You’re following the Scrum Guide to the letter, but your team is stuck. Productivity is flat, stress is high, and trust is low. What’s going wrong? You might have searched for Scrum “anti-patterns” – practices that seem helpful at first glance but are actually counterproductive – and ended up here looking for guidance or examples. If so, you’re in the right place!
We spoke with leading Scrum experts to understand the nuances of Scrum anti-patterns. And one thing quickly became evident in our discussions: proceed with caution when it comes to anti-patterns.
Anti-patterns can be helpful sometimes, but they aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions and can do more harm than good when misunderstood.
By the end of this article, you’ll know all about the complexities of anti-patterns, how to spot them, and how to avoid them. We’ve even thrown in some common Scrum anti-pattern examples for good measure.
What are Scrum anti-patterns?
A Scrum anti-pattern is a habit, process, or behavior that seems helpful to a Scrum team but leads to harmful outcomes. They’re usually well-intentioned but actually undermine the very goals they set out to achieve. Anti-patterns are often not just individual mistakes but widely adopted practices that are sometimes institutionalized within a team or organization.
Anti-patterns can emerge from misunderstanding, misapplying, or overemphasizing Scrum principles. A typical example many people are familiar with is the “Daily stand-up meeting that turns into a status report,” where team members merely report their tasks to the Scrum Master instead of inspecting progress towards achieving the Sprint Goal.
What do experts think about Scrum anti-patterns?
When we started interviewing experts about anti-patterns, the responses surprised us. Everyone’s definition of an anti-pattern was slightly different:
Maarten Dalmijn, agile trainer and author of Driving Value with Sprint Goals
“Anti-patterns are the opposite of best practices. It’s something that is commonly applied as an effective remedy for a specific situation, but it backfires and only makes things worse.”
Petula Guimaraes, agile leadership coach and owner of the All Things Agile channel
“There is an established or proven good way of doing things and you’re doing the opposite.”
Stefan Wolpers, agile coach, professional Scrum trainer, and founder of Age of Product and the Hands on Agile community
“An ‘anti-pattern’ is a common response to a recurring problem that is usually ineffective and risks being highly counter-productive.”
Erik de Bos, Scrum and Flow Master
“An anti-pattern is something that the team is doing, something I see in the team, which acts as a warning signal. It’s a red flag. It’s warning me this is going to have a negative impact on the agility of the team.”
James Coplien, software architect and lean/agile consultant
“It’s just a fancy name for ignorance-based wayward behavior.”
The risks of using anti-patterns
Not one of the experts we consulted wholeheartedly endorsed anti-patterns. Most Scrum Masters we spoke to said they would never use the word “anti-pattern” when talking to teams about their working processes.
Agile Coach Petula Guimares says:
“I find the word anti-pattern much too drastic, much too negative … The whole connotation is wrong. I would call them ‘learning tools.'”
At best, some practitioners use a list of anti-patterns as a handy “reference card” to spot common problems or challenges they might encounter with their teams.
One interviewee even thought promoting the concept further by publishing this article was harmful. James Coplien said:
“By giving anti-patterns a voice in your blog, you’re promulgating not only a bad technique but a particularly dangerous technique”
According to him, pedagogical theory shows people learn by positive example, not pointing out all the ways of doing things wrong.
“They’re humorous in that we can go, ‘Ha, they did the stupid thing.’… But they are terrible as a way of telling people or guiding people into good practice.”
Our interviews also revealed that anti-patterns depend on context as well: what’s problematic for one team might be productive for another. Erik de Bos says:
“An anti-pattern suggests a reliability, which I think is unrealistic in an agile sense. For example, something like not having sprint goals… My first reaction is, ‘Yes, of course, that’s a typical anti-pattern.’ But one of my best teams at the moment, they don’t work with Sprint Goals, but they’re extremely agile. And if I dig into the reason why they don’t work with Sprint Goals, it’s perfectly clear. And then suddenly it’s not an anti-pattern; it’s the result of their context.”
