Scrum Is Not Agile

Tanner Wortham
Feb 23, 2018 · 3 min read

Scrum is not agile. I think Scrum is a brilliant and simple framework, but again it’s certainly not agile. It was Allen Holub in his Death of Agile keynote that convinced me of this. Watch for yourself. He makes many excellent points, some I find more agreeable than others.

For frequent readers, I’m sure you already know that I identify as a Scrum Master. It says as much on my business cards, and I love, live, and breathe the Scrum framework. Still, I’ll emphatically tell anyone who will listen that Scrum is not agile, and I cringe every time I see “Agile/Scrum” on a resume or on a LinkedIn profile.

What Is Agility?

The easiest way to describe it is contained in the Agile Manifesto, but I prefer something simpler.

Ruthlessly prioritize. Furiously iterate. For both the product and process, never accepting good enough as good enough.

In the words of Ebenezer Ikonne, “Small bites. Chew fast.”

Agile is a mindset. It’s a way of being and a way of behaving. It manifests itself through our actions. Agilists deliver something unpolished and unfinished frequently. We understand that it’s difficult for a customer to translate their mind’s eye into word. We deliver this unfinished product to our customers to inspire a conversation about what they truly want. Usually, these conversations inform and transform their vision, and by way of our incremental deliveries, we create a better product.

Further, while agilists do have bias toward action, that’s not to say we don’t plan. We believe much the same as Dwight Eisenhower when he said, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”

To some, it may seem a bit of a contradiction, and it often plays out like this pseudo-code:

determine best first step;
while (money > 0) {
create increment;
determine next best step;

What Is Scrum?

Where agile is a mindset, Scrum is a mechanic. Scrum is meant to mimic an agile mindset by ensuring teams communicate daily, deliver incrementally, and continuously analyze the product and process. Scrum assures this through a set of events that I’ve written about previously. Succinctly:

  • Sprint Planning to understand our next increment
  • Daily Stand Up to coordinate our day
  • Sprint Review to review our product increment with the customer or stake holder
  • Retrospective to review and adapt our process

These events are intended to force agile behaviors, especially at first. Over time, the hope is that the team begins to organically deliver incrementally and communicate with the customer continuously, regardless of ceremony. In other words, we hope the behavior becomes natural with time. In this sense, we could consider Scrum as a “gateway drug” to agility.

Why Scrum Is Not Agile

It comes back to mindset versus mechanic. Scrum is something we’re sold. Something we certify. Something we implement in an organization in the hopes that it’ll breed agility. Still, it’s not inherently agile. One can be agile but never use Scrum. Conversely, one can use Scrum and never be agile.

Also, note that I purposefully do not capitalize “agile.” Agile — with a capital A — is something packaged, marketed, and sold by consultants. Agile — with a lower-case A — is something we are, and something we apply outside of the confines of our workplace. It’s a mindset that applies to more than just software development.

Finally, I don’t intend to take anything away from Scrum with what I write. I love the framework, and I recently had the honor of meeting the co-creator of Scrum Jeff Sutherland. He’s a brilliant man, and he taught me several valuable lessons. Still, I think it’s important that we recognize the limitations of the tools in our belt. Scrum isn’t a religion. Instead, it’s a simple, straight forward framework intended to mimic an agile mindset. Nothing more.

That’s all for now. I hope to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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