Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Scrum: A Race to the Bottom?

I had an interesting discussion with a colleague a while back. He believes that unless a Scrum team consists of high-performers, its collaborative practices will degrade its performance to the lowest common denominator. Do you agree?

I did, at first. His argument was that high performers keep each other accountable by their nature. They are ambitious perfectionists (for which we are thankful) and hold everyone to high standards including themselves and the organization. In contrast, merely modest performers will not, just by their individual natures, risk team instability in order to hold each other accountable. And so their team’s performance devolves — essentially a race to the bottom.

I found this all persuasive at the time, and left our meeting nodding my head. But after a few weeks I realized I was disturbed by the implication. I mean the implication that, when leading a team of modest performers, I must either settle for poor performance, abandon empowerment for command-and-control, or replace the modest performers with stars.

My problem is that I don’t want to settle, I don’t believe in the effectiveness of command-and-control (or enjoy it), and a team of (very scarce!) high performers tends to fight and otherwise require a lot of attention.

When I probed deeper into my feelings, I realized that the original argument felt like a form of blaming. It blames the people on the teams (people who are capable of pretty good performance, after all) while ignoring the organizational system in which they work.

In an organization that communicates poorly, doesn’t adequately resource leadership or leadership training, or is chaotic for other reasons, the argument does truly hold — because only high performers can overcome the organizational deficiencies. That type of organization is often pegged at the "heroic" level of maturity — fairly low, and all too common.

In contrast, in an organization that masters communication and invests in leadership as a core competency, modest performers have the cultural and operational support they need and can excel as a collaborative team. That type of organization, which I have experienced, is considered more mature. And it is more satisfying to me personally.

So I guess after thinking about all this, I believe in the Scrum framework even more now. And I reject the claim that it's a race to the bottom. On the contrary, it is a proven framework that creates high-performing teams. But it only works that way when properly fed and cared for by the organizational system in which it lives.

Scrum practitioners take note!