Interview with Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org: “Don’t Become the Scrum Police”

It is a rare company — especially in the tech world — that doesn’t employ scrum within its framework.

Last year, a report suggested 87% of companies that use an agile framework employ scrum, and across the last two decades, it’s been rare to be in a product team and not part of Sprint Planning, Daily Scrums, Retros and Reviews, and moving your way to becoming a Scrum Master.

So today, Techopedia sits down with Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, to talk about how the framework has evolved, what criticisms it faces, and how artificial intelligence (AI) and the abundance of data are changing how we work.

The top tips? Stay kind, stay agile, and don’t become the Scrum Police.

About Dave West

Dave West
Dave West

Dave West is the product owner and CEO at Scrum.org. He is a frequent keynote at major industry conferences and is a widely published author of articles and research reports.

He co-authored two books, The Nexus Framework For Scaling Scrum and Head First Object-Oriented Analysis and Design, and led the development of the Rational Unified Process (RUP) for IBM/Rational.

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After IBM/Rational, West returned to consulting and managed Ivar Jacobson Consulting for North America and then as VP research director of Forrester Research, where he ran the software development and delivery practice.

Before joining Scrum.org, he was the Chief Product Officer at Tasktop, responsible for product management, engineering, and architecture

Key Takeaways

  • When Scrum is misused: “Scrum is about incrementally delivering value and is best applied to complex work. Ultimately, the heart of Scrum is a straightforward approach, which has been corrupted sometimes.”
  • The abundance of data in 2024: “It’s easy to find data that proves a point, but that doesn’t mean that point is correct. We have to become more intelligent about its usage.”
  • The role of the Scrum Master: “If they become the Scrum Police, that is bad – they need to be focused on the team’s overall success in delivering value.”

Scrum and the Enterprise

Q: I have seen you address the complexities of scaling Scrum in larger organizations before. What are the most common pitfalls organizations face?

A: When I look at organizations trying to scale agile practices, I see that they always arrive at a certain point where they have to make choices around design and other organizational decisions about how they align their teams. For example, the products they are focused on and how they incentivize.

You have to align the organization holistically, or if I were a systems thinker, the system needs to be completely aligned. You have to optimize at that system level rather than the team level, which is problematic.

I see it with inspirational leaders who say, “Hey, we need to break that, get rid of the hierarchies, focus on outcomes, let’s deliver more stuff. Don’t worry about all that bureaucracy; make intelligent choices.”

Although I see pockets of agility, I don’t see it across the whole organization, even in classic companies such as Tesla and Amazon.

However, as we free up people to concentrate on more creative work with things like LLMs and GPTs, that will change because the very nature of creative work is a team endeavor. It’s people working together. It’s like creating films, not bridges, and it’s very different.

It will change the world, and these practices will become natural. But it’s challenging, and you have to think holistically about it — because human beings must change how they approach work and each other, which is hard to change.

Q: One of the recurring critiques of Scrum is this perception that sometimes it’s too rigid and adapting to unforeseen development challenges.

How does Scrum.org address these criticisms, and what mechanisms have you implemented within Scrum to accommodate the dynamic nature of software development?

A: It is a tricky balance. And the biggest trick from the Scrum.org perspective is when you teach something. It’s essential to use the right words, to be dogmatic, to teach the ideas, and to follow that routine. And then how do you then become pragmatic in pursuit of it?

Ultimately, the heart of Scrum is a straightforward approach, which has been corrupted sometimes.

I wrote an article when I was an analyst with Forrester Research called Water Scrum Fall that described this sort of corruption of Scrum. “Yeah, we’re doing Scrum, but you are just going through the motions and are told the work we have to do.”

Scrum is about incrementally delivering value and is best applied to complex work. Yes, people will pick on Scrum, saying it is too rigid because of the events, artifacts, and accountabilities, but it is up to the team to figure out the best way to work.

The Scrum Guide is 13 pages, and the ideas within the guide are proven ways to help people and teams work together empirically. Focus on a goal, meet to ensure the focus continues, review for feedback, and come together to improve. The rest is up to the team.

We focus on the emphasis of what Scrum is, the essence of what Scrum is, rather than the dogma.

Q: Occasionally, some Scrum Masters are accused of overstepping their roles, leading to a more rigid application of Scrum rules that can stifle innovation and flexibility. What can organizations do to prevent the misapplication of Scrum principles?

A: Organizations and Scrum Masters must focus on helping the teams deliver value. It might mean a more rigid application to set the stage and lessen that over time — or the reverse.

The Scrum Master is closest to the team as they are a part of the Scrum Team and can help the team figure out the best way to work.

Now, if they become the Scrum Police, that is bad; they need to be focused on the team’s overall success in delivering value.

A Scrum Master takes on many stances, as we call them, including leader, coach, facilitator, teacher, mentor, manager, change agent, and more. Ultimately, their success is the success of the team.

The Workplace of 2024

Q: How do you see the evolution of agile frameworks in the context of today’s rapidly changing tech landscape?

A: With artificial intelligence (AI), we are on a journey to remove tedious, boring, and repetitive work from knowledge workers’ lives. Whether it’s a lawyer doing document reviews or a software engineer writing tests, taking out the mundane can free up time to be more creative. This creative time will help teams pursue customer needs, Product Goals, outcomes, etc.

AI, or large language models (LLMs) in particular, will evolve into a supporter, copilot, coach, or enabler that says, “Hey, maybe you want to try this”, or “Hey, let’s work on that Sprint Goal”. That will be the future in terms of how it influences the process.

