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Jonathan Hall
Jonathan Hall

Posted on • Originally published at on

Scrum is great in theory, but "it will never work in the real world"

I’m sure you’ve heard such a statement. You may have even said it yourself:

Scrum (or XP or Agile or DevOps or Lean) is great in theory, but it will never work in the real world…

I have two responses to a statement like this.

The first is an almost knee-jerk reaction:

But it does work in the real world. At least in some situations, because people are doing it successfully!

This is the extent of most such conversations on social media. It often devolves into a sort of he-said/she-said yelling match that ends in “your experience is less valid than mine” types of rhetoric.

Not very productive.

And this leads me to my second response to this type of statement, which is to try to understand where it’s coming from.

These “it will never work in the real world” types of statements usually come out of experience. Often direct, first-hand experience of the thing in question having failed in the real world.

But here’s the thing: There are (at least) two different real worlds. Or more like: There are two layers of reality, and the people who make these statements are operating at one layer, and the people who argue against them are operating on another layer.

“This will never work in the real world” often makes perfect sense when you live in the world of hard deadlines, large up-front planning, complex external dependencies, etc.

“This is proven to work in the real world” also makes perfect sense when you live in a world that’s built around an assumption of business and software agility.

The main difference I see between these two “realities” is that of mindset. Both are versions of the “real world”. But in my view, the “This is proven to work” mindset is more aligned with the fundamental reality that software development is inherently unpredictable.

But for Scrum/XP/Agile/DevOps/Lean to work, it must be in a context that recognizes this reality. In my experience, this is a minority of contexts, although perhaps that number is growing.

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