Scrum. Difficult Conversations. Start with Prioritization. -- Cartoon -- Scrum. Difficult Conversations. Start with Prioritization. Try.

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And take a look around the site.


The Prioritization Conversation.

This is difficult. And it sucks.

And people avoid it as much as possible.


They call me.

In the past few months, I have recognized a disturbing pattern in my conversations about helping people “Go Agile.”

Since it is hitting the mainstream people are thinking this Scrum stuff is the Silver Bullet.

It is not. Sorry.

And for those that have been following this blog for a while, it STILL is not (see above… 2006 I said it… and I’ll keep saying it!).

So… once you understand this…

Well… most people do not understand and internalize this.

Most people, teams, and organizations (especially the higher up you (or your boss) get) hear the words Agile and Scrum and think, “Better Cheaper Faster.”

This is bullshit.  Sorry for the harsh wording.  I could just call it “Donkey Dung” but Bullshit really is THE word that works here.

It — Scrum — is hard.

Join me in the conversation with someone who thinks this….


Actually this initial conversation is from someone who know’s they are already screwed… (there IS a difference)….

By the way… this may be a long posting (it is) and maybe you just want to print it out and hand it to someone you love in your organization as a HYPOTHETICAL difficult conversation…  Might get something started.


Scrum – The Initial Conversation


Developer: Hi Mike. My boss wants to DO AGILE [heavy sigh].

Mike Vizdos: Cool. So what’s up with the [heavy sigh]?

Developer: I need you to talk to them. They read this is really working in [another part of our organization OR another organization not even in our industry OR their boss is totally turned on by this agile stuff] and wants ME to implement it.

Mike Vizdos: Sorry. I mean.. WOW… What a GREAT opportunity.

Developer: Can you talk to them?

Mike Vizdos: Why?

Developer: They are telling us to do Agile / Scrum.

Mike Vizdos: And?

Developer: They believe this is all about faster, cheaper, better and well…. [heavy sigh].

Mike Vizdos: OK… Who do I need to speak with?

Developer: I’d like to you to speak with [Vice President] or [C-level Executive] or [Company Founder] or….

Mike Vizdos: Please set it up for me as soon as possible!  And Thank You!!


Quick note to those following… Remember BEFORE THE NEXT conversation…

This next conversation CANNOT happen at the line manager or even director levels (and below) within an organization.

These levels are all about tactical execution and we need to have a conversation at the *strategic* level with people who think and are compensated for being at that strategic level.  The tactical level (Director and below) are compensated and rewarded in most organizations I work with to kill or be killed [yes, that is MESSED UP but reality in so many organizations I work with].

Get me higher in the organization.  Please.  As high as you can!

Otherwise, we are preaching to the choir my friend.


2 weeks later….

Scrum – The Prioritization Conversation

I have a face-to-face (best) or telephone  / Skype call (not best) with someone at the strategic level high enough in the organization so I can be ignored heard.

Strategic Person in the Organization: Mike, thanks for taking my call today. I understand you’d like to talk to me about this Scrum and Agile stuff so we can get things done Better, Faster, and Cheaper. Excellent. We have limited resources, fixed budget, and a shit ton of projects in our portfolio. We are thinking about doing this Scrum stuff because [our competitors are doing it] or [I read about it in some industry rag] or [we had some big consultancy or agile tool vendor in here telling us this is the silver bullet to getting things out better, cheaper, and faster]. Bla bla bla bla bla bla bla…. [five minutes later] bla bla bla bla.


Quick note to those following:

I am NOT discounting the BLA BLA BLA. This BLA BLA BLA is actually giving me some vital information about how committed this person is to the team and organization in doing Agile / Scrum / Whatever Change. Or… it tells me this person (or… err… ME) should be committed.

Either way… this is great information and comes down to me shutting up and LISTENING.


Mike Vizdos: So. This Scrum or Agile stuff is not going to be Better, Faster, and Cheaper. In fact, it is going to hurt. Scrum is not going to fix anything short term. In fact, it is going to expose all the dysfunctional stuff that already exists in your organization today.

