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Tobias Mayer on Scrum Alliance

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Tobias Mayer is arguably one of the most vocal proponents of Scrum in the world. He has a love relationship with Scrum, and what appears to be a love-hate relationship with the Scrum Alliance.

His many blog posts on Scrum have numerous fans and followers; in many blog posts he describes Scrum as a philosophy of mind and a way of being. His career in Scrum includes becoming one of the earliest Certified Scrum Trainers, or "CST”, authorized to grant the Certified Scrum Master credential to students who attend his Scrum courses. His career also includes being both banished from the Scrum Alliance and later reinstated by Ken Schwaber, the co-creator of the Scrum framework.

When Ken Schwaber recently severed ties with the Scrum Alliance, something he helped create, Tobias Mayer became 'Creative Director' of the new organization. After a brief stint in that role, he renounced all his Scrum Alliance certifications and wrote a scathing blog post about the Scrum Alliance, questioning the Scrum knowledge of the leaders, questioning the integrity of the Scrum Alliance board, and asserting that that the Scrum Alliance "has become the epitome of the dysfunctional organization that Scrum practitioners are committed to transforming." See the full "Scrum Compliance" blog post here.

Tobias Mayer is arguably one of the most vocal proponents of Scrum in the world. What gives here? The following interview helps to answer this question.

Tobias, your blog post entitled “The Scrum Compliance” is extremely critical of the Scrum Alliance. You occupied the role the Creative Director of the Scrum Alliance after Ken left. Why did you assume this role?

Well, to be blunt I believe Ken ran the SA in an oppressive manner, not allowing any change or development that was not of his own design. The organization was stagnant in terms of meeting the needs of the community, and with the pending Microsoft CSD partnership seemed to be moving towards being a money-making machine for a select few. After Ken departed I saw an opportunity for change. I saw hope. I imagined the SA could become a truly community-centric organization, existing to serve its membership through the creation of innovative programs and a supportive framework. I wanted to be part of such an organization. I was first asked by Tom Mellor, the newly (self-) appointed chairman to be on the board, but I felt I could influence change more effectively as a staff member, so worked with the temporary managing director, Lowell Lindstrom to create the “Creative Director” role as part of a new staff framework.

You then you repudiated all association with the organization. Formally, you quit right? Or were you fired?

Over time it became apparent to me that Ken had left an indelible mark on the organization - or perhaps to be fair to Ken, it was the organization itself that made itself what it became. Either way, the new leadership (which was mostly the old leadership plus Mike Cohn on the board) continued to run the organization just as Ken had, i.e. in a traditional, opaque, command and control driven way, focusing on certification and profit, very closed to new ideas. It was a frustrating experience. The lack of stability, resulting from the board’s failure to find a permanent MD for almost a year and their own in-fighting, caused a lot of damage, and prevented any useful decisions being made for that whole period. And yes, I quit. But if I hadn’t Tom Mellor had made it clear he would do his best to fire me following a falling out over remarks I made about him and other board members on the internal CST list. It all got very ugly. I had an equal part in that, of course. Dysfunction breeds dysfunction, and all of us were tainted by the in-fighting at the board level, and the instability of the staff group. There was a lot of fear, and lot of dissatisfaction and frustration amongst the staff.

Has the Scrum Alliance fired anyone recently that you know of? Were people fired on a Friday?

As I understand it the whole staff team was recently laid off, with a plan to outsource the staff function to a staffing agency. I don’t know why that decision was made, or what its impact will be. Like everyone else, I am waiting to see how this plays out. I don’t have an opinion on this decision. It would probably have been smart of the SA to have offered a clearer message that this had occurred (if indeed it did occur!) and an explanation as to how this action supports the work of the SA.

What in your view is the current purpose of the Scrum Alliance? The stated purpose per the ByLaws is a nine-part purpose, starting with “transforming the world of work through the use of Scrum processes”.

The SA are not transforming anything. It makes me quite angry that the organization continues to use that phrase. It is phony. As I see it, the purpose of the SA is to grow the SA. I don’t understand to what end. The cynic in me believes it is simply “to beat Ken”. I don’t see that the board or the new MD have articulated the purpose of the SA at all well.

Ken Schwaber's book “Agile Software Development with Scrum” lists 5 Scrum values (Openness, Respect, Courage, Focus and Respect). On a Scrum Alliance web page describing Scrum, these 5 values are not listed. In their place is found the 4 values of the Agile Manifesto. In your view, which values are topmost? Can we list one group without the other? Are the values enumerated by Schwaber authoritative, or does the Agile Manifesto take precedence in your view?

Neither. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. When I consult with organizations I ask them to embrace Trust, Courage, Integrity, Humility and Service. None of these things (nor Ken’s values) are especially bound to Scrum or Agile. We just want to remind people to be human, to be kind, to be vulnerable.

Is the Scrum Guide by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber authoritative in your view? If so why so? If not why not?

No. Scrum should not be codified in any way: there is no authoritative Scrum, there is just what we do. Any attempt to nail Scrum down to one definition will be a precursor to its death. The Scrum Guide comes very close to taking the life out of Scrum. The Scrum Alliance-threatened Scrum BOK will kill Scrum, for sure.

Let's get into this blog post. You make some strong assertions, but you do not name names or cite episodes or examples of specific organizational dysfunction. I'm eager to gather some facts here. Is that OK with you?

I’m not sure. Let’s see how your next few questions play out.

You say “there is the failure of the Scrum Alliance itself to rise to the leadership challenge, and live up to its own mission to “Transform the World of Work” . Please explain.

