Scrum Is Just A Recipe

Why Skills And Ingredients Are Far More Important Than Recipes

Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators
Published in
8 min readNov 21, 2022

I love cooking. Italian food in particular is a favorite because it generally uses simple recipes and a few ingredients to generate incredibly tasty meals. A good Pasta Napoletana requires onions, tomatoes, garlic, basil, and tagliatelle. However, its simplicity is also deceptive. The first time I made it, it was watery and bland and the pasta was overcooked. It is so much better when I make it now. Interestingly, the recipe in my Trello Board is the same. I’ve just become much better at preparing it. I learned how to slice the onion and the garlic to make the flavors come out more. Cooking pasta to have just enough bite is now also much easier. I can better sense when the time is right to put in the Basil, and not burn it and make it bitter. I also learned the power of good ingredients. A ripe fleshy tomato is much better than a thin, watery one. So although the recipe remained the same, the outcome is much better than the watery, bland version I made initially.

Yummy! But what does this have to with Scrum?? Picture by Engin Akyurt (

So what does all this have to do with Scrum? Don’t worry, you haven’t accidentally hit a cooking blog. But there’s something about cooking, and recipes, in particular, that resonates with Scrum and how we practice it in organizations. In fact, I will use this post to argue that Scrum is just a recipe for agility. Albeit a good one that has been proven to work in many teams. This may seem obvious, but there are some really important insights we can take from that metaphor. And because cooking recipes are familiar to most people, it makes it intuitively easy to understand aspects of Scrum and agility that aren’t so obvious otherwise

Insight #1: The Recipe Of Scrum Is Worthless Without The Right Ingredients And skills

As my experiences with making Napoletana sauce show, the same recipe produced a great meal and a bad one. Although both were edible, they were worlds apart in terms of the quality of the outcome. A recipe alone is clearly not enough, even when you follow it to the letter. You also need the proper skills, high-quality processes, and good ingredients. This is something that everyone who’s ever cooked from a recipe will recognize. So while the recipe is helpful in providing direction, other factors are more important in shaping the quality of the outcome; in this case cooking skills and the quality of ingredients. The better those skills, and the better the ingredients, the better the results. There is clearly a growth curve.

The recipe of Scrum is about adaptation through frequent inspection based on what has been made transparent by the work done by teams. But none of that works if teams don’t have the proper skills, tools and processes in place.

This correlates well with my experience with Scrum. If organizations start with Scrum without the proper skills and ingredients, Zombie Scrum is almost certainly the outcome–regardless of how well teams adhere to the recipe of the Scrum framework. Here are some of the skills and ingredients that come to mind for me that are more important in shaping their success with the recipe:

  • The necessary technical skills and tools to deliver working software every Sprint
  • Sufficient autonomy for teams to make decisions about their work
  • Frequent interaction between teams and real stakeholders (users, customers)
  • The skill to effectively reflect on shared experiences and learn from them
  • Sufficient support from the people around teams, particularly management.

This is a really fundamental insight, and one that I think is frequently overlooked. Many implementations of Scrum seem solely interested in applying the recipe, but without providing the skills and ingredients to make it work. Applying the recipe of Scrum without considering the skills and ingredients is just as unrealistic as supplying a bunch of novice cooks with Michelin-star recipes and expecting stellar results. Zombie Scrum is inevitably the result.

“Applying the recipe of Scrum without considering the skills and ingredients is just as unrealistic as supplying a bunch of novice cooks with Michelin star recipes and expecting stellar results.”

Insight #2: Practice makes better if you improve the skills and ingredients

There is of course an important nuance here. Few teams start from a position where the proper skills and ingredients are readily available. A strength of the empirical and iterative nature of Scrum and other Agile methodologies is that it allows teams to inspect and adapt over time. While most teams may start from a position of Zombie Scrum, that doesn’t mean it will always remain that way.

However, the important insight here is that such improvement does not happen on its own. The recipe doesn’t make the meal; the skills of the cooks and the ingredients do. The recipe alone isn’t enough. It only works if teams use the recipe of Scrum to improve the skills and the ingredients. If that doesn’t happen, things will remain as depressing as they were from the start.

