines and costs with a client *before* starting work, for example) and have constantly been stunned by the ferociousness of the attacks on anyone who dares question the High Priests of this garbage. I really enjoyed your post on the comments to the video you linked to and the way that the only statistical evidence anyone defending Scrum has is always written by one of the people trying to sell this stuff in to businesses.

    Personally, I think that PRINCE 2, PMP/PMBOK and Agile/Scrum can offer small titbits that are useful in managing digital projects (either commercial software, web development or IT projects), but non are perfecct by any means. I tend to think of Scrum Masters like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest – when you let the inmates run the asylum, you need a charismatic patient to lead the rest, but they are still not a doctor. The only truly successful way to manage any project (and I mean in all aspects, not just the development cycle inside the programming team, which is what Scrum focusses on), is to use competent staff, trust them to be competent, but to also delineate stage of the project clearly – including nailing the requirements as closely as possible before starting to try and deliver them. There is no book or training course that you can buy that will answer all the needs of every company, but the Scrum guys are masters at playing the marketing game: “Hey, it was written by developers, for developers, so it must be great! If you can’t see that, you’re a crappy developer”. I think that anything that has a 75% failure rate is pretty shoddy, but they get away with always saying “hey, it would have worked if you did Scrum right”, or “it’s not the fault of the process, it’s a poor set of developers” and people still believe the hype.

    I am sure those “developers” who are selling this in are not at all self-serving consultants who have long ago stopped writing code for money, as they got tickets onto the Gravy Train and aren’t getting off any time soon. I speak as someone who has made a career out ot managing projects, working to improve the quality of delivery and has been a commercial software developer and I really can’t bring myself to buy in to the hype at all. Scrum Master is not the same as Project Manager, because Scrum doesn’t focus on the commercial aspect, or the need to manage clients or internal stakeholders – in fact, all it really boils down to is someone saying “OK guys, what on the list of jobs that need doing are we going to do next?” and then sanctimoniously going back to the stakeholders and saying “this is what you’re going to get, like it or not” to a great extent.

    Project Management doesn’t care how the developers do the task, as long as it’s done well and done on time – any PM that is micro-managing is doing it wrong and, to me, Scrum is all about micro-managing to the detriment of quality, as it forces everyone to work to a base level the whole team can agree on, as opposed to setting the bar and trying to reach it.

    Sorry for the rant, but it’s been bugging me a lot recently! Great blog, though – keep it up!

  2. Neil Killick says:


    Just as it is unforgivable for people to evangelise Scrum at the expense of context and considered thinking, it is equally as unforgivable to be an ardent cynic of something at the expense of perhaps learning a bit more about it and discovering that you are misinformed.

    1. I would read into this “75% failure rate of Scrum” statistic about as much as I would read into a pro-Scrum case study written by a Scrum vendor.

    2. You are wrong to say that Scrum doesn’t “focus on the commercial aspect or the need to manage clients or internal stakeholders”. The truth is quite the opposite. These are all crucial responsibilities of the Scrum product owner. Scrum places great emphasis on ensuring that the “right product” is being built – planning and working directly on a daily basis, as well as reviewing each Sprint of work, with business representatives and other stakeholders.

    3. The order of work to be done is determined by the product owner, who represents all the business stakeholders. It’s not just one person deciding the order of work. That person is the voice of several. Where there is more than one person with requirements, it is possible that there will be conflicting priorities so, yes, the product owner may sometimes have to upset some of the stakeholders by moving their requirements “down the list”. At the end of the day someone has to make the final call where there are conflicting priorities. But assuming the product owner is doing their job properly, and the product vision is being communicated clearly, this is not usually an issue. Bottom line, it is nothing like the sanctimonious situation you describe.

    4. Your sentence about project management sums up precisely why Scrum focuses on building a product rather than managing a project. You’re implying that so long as developers are completing their tasks, everything is tickety-boo with the project so everything is great. Managing a project rather than building a product is a surefire way to have extremely productive developers building something that ultimately does not get used.