How to use anti-patterns wisely
Taking into account the insights from our expert interviewees, keep these pointers in mind as you use our list of anti-patterns:
- Diagnosis: Treat anti-patterns as clues and conversation starters for discovering issues. Never fall into the trap of believing there’s an off-the-shelf solution for a problem. Every team and organization is different. Solving your team’s challenges takes experimentation and creativity.
- Adaptation: Understand the purpose behind each Scrum rule or practice to evaluate if an anti-pattern is genuinely harmful in your context. For example, retrospectives aim for continuous improvement. If your retros lack actionable outcomes, it’s better to find new ways to improve rather than sticking to ineffective retrospectives just because someone considers that an “anti-pattern.”
- Communication: Avoid uttering the word “anti-pattern” in conversations with others. The term doesn’t motivate teams to change or listen to you. Erwin van Maren, entrepreneur and Agile consultant at De Kompanen, recommends showing instead of telling. “If I would like [the team] to change something, I’m not even going to tell them. I’m going to behave a little bit differently.”
- Categorization: Use anti-patterns to label and categorize problems or challenges for yourself. You can then recognize situations you or others have encountered before and get to appropriate solutions faster.
Scrum anti-patterns examples list
This categorized list of anti-patterns helps you recognize pitfalls and situations that may lead to problems, depending on your team’s context.
Scrum event anti-patterns
Common anti-patterns organized by the five Scrum events.
- Sprint extension: Repeatedly extending your sprint duration to meet Sprint Goals.
- Mid-sprint changes: Allowing mid-sprint changes to the Sprint Goal.
- Ignoring technical debt: Prioritizing short-term goals over addressing accumulated technical debt.
- Sprint stuffing: Pushing the development team to take on new tasks after accomplishing the Sprint Goal early. (Source: Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide)
- Lack of reflection and action: Skipping essential steps such as sprint reviews and retrospectives and missing opportunities to inspect and adapt.
- Over-reliance on the definition of ready: Postponing critical tasks because they don’t strictly meet the “ready” criteria, potentially causing financial losses and delivery delays. (Source: Maarten Dalmijn interview)
- Flow disruption: Allowing external stakeholders to disrupt the team’s workflow during the sprint. (Source: Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide)
Sprint planning anti-patterns
- Outdated product backlog: A large product backlog with too many items past their expiry date means your team will work on old ideas. (Source: Maarten Dalmijn)
- Over-prepped backlog: Keeping all product backlog items fully detailed and estimated means the team wastes time refining things that might never make it into a sprint. (Source: Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide)
- Backlog as idea repository: Using the product backlog as storage for all potential ideas makes it unwieldy and slows down the PO and other team members when they need to use it.
- Unrefined product backlog: Working with an unrefined product backlog results in a chaotic sprint planning session and unclear priorities.
- Stakeholder dictation: Letting stakeholders dictate Sprint Goals instead of the team.
- Sprint Goal wishlist: Transforming the Sprint Goal into a lengthy wish list rather than one clear goal. (Source: Season Hughes)
Daily Scrum anti-patterns
- Goal amnesia: Failing to discuss or mention the Sprint Goal during the Daily Scrum. (Source: Richard Hundhausen)
- Overcrowded stand-ups: The Daily Scrum becomes inefficient due to too many participants. The Scrum Guide suggests limiting the team size to 10 for effective communication. (Source: Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide)
- Problem-solving stand-ups: Turning stand-ups into extended problem-solving sessions.
- Report-only Scrum: Making the Daily Scrum solely a report to the Scrum Master or Product Owner.
- Skipped Daily Scrums: Skipping stand-ups because “everything is fine.”
Sprint review anti-patterns
- Undone is the new “done:” Frequently presenting work items as “done” when they aren’t fully completed. (Source: Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide)
- Demo-only review: Treating the review as a demo only without gathering feedback from stakeholders.
