Shock Therapy – Revisited: Bootstrapping Hyper-productive Scrum Teams

Shock Therapy – Revisited: Bootstrapping Hyper-productive Scrum Teams

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I remember it was approximately 2008-2009 when I read a blog post, then article/paper about this idea. At the time Jeff Sutherland mentioned it, but the leading voice behind the idea was Scott Downey who worked at MySpace at the time.

Part of the reason I was intrigued was that agile coaches were really struggling to find their hand or balance when it came to “spinning up” Scrum teams at this time. Quite often the approaches were really soft and non-prescriptive. The coaches often hinted at a combination of practices, perhaps giving the team a link to a basic reference (the Scrum Guide), and then the teams were left to fend for themselves.

Often the results were horrible. The teams picked the practices they were comfortable with and left behind the rest. Often they picked such a trivial combination, that the results were hardly agile and hardly effective. This was also the time when Ken Schwaber coined the term Scrum Butt and the Nokia Test was being used as a litmus test to see if you were really doing Scrum or not.

And often the leadership teams in the organizations weren’t part of the transformation, so they were left untouched. And they often struggled, even more than their teams, to figure out how they fit into “agility”.

The Shock Therapy approach intrigued me because it was so drastically different. And the results it apparently drove were so compelling.

But the notion really didn’t seem to take off very much. Fast-forward to today and the coaching approaches to starting Scrum teams are still roughly as soft and scattered as they were then.

Sure, Sutherland still alludes to the notion of “Hyper-productive Scrum Team’s”, but outside of his direct experience, they still seem to be elusive.

And the approach still intrigues me.

In my own coaching, I’m known as more of a prescriptive than a soft coach. I often tell entry-level (Shu) teams what to do when it comes to Scrum and other agile approaches. I still get sidelong looks from other coaches when I do it.

But I’ve gotten my best results with new (or struggling) Scrum teams when I apply more prescriptive guidance rather than focusing totally on emergent learning. In other words, my successes align quite nicely with what Jeff, Scott and others have experienced.

I thought it would be useful to give you an in-line sample of what the “shock” was all about. Here are the prescriptive formula that Scott used at Myspace. Without debate or collaborative agreement, teams would use or apply the following:

  • Scrum training session for everyone
  • Sprint 1 week long
  • Definition of Done:
    • Feature Complete
    • Code Complete
    • No known defects
    • Approved by the Product Owner
    • Production Ready
  • Story Points
  • Physical Task Board
  • All-in-one Sprint planning meeting
  • No Multi-tasking, work in priority order

As well as apply core Scrum practices. For example, there would be a ScrumMaster and a Product Owner. There would be a Sprint Review/Demo. And there would be a Daily Stand-up.

Scott has alluded to teams struggling with the notion of a 1-week sprint. Most of the teams I coach would truly balk at this sort of thing. I was just with a team a few weeks ago who wanted 4-week sprints, because they felt there work was too technically challenging to fit into anything less.

I can envision the “shock” on their faces if I were to insist on 1-week sprints. It wouldn’t have been pretty.

I highly recommend you review the references below and really think about the intentions behind and reported results of shock therapy.

Map it back to your own coaching approach for new teams, your results, and possible adjustments.

I’d strongly encourage any coach reading this to run a shock therapy experiment and share the results as a comment to this post. I’d love to hear from you…that is…once you’re recovered from your shock.

Stay agile my friends,


The references here are intended to capture all of the current topic information I could find. But it’s changed. For example, I used to be able to view the paper that Jeff and Scott wrote for the agile conference. I can no longer find a free version of it.

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