It will provide that extra helping hand and say, “Hey, if you use this tool, this is a perfect canvas that can help you understand that problem,” or “Hey, I looked at your backlog and noticed that most are written as tasks rather than outcomes” and “Here’s some training that could help you do that”.

I’m hoping it’s going to be like that. We’ll see.

I don’t see a new framework on the horizon. But I see extensions to the framework and the idea sets, design thinking, lean startup, good coaching practices, modern management practices, and precise alignment with OKRs [objectives and key results] to outcomes, which influence how teams work.

Q: What emerging trends or technologies excite you the most? And how do you foresee them impacting how teams might better collaborate and deliver software in the future?

A: In 2020, we all took a moment to look at how teams work distributedly. Before that, many teams were distributed, but it was a mess. The agile community was like, you’ve got to be together in one place, and distribution doesn’t work. And we’ve proven that was wrong; teams can work in a distributed manner

I’m most excited about how we work together in a distributed way, delivering amazing stuff to customers. The other exciting thing is data. When building software, capturing and gathering data took a lot of work.

Now we have more data than we know what to do with, and the combination of the new world of people who specialize in data analytics and the technologies in place, we can leverage the data to make better decisions, which keeps improving.

Scaling a Business

Q: You played a pivotal role in transforming Tasktop from a services business into a VC-backed product business. What were the key challenges you faced during this transition, and how did your approach to product management and team leadership evolve to meet these challenges?

A: We made it at Tasktop with a bit of help from some VC money and the rockstar founder Mik Kersten because we had a vision and a goal and introduced product management relatively early.

We still ran our services to pay the bills, but these were in line with a clear road map, which allowed us to incrementally move towards being a product company.

We then got $12 million from Yaletown and Austin Ventures. This first round was used to grow that product management capability and build out our engineering teams. We were already on the way to delivering products consistently and following some vision.

It wasn’t easy, though, because paying the bills can loudly bang on the door. Whether it’s a client or a potential client that says, “Hey, we like your product, but could you add this feature, and we will pay you this enormous sum of money,” it isn’t easy. You should stay focused on progressing towards your vision.

We’re very fortunate that we had a fantastic team, Mick Kirsten being one of them, the author of Project to Product, the creator of Eclipse Mylyn, and probably one of the most brilliant guys I’ve ever worked with, and he kept us on that vision. I’m not sure he slept, but he kept us on that vision.

Data, Data, Everywhere

Q: Looking back at your career, how have you seen research and analysis in software development and delivery evolve?

A: I just did a quick survey about using products as an idea and a concept inside organizations. Do you have a product model? Do you know what your product is? Do you work on a project or a product?

We asked some questions like that, and we received around 4,500 responses in a week. That is incredible, right? Historically, organizations like Forrester and Gartner were hoarders of data, and now that isn’t the case; anybody can run a survey and learn.

Now you can run surveys on social media, or Google it, or ChatGPT, and all these tools to get fantastic stuff you can use. Unfortunately, though, it comes at a cost: The data you are getting is biased. The data doesn’t have all the details, so you draw conclusions biased by the person drawing.

As a writer, it’s easy to find data that proves a point, but that doesn’t mean that point is correct. We have to become more intelligent about its usage.

We’re all getting a lot smarter using the tools and getting much brighter, but we also have to understand bias, ethics, and context as we add to those assumptions we make when we see something.

Data can be very divisive. I worry that we will misuse it without that kind of understanding and acceptance.

We don’t realize that it’s marginalizing certain groups of people because of the way it’s being used.

We don’t always think about the fact that it is enabling a group of people to bully another group or the consequences of how it’s being used in politics because we’re just like, “Wow, this feature, everybody wants it”.

We must be moral beings, always thinking, and data should help us make better decisions, right? It’s an important point, especially when critical thinking is low. There’s a lot of talk about AI and our reliance on it; we must ensure that critical thinking is maintained.

Leading a Company and Always Learning

Q: What advice would you offer to an aspiring tech leader who aims to drive innovation and change within their organization?

A: Number one is the network. That’s super important. Number two is learning, reading, making time, and putting time in your schedule to read that new article.

A friend of mine is a Scrum Master. He has a little script that loads a Backlog that searches sites like the New York Times and builds this script of things that would be interesting. He has an hour of learning in his schedule every day,

The third thing is don’t ask what have you done, but “who have you helped”? Giving to others ultimately helps the network, and it does, but you learn so much whenever you talk to an aspiring entrepreneur, product owner, or CEO.

Sometimes, I’m tired and grumpy, and I’ve got two kids… I think to myself that I need to make time and be kind, be approachable to people.

Instead of going, “You’re an idiot!”, say: “Oh, that’s interesting,” or “That’s not my perspective,” or “Why’d you say that”?

I know it doesn’t sound like it’s about tech, but kindness. It’s something that we’ve pushed very hard in our community of Professional Scrum Trainers. Let’s pull these walls down. Let’s be kind to each other. Let’s be inclusive. Let’s ask questions rather than shout at people. And then all goodness can happen.

Ultimately, it’s all about kindness, learning, and networking.

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Neil C. Hughes
Senior Technology Writer

Neil is a freelance tech journalist with 20 years of experience in IT. He’s the host of the popular Tech Talks Daily Podcast, picking up a LinkedIn Top Voice for his influential insights in tech. Apart from Techopedia, his work can be found on INC, TNW, TechHQ, and Cybernews. Neil's favorite things in life range from wandering the tech conference show floors from Arizona to Armenia to enjoying a 5-day digital detox at Glastonbury Festival and supporting Derby County.  He believes technology works best when it brings people together.