Agile 2018

Agile 2018
Speaking at Agile 2018

Monday, July 18, 2016

What Donald Rumsfield can tell us about being a Scrum Master

Donald Rumsfield back in the day.
Donald Rumsfield is going to be a controversial figure in history.  The Princeton graduate will be the center of plenty of scholarship about the Iraq war and the events surrounding the September 11th attacks.  Looking over his conduct of the Department of Defense and business career, I am not a big fan of his leadership style.  What I do acknowledge is his famous quotation about ambiguity and uncertainty.

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.”

This week on the blog some things a scrum master can learn about ambiguity from the former Secretary of Defense.


Every scrum master confronts these each day of their career.  The coffee pot is broken.  Active Directory permissions are not correct for a developer and the compliance committee will not allow a production push for two weeks.  These are the known-knowns.  They are the daily challenges and impediments which crop up and are expected.  These issues are easily solvable, have been solved in the past, or can be ignored with little risk.  As a scrum master it is your job to sweep these kinds of issues out of the way to make your team successful.


This is what traditional project managers call risk.  These are situation which can plan for but might not happen.  The most famous example is Eisenhower’s communique he was to send if the D-Day invasion failed.  As a scrum master, things can go horribly wrong and allowances for these things are necessary.

This situation also happens when developers are asked to do something they have not done before.  In my case, it is using modal forms with Bootstrap 3.  This known unknown is taking longer than I expected to implement.  If I have more serious time pressures, I would use a different approach on the website I am refactoring.  I am learning this new skill and taking the time to master it because it will transform into a known-known if I do the work.


These are the surprises, calamities and disasters that befall a development team.  The production server has not been upgraded to the latest version of the .Net framework.  The network administrator won the lottery and had tenured his resignation immediately.  Finally, the third party API the application relies on changes without notice.  An unknown-unknown quickly becomes a known-known because of the severity of its impact.

These land mines are silent and deadly traps which make the life miserable for a scrum master and technical professionals the serve.  It has been my experience that many of these unknown-unknowns are the product of technical debt.  So to reduce the amount of ugly surprises, reduce the amount of technical debt.


Salvoj Zizek, a philosopher and cultural critic mentioned there is a fourth category which Rumsfield neglects.  The is the world of the Unknown-Known.  This is a piece of knowledge you have which you chose to ignore.  An example of this could be a tech-lead who refuses to write unit tests because his “code does not have bugs.”  In my experience, the situation crops up because politics, prejudice, or human nature prevents us from acknowledging the evidence we are confronted.  You see this situation in co-dependent relationships and dysfunctional teams.  It is the duty of a scrum master to call this out and make sure that developers are aware of everything they need to be successful.

A scrum master needs to understand and confront the known-knowns, the known-unknowns, the unknown-unknowns and the unknown-knowns facing his team.  Otherwise, the project might go as smoothly as the Invasion of Iraq.

Until next time.