Scrum, who is it good for?

In a scrum training class we discussed the most important element of a user story. These are little reminders to “have a conversation” that have a common format of “As a <requestor> I want <something> so that <desired outcome>”. The instructor asked what the most important part of that user story is. I answered the outcome. That is where the value is created. That is the moment the abstract becomes concrete.

I was corrected. The most important part is the <requestor>. The prime directive of scrum is add value for the customer. I explained that as you move away from the outcome to the requestor the story just becomes more and more abstract. The ability to have something measurable slips away. I tried to rephrase it so he’d understand by bringing in the popular business book The Innovator’s Dilemma.

In that book the disruptive product is built without a market in mind. Innovative companies create the product and then find a market that wants it. In fact, its when the companies do every thing right and listen to their customers and ignore the disruptive product that they begin their march into irrelevance.

The instructor took the stance that the product owner stood in as a proxy for this unknown market. The case studies in the book do not proceed like that. They’re more random than that. That is when I really began to doubt the prime directive of scrum: create value for the customer.

If scrum can just invent any rules for what is a customer then it isn’t a repeatable process. (I think agile fans would agree that it is not big on process) Since “customer” is just an abstraction or proxy that the product owner invents you don’t really know what needs to be built. You have to hope you get lucky and get a product prodigy like a Steve Jobs who just seems to intuitively know who this mythical customer is.

But maybe it’s ok that we don’t really know who we’re creating value for. A goal of scrum is to accelerate learning. Maybe the point of inventing customers and their wants and failing to provide them over and over helps you get to an ultimately workable solution. The point isn’t the work of creating the concrete value. The point is the abstract work of refining your model of who your customer is.

But that sounds more like mental masturbation than producing a <desired outcome>. So I think I’ll have to disagree on the most important part of the user story.