    There is as much misunderstanding and blind loyalty for Scrum as there is these things from the Scrum naysayers about not using Scrum. How about this for an idea – rather than spending time singing the virtues of Scrum or slagging it off, let’s instead spend our efforts discussing and sharing ways of making product development successful. If people focused on that rather than the dogmas of Agile or Scrum, there would be some far more valuable discussions going on.

    • PostAgilist says:

      Except that the 75% failure statistic comes FROM a scrum vendor (Schwaber). Even the pro Scrum people feel that it fails 75% of the time!

      And that evidence is borne out, as you can see, on my “Lack of Scrum Success stories” page.

      I agree we need more dialog and less dogma — but it is the scrum proponents that are the most dogmatic.

      Listening to them is like listening to brainwashed clones — with rare exception.

      Perhaps you can help spread the word to the Agilists that there are many acceptable way to skin a cat, not just 1.


  3. chancehooper says:

    I’ll be honest and say that I am more than a little cynical about Scrum/Agile, purely based on the brainwashed-sheep mentality that comes with it – I am sure that there are good points about the methodology, as there are with Prince2 and Waterfall, etc. The problem is that we have to deal with a bunch of snakeoil salesmen making an industry out of purely following dogma and not encouraging businesses (especially the specialists inside the business) to use their common sense. I would be less cynical if I didn’t see “Agile Specialist” or “Scrum Master” on the CV of people, that I know from experience to be idiots. The real problem is that it is getting them into positions to cause a lot of damage to a business, purely because HR drones now expect to see the Agile “silver bullet” on everyone’s resume and there are a lot of people hiding behind it that are propagating the spread of half-assed “project managers” who cannot actually run a project, but who are great at following dogma, but who actually aren’t capable of the job.

    • PostAgilist says:

      Let’s say that most people are not good managers. Then, a good manager is rare to find.

      Scrum solves this by jettisoning the manager, and thrusting that onto the team. However, most people are not good managers, and so, it follows that the team members / scrum master is also not a good manager.

      Such obvious math is lost on the Agile crowd; they throw out the baby and the bath, when what they should do is try to hire a better manager.

      The fact that such simple logic escapes 99% of the Agilists is shocking, especially when we are talking about software development.


  4. Pingback: Death by Agile Fever | Post Agilist

  5. lisacrispin says:

    I joined my first XP team in 2000. I found the XP community at the time to be incredibly welcoming and helpful. I’ve enjoyed working on “agile” teams for most of the time since then. I also worked on a great waterfall team back in the 90s. There’s nothing wrong with waterfall if you can afford long release cycles. But people use the term “waterfall” when they mean “completely dysfunctional software development”. Teams need good core practices such as TDD, CI, ATDD, exploratory testing, whole team approach etc. None of that is new, we had it back in the 90s.

    I do encounter “experts” who are just out to make a buck and not to help people learn. But I prefer to spend my own energy sharing my experiences and learning from others, rather than judging or attacking any people putting themselves forward as agile leaders or coaches. That whole casting the first stone thing.

    • postagilist says:

      Hi Lisa

      Thanks for commenting..

      In fact, the ones to cast the first stones, were the agilists, who attacked “waterfall” and derided and denigrated anyone who disagreed with them.

      I can quote numerous posts if necessary.

      I am not casting a first stone, I am objecting to stones being cast in general, and imploring even those “highest luminaries” to be civil in their discourse.

      Calling someone out on the facts is not casting a stone.

      The agilists always complain that they are “being attacked” — well, they want to throw out management, throw out titles, this and that, with no basis than their opinions and then they cry “attack” when they are fairly questioned on it or held to a a reasonable logic standard?

      Sorry that makes zero sense to me.

      They need to start showing some respect to people who disagree with them and I have no qualms about stating that.

      In terms of “all those things in the 90s” — yes they worked back then, without the religion of agile and daily scrums and open team rooms and this and that and they’ll work in the future without all the religious BS as well.

      Let’s talk about real practices etc and not all this fluff and pseudoscience that agile is, especially when it’s backed up by a Ministry of Truth like suppression system to prevent people from realizing all they are doing is packaging up some old ideas in one size fits all universal religions to simply try to falsely differentiate themselves from the arts that they appropriated.


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