The SA is run on very traditional lines. For example, when I challenged the opacity- I call it secrecy- around the search process for an MD, many board members (the ones who spoke about it) replied that this was just the way it was done. This is the kind of blind adherence to the status quo that makes my head explode when I hear it at client sites. That the supposed Scrum leadership thinks this way is outrageous - basically the attitude is: everyone else does this so it must be the right way. Where is the transformation in that? The SA should be setting new precedents for practices like hiring staff, not complying with old-think. And then there is the degree of control over implementation that the board insist on. With little ability to set vision they default to micro-management techniques, telling staff not just what to do but how to do it. There is little dialog. For example, trying to create a compelling series of international Gatherings became an exercise in frustration and futility, with individual board members insisting on dates and locations without understanding the bigger picture of what we (the staff) were trying to do. The (now disbanded) staff group had a shared vision and a sense of purpose. During my time at the SA the board most certainly did not.

You say “The SA is the archetypical unScrum organization, a big lumbering machine, intent on maintaining its status quo, valuing profit over service, control over trust, and engaging in operating practices that are opaque, undemocratic and lacking in integrity. “. Can you give some specific examples of recent behavior from the SA that points to the alleged values of profit, control, opaqueness, and/or lack of integrity?

I think I answered most of this question in my previous response. As you mention earlier, values like Openness and Respect are touted as essential to Scrum. I rarely saw either of those being exercised. Test it out: go and look at the finances for the SA, look for announcements of recent staff changes, look for personal statements from board members -- heck, find a list of who serves on the board, and why they believe they are qualified for the job. Opacity, not Openness is the value that has been embraced over the years. Rumor has it that the SA has between $1m and $2m in the bank. Why? A prudent reserve is one thing, but this far exceeds prudence. The reason the “Train the Trainers” program that I worked hard on setting up as a service to SA members, was canned because according to the BoD it “wasn’t in the budget” - and this is after the MD approved all expenditure. This was a program designed to give back to the community, so in BoD terms was to be run “at a loss”. It was canned after commitments had been made to both the facilitators of the workshops and the members of the SA community that it was intended to serve. Draw your own conclusions.

You say that “I don’t see where anything is being given back to the community “. Doesn't the Scrum Alliance fund Scrum research, support and foster Scrum-related user groups, and maintain a web site with hundreds of Scrum articles that anyone can use to gain some knowledge of Scrum? I know the Scrum Alliance sponsors user group events and does some other things that tend to support the idea that they give back something to the community.

Yes, that was an extreme statement. I’d rephrase it as “very little is being given back to the community”. A bunch of aging articles on a website is hardly a legacy; one would be better off searching recent blog posts from more established writers and thinkers. A few user group events are sponsored, but it seems to be at the whim of the MD or individual board members. As to the research, I believe Ken funded some research on CMMi or something. I have never seen the results of that. I don’t know if anyone else has, or whether they serve any useful purpose. I tried to start a “WelfareCSM” program, launch the Train the Trainers program, spend more on gatherings to have a higher quality of speaker/workshop facilitator and encountered resistance in all areas. Giving back to the community, is not the SA’s forte.

You say, concerning the SA Board, that “Many were selected by one another, and two came in through a somewhat elitist and undemocratic election process. “ Can you provide some additional supporting detail here?

Tom Mellor (CST) - handpicked by Ken Schwaber, part of the original board. Became chairman because no one else on the board wanted the job after Ken left.

Mike Cohn (CST) - originator of the SA, probably has the most right to be on the board.

Steve Fram - handpicked by Mike Cohn, part of the original board.

Michele Sliger (CST) - handpicked by Mike Cohn.

Dan Hintz - a financier, recommended by Jim Cundiff.

Harvey Wheaton - handpicked by Mike or Ken, part of the original board.

Mitch Lacey (CST) & Scott Dunn - elected.

The election process was in two parts. There was a panel made up of a board member and 3 handpicked assistants from the certified community. This group decided who was eligible to run for the board. The selection criteria they used was not published. Applicants not accepted as candidates only found out when the candidate list was announced, no reason was given for rejection. The wider SA membership was allowed to vote for two of the handpicked candidates.

You’ll notice that four of the eight members are CSTs. The likelihood that the certification program will be reexamined and improved is thus very slim. There is an undeniable financial interest from these members to maintain the existing structure, which delivers a non-trivial portion of their income, to varying degrees.

The SA Board had a meeting in Denver in September 2010 right? Regarding that, you say that “My own hope for the meeting was that the current board would voluntarily resign en masse, and call for a member-wide election to vote seven new members (including a new chairman).” Why is this important in your view?

I’d like to see a Scrum Alliance run by and for its members. If people serving on the board actually care about the community, not just about growing the organization, then the organization stands a chance of doing some good work in the world. If the current board members are the right people to run the SA, let them each prove their worth by writing their manifestoes and standing beside other community members in a fair and truly open election. And if CSTs want to serve on the board I believe they should give up their CSM training work for the duration, and probably for six months after they have served their term. This will avoid any accusations of self-interest . This particular idea was supported by Michele Sliger and Scott Dunn in conversation before the Denver meeting, but between our conversation and the meeting itself they each apparently decided it wasn’t important. Odd, seeing as it was Scott and Michele who actually raised this as an issue. It didn’t come from me, although I was in complete agreement with the idea.

What in your view should Scrum Alliance members expect from the organization?

Love, honor, service, commitment, trust, encouragement, support, mentoring, coaching, training... and in return the SA should expect to see, guess what? A transformed world of work :)


Editors Note: Part 2 of this wide-ranging interview publishes next week. It gets more interesting. Be sure to check in next week for the concluding segment of this interview with Mr. Tobias Mayer.


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