Strategic Person in the Organization: Blink. (or if I am on the phone that awkward pause OR possibly I am calling 911 if I am there in person and this important person within the organization is stroking out or has just had a heart attack [OK… so this has not happened during THIS conversation with me but it is possible!]).

Mike Vizdos: [I am going to my happy place and cleaning out some cob-webs of some old stuff that has been there for ages (maybe putting up a new Daisy Duke poster or something similar [smile]) and reminding myself to shut the hell up and let them talk.  THIS IS HARD FOR ME BUT I HAVE TO DO THIS].

Strategic Person in the Organization: Um. What do you mean? Blink.

Mike Vizdos: Let me ask you a few questions. How many projects are you running in your portfolio? How many teams are working on these projects? Do you have a matrixed organization with teams of specialists working on a ton of different projects for different customers (internal or external) all at the same time? Do you have multiple customers hitting your teams all at once and whoever is yelling the loudest or creating the shiny object syndrome winning? What hurts the most today when doing your current work? How is time to market? Do you off-shore (or near-shore or use vendors)? How far are you down the supply chain in the delivery of services to your end users? Who are your competitors? Who are your end users (people that provide the revenue to the organization [government, non-profit, for-profit, NGO, whatever… REVENUE drives the machine). What is you average revenue per user? What BLA BLA BLA.


Back to reality…  Welcome to another thought bubble (what is going on in my head at this point)…

These questions all come out in one form or another and again, the BLA BLA BLA above is not to discount the BLA BLA BLA but instead is intended to show you the questions and conversations that ARE happening. In reality I have never [and would not suggest ever] barraging someone disrespectfully in any way, shape, or form with ALL of the questions at once without listening to their response and allowing the conversation to be guided by THEM.  Remember you need to get to their,”What’s in it for me (WIIFM)?”


Strategic Person in the Organization: Mike. You do not understand. WE ARE DIFFERENT.

Mike Vizdos: Of course you are. This is what makes you the best in your market niche today.  Right?

Strategic Person in the Organization: Blink. BLA BLA BLA (remember now this is not discounting the value of this stuff but this is where people vent… I let them).

Mike Vizdos: So. Who is your most important client or what is the most valuable project?

Strategic Person in the Organization: Blink. They ALL are. Remember Mike. WE ARE DIFFERENT. ALL of our clients (or users or whoever) are IMPORTANT. Priority ONE. Everyone.

Mike Vizdos: Of course. I understand. So can you tell me the answer to my question?

Strategic Person in the Organization: Yes. It is BLA BLA BLA. So. We are DIFFERENT. Remember?  We have fixed time, fixed resources, and fixed scope that we are promising to the market.

Mike Vizdos: Of course. I understand. So can we dedicate a team of all the right people in the organization — say seven plus or minus two — and you clear everything else off their plates but this project. People who can get this DONE. No matter what part of the organization they come from. And can you get a customer [I do not usually use the term Product Owner here yet] to come and work with the team full time while they also may have to run their operational duties and who can call the priorities of what they need to solve with this project and YOU will own backing this team and possibly burning some political capital when the shit hits the fan (because it will) and allow the team to do whatever it takes to deliver the solution in working software to solve the customers needs for thirty days or less and then incrementally deliver stuff to the market to bring value and revenue streams in while the team is wrong with estimates and planning but still delivering the highest value stuff to the customer (OH WOW) while the team goes through forming, storming, norming, and then high-performing before they are predictable and kicking ass. And Oh. Only do this with one project. Collocated. Together. At a sustainable pace. BLA BLA BLA


Getting the picture of how shitty this ask can be in most situations?

[[[[ Side note: IF the concept of this conversation being HARD or DIFFICULT is foreign to you — LET PEOPLE OUT HERE KNOW what IS possible ]]]


It is about Priority.




While the conversation not always ends like this, well… you get the picture.

This is a good indicator that Agile or Scrum or whatever change de’jour that is coming your way…well… it will fail.