- Stakeholder no-shows: Stakeholders consistently miss Sprint Reviews, leading to impediments. (Source: Stefan Wolpers interview)
Sprint retrospective anti-patterns
- Negative-only retros: Focusing solely on negative points without celebrating any wins.
- Skipped retrospectives: Skipping retrospectives to save time. (“Let’s have the retro next Sprint.” (Source: Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide)
- No action follow-up: Not following up on action items from previous retrospectives.
- Discussion domination: Allowing one or two voices to dominate the discussion.
- No fun: Always using the same format for retrospectives, making them stale and hindering innovation. Changing the approach – with one of Parabol’s templates 😊 – can reinvigorate your team. (Source: Cprime)
- Too much fun: While engaging and fun retrospectives can be beneficial, constantly altering the approach without a clear focus can prevent the team from addressing specific, consistent issues. (Source: Petula Guimaraes)
- Someone sings: Disclosing information from the retrospective to external parties, which can break trust within the team. (Source: Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide)
Scrum team anti-patterns
Common anti-patterns organized by the three Scrum team roles:
Product Owner anti-patterns
- Disconnected PO: Product Owners with a disconnect from the team’s work who over-promise to stakeholders and then pressurize the team to meet these demands. (Source: Christine Egessa)
- Deferred decision-making: Deferring all decision-making to stakeholders or higher-ups.
- Team management: Managing the development team by forcing task assignments, estimates, or Sprint Goals.
- Ghost PO: A Product Owner who is frequently inaccessible or unavailable, leading to team directionlessness. (Source: Simplilearn)
Scrum Master anti-patterns
- Communication noise: Introducing communication interference by enforcing unnecessary ways of interacting instead of respecting and amplifying existing effective patterns. (Source: Petula Guimaraes)
- Scrum implementation obsession (”Scrum police”): Focusing too much on how well you’re following Scrum practices instead of considering the effectiveness of your team and the value of your work. (Source: Erik de Bos, Erwin van Maren)
- Role confusion: Taking on development tasks or acting as a Product Owner.
- Taskmaster: Acting as a taskmaster instead of a servant-leader.
Development team anti-patterns
- Playing superhero: “Hero” behavior where one member does too much work, leading to bottlenecks or burnout.
- Playing it safe: Under-committing to avoid failure (or repercussions).
- Ego over team: Focusing only on individual tasks and performance while neglecting team goals.
- Skipped reviews: Bypassing code reviews or QA to speed up development.
- Over-engineering: Succumbing to the allure of over-engineering, leading to unnecessary complexity at the expense of simplicity. (Source: Maarten Dalmijn)
- Open-to-the-public code reviews: Allowing non-developers to join and influence code reviews, which can lead to misaligned feedback. (Source: David Owens)
Other Scrum anti-patterns
Other Scrum anti-patterns not related to events and accountabilities:
Remote Scrum anti-patterns
- Synchronous-only communication: Relying solely on synchronous communication channels like video calls, which damage developer focus time.
- Lack of transparency: Team members not having access to each other’s work, leading to misunderstandings.
- Ignored time zones: Planning Scrum events without considering time zone differences.
- Virtual isolation: Lack of team-building activities among remote team members. (Tip: 8 Online Games for Remote Teams to Build Rapport)
- Communication overdose: Excessive status updates and meetings leading to “Zoom fatigue.”
Scrum metrics anti-patterns
- Sprint Velocity worship: Using velocity as the sole measure of team productivity.
- Inflated story points: Arbitrarily increasing story points to show more work being completed.
- Metric manipulation: Altering agile metrics to present the team in a favorable light.
- Ignored flow metrics: Not considering lead time and cycle time, and focusing only on sprint metrics.
Agile tools and technology anti-patterns
- Tool overload: Using too many tools that fragment communication and work items.
- Tool dictatorship: The tool dictates the process instead of the process dictating the tool.
- No documentation: Mistaking Agile’s preference for working software over comprehensive documentation as an excuse for no documentation.
