Scrum is a Silver Mirror - sometimes

July 20, 2010 — Posted by Al Shalloway

I saw an interesting blog today by Mike Dwyer called "Scrum is a Silver WHAT and you want to put it WHERE?" where he makes the pithy statement that "Scrum is not a silver bullet – it's a silver mirror." Now I definitely think this is a good blog and recommend you read it. However, I must admit to having had two simultaneous reactions to it – and realized it epitomized my concerns about how Scrum is promoted. My first reaction was – pretty cool. Scrum's power is in showing us what is not working. It starts us down a nice path and anything that blocks it must be removed.

This is Ken Schwaber's idea of Scrum being your mother-in-law – telling you what's wrong while not telling you how to fix it. The issue that many in the Scrum community ignore, of course, is that merely seeing an impediment does not mean you can figure it out. Many in the Agile community take a minimalist approach and often get into trouble thinking finding problems will lead to solving problems. This has had people try starting their Agile transitions with Scrum when that may not have been the best approach. But that's another story. See our webinar Where to Start Your Agile Transition for more information (registration necessary).

The deeper issue is that the metaphor of Scrum being a silver mirror is cool, but it's not consistently accurate. And this inaccuracy can lead to serious problems. Metaphors are very power and they can guide how we work. I suspect most people don't totally appreciate the power and limitations metaphors provide. You might enjoy reading Enrique Montiel's "The Power of Your Metaphors" to get an idea of what I mean. The problem is that Scrum is sometimes a silver mirror and sometimes it isn't (but, of course, you can't tell when it is or isn't). Or, perhaps another way of saying it, it's a silver mirror that sometimes reflects and sometimes doesn't-the problem is you never know when it isn't reflecting.

Imagine you were sold a car that had a funny kind of mirror. In the day it always worked. But at night, it sometimes reflected what shone on it, and it sometimes didn't. Further imagine, that you didn't know of this peculiarity – that is, you figured it always acted consistently (don't mirrors do that?). So now you are driving along at night, look in your rear view mirror and the mirror is black. You naturally think nothing is there. So you change lanes only to hit the car that was there, but not being reflected.

You could, of course, blame the mirror. The dealer, of course, would just tell you that you weren't looking at the mirror long enough.  Stop doing "mirror-but" and stick with it until it works. I think, however, the dealer has some responsibility here.  Especially if they had sold many of these cars and had heard of many of these accidents but just attributed it to driver error. They may say "It's not our cars' faults, it just the drivers aren't attentive or skilled enough - they need to look at the mirror a longer time."  This is safe and easier than to investigate the true cause of the accidents and perhaps find something wrong with their product.

What has this to do with Scrum? I suggest the "silver mirror which Scrum is" has this funny kind of flaw. On many things it will tell you what is wrong. But on many others, it doesn't really do that. You know you're not making progress but you really don't know why. If you believe in your "dealer" you may just keep trying and looking. You try to focus harder through your mirror, even put some lights pointing backward so the mirror will have more light to reflect. But you never consider that maybe the assumption that the mirror is working is flawed. So you try using the mirror in different ways, in ways it wasn't intended to be used. Maybe you need something more. Maybe this is what the dealers of the mirrors are afraid of.

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


Alan, this post would benefit from a concrete example or two of things that Scrum won't show in its "mirror". Can you relate a story or two?


I am in the process of writing up a few that'll show up in future blogs or articles. However,one is when people don't recognize the blockage as an impediment but consider it just the way it is.  For example, when people are convinced stories cannot be broken down to smaller than 2 weeks.  They don't recognize this as an impediment in the same way I don't recognize needing a plane to fly to LA is an impediment. It's just the way it is.

Alan Shalloway, CEO Net Objectives

Are you saying that Bill Wake is Really Mike Dwyer? 8^)
I know I am not Bill, and he is certainly glad of that.

Sorry, not sure how i got the author wrong. fixed it.

Alan Shalloway, CEO Net Objectives

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