You are screwed.

Internalize this.  Do what you need to do.  But. You. Are. Screwed.  Good luck with that.  It may not be your fault but do not play the victim.

There have been numbers out there that 80%+ of Scrum Implementations fail.

I’ll remind you though — 80% of ANY change fails.

People are people and they will take the path of least resistance and go back to whatever they were doing before.

Even in a dysfunctional system, everyone knows their place and as uncomfortable as it is people WILL NOT change (maybe they are so numb they think *every place* is like this).

Your team and organization will chase its tail and spend a lot of money and eventually you will be disallowed to use the “S” word or “A” word [that would be “Scrum” and “Agile” not anything else lol) and the pendulum swings back to command-and-control and well… yeah.

You get the picture.

Did I hit a nerve?


What is the “right” way to continue this conversation from the “Strategic Person in the Organization” point of view?

Let’s go….

Help me.

Help you.

You have to ask for the help.

Let’s see what is next!

If you can have another conversation… what does it sound like next?




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  1. Lee Thomas says

    Good post Mike, sounds very familiar from my experiences.
    I believe Scrum or any other “Agile” approach is best implemented as a 2 pronged attack
    (forgive the choice of words).
    1) Operational Level – The Team
    2) Strategic Level – Executive and senior management
    Without the later you are doomed to fail as you will hit the glass ceiling.
    Keep up the good work, I will share this with my colleagues!

    • says


      Thanks for the comments and support. This is a really tough conversation to have and I am happy to see people are actually supporting it and sharing it within their organizations.

      Now for the negative and/or shock comments… or not!

      Keep up the great work and thank you again for the comment.

      – mike vizdos

  2. says

    Hi Mike, another good post.
    In my experience, I find that organisations accept mediocrity as the norm. They would love to change the way they do things BUT really scared of the “consequences”. They forget that these consequences could also be a positive move and an opportunity to improve. Do we just leave them to their own devices in the hope that one day they will realize this or should we convince them to change?

    • says


      I cannot convince others to DO anything. I can have a conversation with them about the good and bad points… but really if people want to change they will.

      Usually something has to really hurt before that happens though.

      I have time.

      There are so many people out there who *want* to make a change.

      I am working with *those* teams.

      Are they always successful?


      – mike vizdos

  3. says

    Wow, Mike, talk about straight to the face.
    Yeah, this type of conversation sure is familiar. On one hand – we are different. On the other, tell us how it works in other organisations similar to us. Either way, you’re screwed, because it is ok for teams to change, but not for management.
    I usually say that, along the lines of Lee’s comment, that agile transition can be either top-down, or bottom-up, or both.
    With C&C (no top down adoption) teams will find it extremely hard to succeed with agile.
    With a supportive management – C level, not middle, there is a sporting chance for the teams.

    • says


      Good points and I agree.

      People — no matter where in the organization — need to want to change. Otherwise… well… I am sure there are people and organizations and consultants out there who will help take their money and make them feel good.

      Not me.

      – mike vizdos

  4. TT says

    Great read…nice prose.

    What is the “right” way to continue this conversation from the “Strategic Person in the Organization” point of view?

    The right way would be for said “SPITO” to think in terms of a cost benefit analysis. If they are committed to improving and driving the change..and take the good with the bad. There is no such thing as a magic bullet in terms of methodology…if there were we’d have only one method right? In my experience I find that the measurement of success is closely linked to a clear understanding of the AGILE method beyond the sales pitch by those who will judge success.

    I’m off my soap box…keep up the good work!

  5. says

    Hi Mike,
    I think this is pretty accurate almost word by word my own experience in some cases, be it trying to guide internal or trying to support external. Based on my own experience it all depends on how much people in the management are willing to loosen command and control and that is a tough nut to crack in taylorism motivated management teams.

    Sometimes an agilist can be lucky to find a manager who is just drowning AND a team which is willing to decide on their own. Also very hard for people to start thinking themself all of a sudden. So usually I just offer my own work without speaking much about agile. It either freaks people off or they believe they are already agile (mixing it up with chaos though).