- Manual labor: Wasting development time because you’re not automating repetitive tasks.
Scrum practice anti-patterns
- Dictatorial leadership: Top-down decision-making, bypassing Scrum roles and principles.
- Checklist Scrum: Focusing on ticking off Scrum “rules” but ignoring the underlying principles.
- ScrumBut: Adhering to Scrum “but” making exceptions that compromise its integrity.
- Siloed Scrum: Teams lack the necessary skills to organize functionally, leading to silos instead of integrated capabilities.
- Static Scrum: Teams that think they know it all, sticking to their Scrum practices without introspecting and adapting despite facing challenges and inefficiencies. (Source: Jesse Houwing)
- Selective Scrum adoption: Cherry-picking practices without respecting the Scrum roles, leading to mechanical and ineffective implementations. (Source: Erwin van Maren)
- Planning cycle of madness: Engaging in exhaustive planning cycles based on speculation, leading to unrealistic commitments and recurring failures. (Source: Maarten Dalmijn)
- Externally dictated planning: Plans created without team input, based on external constraints, and without an accurate understanding of technological challenges. (Source: Petula Guimaraes)
- Regular emergency work: Interrupting sprints with emergency tasks, causing disruptions and work inefficiencies. (Source: Simplilearn)
- Estimates become deadlines: Turning rough task estimates into concrete deadlines, fostering a stressful and dishonest work environment. (Source: David Owens)
- Siloed expertise: Specialized skills are kept separate from Scrum teams, leading to sporadic input and a lack of cohesive integration. (Source: Caroline Thuo)
Principles for navigating anti-patterns in Scrum
Rather than providing a checklist to follow rigidly, here is a set of guiding principles for handling Scrum anti-patterns effectively and wisely.
- Cultivate transparency and reflection. Use retrospectives to openly discuss what is and isn’t working. These meetings are excellent occasions to spot emerging anti-patterns.
- Encourage continuous learning. Make sure everyone – not just the Scrum Master – understands common anti-patterns and their nuances. Sharing this article with your team is a great start. 😇
- Enable a safe environment. Create an environment where team members feel comfortable speaking openly about issues and potential anti-patterns.
- Be adaptable: Don’t be afraid to change your processes if something isn’t working for your team or company. Ultimately, what matters most is creating value and reducing waste, not following rules.
- Monitor metrics but don’t make them holy: Metrics are helpful but shouldn’t be the end-all. Focusing solely on numbers can lead to anti-patterns. (Read more about helpful and actionable agile metrics.)
- Seek outside opinions: Sometimes, fresh eyes can spot an issue everyone else has overlooked. Don’t hesitate to consult outside experts like agile coaches or use community resources.
Whether you find anti-patterns helpful or think they’re the worst thing since Gantt charts, remember Agile’s essence. Stefan Wolpers puts it well:
“It’s essential to maintain an authentic Agile mindset: focus on continuous adaptation, value human interactions over fixed processes, and embrace change. Regular retrospectives, continuous learning, and fostering open communication empower teams to identify and address evolving challenges. Diversifying knowledge sources, seeking varied feedback, and staying updated on Agile developments also ensure a proactive approach; being adaptive and context-aware is the key.”
📚️ Further reading
Besides this article, other resources can help in your fight against anti-patterns:
- The Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide: Stefan Wolpers, agile coach, professional Scrum trainer, and founder of the influential Age-of-Product.com blog and community, has assembled the most extensive and authoritative guide on Scrum anti-patterns. The original version of his guide is available as a free PDF ebook. Stefan is also about to release the “Scrum Anti-Patterns Guide” book based on the original ebook with significantly enhanced insights on anti-patterns. It will be available from Pearson’s “Professional Scrum Series by Scrum.org” in early 2024.
- Retrospective Antipatterns by Aino Corry. An in-depth book about all the different anti-patterns you may find cropping up in your sprint retrospectives.