    Not to mention all those who call themself agilists, but are one of the first to stand up as a SCRUM Master and assign tasks. So my advice would always be: sneak it in by offering to deliver a project with great project management and full transparency. And then just come with your agile toolchain without talking much about it. Experience makes more likely the difference than talking about it.

    Thank you for your side and all the great insights you offer.

    • says

      Hi Kai,

      While I may not fully agree with the approach to “sneak it in” (I’ve tried that before more than once) I am learning really really that is not good for the long term of either the client company or myself.

      It’s a strategy!

      I appreciate the comments and thank you for keeping in touch.

      – mike vizdos

  6. says

    :) :) very funny. Everyone I talk to always has this same confusion around Scrum. Priority is a dirty word… I say ‘order’. Which order would you like us to deliver these things in? If they say they don’t care, then I say great! *randomly pick one* and say “who’s the project sponsor for this we will go off and work on this one until it’s done, does that sound ok?… then of course they usually get more involved about ordering because they realize what’s going to happen if we just run off and do that ‘randomly chosen’ one. I think mostly all of this comes down to the amount of effort that is required. It’s hard to have ugly conversations with customers and no one wants to have to do it. Everyone wants to be able to say ‘yes’ to everyone and especially the strategic people who are committing to do anything that is asked of them. To do otherwise is to not be a ‘team player’.

    Of course, I digress… yes everyone seems to think “Just do this scrum or Kanban thing and everything else works”. I just started at a new place and there was no formality or any sort of project management of any kind. Within the first sprint we already uncovered a ton of conflicting priorities and interruptions. Now great, it’s identified… now what?

    Point is, dysfunction is highlighted… now does the organization have the intestinal fortitude to do anything about it? Do I have the strength to do something about it? Most of this tactical stuff is very complex especially the social engineering or culture changing stuff.

    For example training every developer to respond to new requests during the sprint “Well we are currently doing ‘x’ but that sounds important let’s go talk to the product owner and see if it’s worth trashing what we’re working on to do that.” or something similar to get people to realize the impact of their requests. Also having someone to provide covering fire to those developers so they’re not left flapping in the wind after saying something like that and have it be a career limiting move.

  7. says

    Hi Mike,
    in general I agree that sneaking things in is not the right approach and that a shift of strategy is also my favourite. In reality I fear the situation is different. But then again I am usually asked to deliver specific solutions and not to change processes or behaviour. That solution and behaviour comes hand in hand is pity enough not seen by everyone.

    Therefore in delivering the solution I utilize the degree of freedom I have to use the right methods. And I use the soft spots where people want to change the existing solution wise and therefore to a certain degree (if they understand) also behaviour wise. In the end after delivery I am a happy man if one out of one hundred has adopted to agile. :) And I hope that that creates enough energy and movement afterwards to initiate a real strategic shift towards agile. And then better agilists than me are hopefully invited to support that shift. Sometimes it does work, sometimes it doesn’t.

  8. says

    Nice post.

    My experience is that it is not always senior management that are the problem. Well established senior level engineers are just as capable of knocking agile adoption off the rails. The idea of wider visibility of their work is, conciously or not, frightening to them. They have a certain level of comfort in their roles and how they do things, and to have the spotlight shon upon them can be uncomfortable. Yet it is often these guys who have highlighted the need to “get the process right” which has led to an initiative to adopt Scrum in the first place. They tend to think they are doing their little bit right, and if only everyone else would, life would be good.

    I summarise this as: everybody likes the idea of change, as long as it is everybody else that has to change, and not them!

    So I think the tough conversations should also happen at the engineer level to see if they understand the implications of changing the way things are done.

    • says


      The conversations have to happen at all levels and the buy in needs to be there by everyone.

      Senior levels do need to understand what they are asking from their tactical teams. Many times there is a major disconnect!

      I appreciate the feedback!

      Mike Vizdos

  9. says


    Excellent article. I have not personally had this conversation, but I can definitely see it happening. I don’t have a good answer for the next conversation because I’ve never had the previous conversation. I generally work at the teams level and not at the strategic level.

    However… your comment above:
    > I am sure there are people and organizations and consultants out there who
    > will help take their money and make them feel good.

    I have personally witnessed this. The adoption has not yet failed, but I think it will, and I intend to monitor and find out for my own satisfaction. I wish I could say where I saw this happen, but I’d like to do business in that town some day, and insulting the largest Scrum consulting company in that town might not be wise of me.

    Let’s say you realize that an org has this “priority” problem as described above. Clearly someone like you doesn’t want to be involved. But let’s say someone who is not as picky (and prob not as talented) as you decides to do the adoption that we all know will fail in some major way.

    Do orgs then just completely abandon Scrum?

    Or do they try to find someone who can help them do it better?

    I’ve been called in a few times to help them do it better, and we have, but those are at the team level and subject to elimination if the strategic level doesn’t manage it right.

    Also, is it possible that a new strategic level person will come into the company with the right attitude and decide to fire the “feel good” consultants and get real ones?
    Can the less talented person possibly get the org hooked on the Scrum “crack” enough so that they will decide to try and save Scrum rather than abandon it altogether?

    I think you have quite a bit more experience with these scenarios, so I’d be interested in your answers based on your experiences. This challenge is something I think about a lot too.

  10. says

    It hits the nerve Mike!
    I wish I would have done this conversation in the past. I think it’s necessary to talk with the upper management right from the beginning what implementing Scrum implies – as you mentioned – often hurting transparency, the need for committment to the starting team,….

    Starting bottom up with the Scrum implementation – can burn to much already in the beginning, as it’s often missed to really show benefits and resistance to change + overlapping other organizational changes blur the effects of the implementation.

    A backing committed management and energy for the team that will have a tuff time in the beginning is in my opinion necessary.

    80% failing Scrum implementation — this is a shocking number for me and it shows that we also have to change the way we introduce Scrum. This post will help!

    What is the “right” way to continue this conversation from the “Strategic Person in the Organization” point of view?
    Do you mean how you could continue the conversation or what you would expect from the “other” side?

    One of my learning from Nonviolant communication is to invest time to see the feelings, wishes and needs of yourself and your communication partner: WATCH – FEEL – EXPRESS NEEDS – ASK … as a chain to continue.

    Why is the strategic person repeating “WE ARE DIFFERENT”? This was not solved and not yet really addressed in the communication. There can be many interpretations to it…?

    Maybe your good suggestions in the communication what you need from the beginning, where too far away from the mind-landscape of the strategic person. Maybe it was to fast – and for sure nothing to be clarified via phone or skype? It’s too easy to frighten someone at this stage … but it’s the challenge and task to find a way of a more smooth conversation.

    Honestly – I would not give up that easy 😉 An execuse for the fast explanation and shocking moments … and a session to really find out if it could match or not could be the next step for me.

    Now I’ll print your post and spread it a bit 😉

    • says


      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this one… you have many great points in your comments and I appreciate them.

      You are right… I would not — and DO NOT — give up with, “well… you are screwed” comments to them.

      But (oh shoot.. I mean AND).

      I do encourage a lot of real world conversations using NVC and other techniques.

      This blog has a tag line of “… by starting tough conversations about Software Development” (I think that is what it is lol).

      So you are right.

      What are the other conversations that follow-on after this?

      IF people are up for a follow-on conversation I am going to engage them in this conversation. So yeah… I should start writing about how to do that here (along with getting great comments from people like you to help our little part of the blogging world).

      80% of ANY change fails. Not just Scrum.

      So… I really do prefer to spend my time with the 20% that are having real-world problems and who really really want to figure out how to navigate the change. I do not give answers (I may have them but alas, they are usually not always correct) and part of the journey of changing [anything] is to figure out [the next steps] for that person.

      Let’s start focusing on that.

      Thank you!

      – mike vizdos

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