Without investing in the proper skills and ingredients, the meal remains bad

Insight #3: Adherence To A Recipe Is Less Important Than Skills And Ingredients

How do you rate the quality of your Pasta Napoletana? Do you rate it only based on how well you followed the recipe, or do you look at other things? I’m sure that “adherence to the recipe” is probably the least on your mind. It’s more likely that you’ll consider the quality of the meal, how tasty it was, and how well-prepared. If we stay within the cooking metaphor, it’s clear that the skills of the cook and the quality of the ingredients are far more important in shaping the quality of the outcome than a recipe or the degree to which the recipe was adhered to by the cook.

Yet, this is precisely what many organizations do as part of their Agile assessments or maturity models. There are many problems with this approach, including professional and ethical issues. We’ve seen many examples where such agile assessments only measure adherence to Scrum or whether or not certain practices are performed. Yet, this is just as meaningless as validating the quality of a meal based on adherence to a recipe. This argument is actually broader than just Scrum and can be made against any assessment that uses checklists and “adherence to a recipe” as its prime evaluation criterion. You really need to consider the skills and the ingredients as part of any assessment, because they are much more important in shaping the quality of the outcomes.

This argument also works in another way. Many Scrum practitioners often raise an eyebrow when someone tells them there are multiple Product Owners for their product, or that they do a Sprint Retrospective every other Sprint. Or that their Scrum Master is also a developer in the team. These are indeed deviations if we treat the Scrum framework as a strict recipe. But such modifications can still lead to a great result in the hands of people with the right skills and ingredients. Just like a good cook can swap out one ingredient in a recipe with another, and create a good meal. Or even a better one. So the context is much more important than adherence to a recipe.

“But such modifications can still lead to a great result in the hands of people with the right skills and ingredients.”

As a side note, we’ve taken this argument to heart in the design of the Scrum Team Survey. This is a diagnostic tool we built that allows Scrum and Agile teams to diagnose their process and identify improvements. We also offer tons of evidence-based feedback to teams. The questionnaire does not test for adherence to the Scrum framework. Instead, we measure five distinct core processes that represent the skills and ingredients needed to make the recipe work; responsiveness, stakeholder concern, continuous improvement, team autonomy, and management support. We identified these core processes through a scientific investigation of 2.000 Scrum teams and found that they explain a substantial amount of how effective Scrum teams are. Effectively, the core factors we identified represent the most impactful skills and ingredients.

Insight #4: You Shouldn’t Change Unfamiliar Recipes Before You Learned From Them

Most of my cooking begins with existing recipes that I find online or get from friends. One of my favorites is a recipe for Ragu (traditional tomato-based meat sauce) that I got from an Italian friend who shared a family recipe with me. I’ve made this recipe countless times and eventually evolved it into a vegetarian version.

Could I have changed this family recipe to a vegetarian version on my first attempt? Heck no. I really had to make the recipe many times before I understood how the ingredients worked together and how to properly prepare it. This also allowed me to learn what a proper Ragu was supposed to taste like, and gave me a good comparison. I’ve gone through this loop before with many other recipes. I learn a new recipe, I try it many times and then I start modifying it. Generally, if you have a good base recipe, it’s probably not the best idea to start modifying it before you’ve actually made it. Especially if you’re very unskilled at cooking.

Yet, this is what often happens when organizations apply the recipe of Scrum. Without any prior experience with agile development, they start to modify a good base recipe before they know what it's supposed to taste like. In other words, they don’t take the time to learn what is actually important from the recipe before making decisions about what to change. This results in situations where members end up in multiple teams because it's too hard to organize work otherwise. Or situations where teams lack a Scrum Master because nobody was available. Or Sprints don’t actually need to result in an increment because that's too hard anyways.

“Without any prior experience with agile development, they start to modify a good base recipe before they know what it’s supposed to taste like.”

The recipe of Scrum can certainly be modified and deviated from. But only in the hands of experienced cooks and with the proper ingredients. Without those, any modifications will result in a bad and tasteless result.\

Closing Words

Scrum is like the recipe for good Pasta Napoletana. Provided you bring the right skills and ingredients, you’ll see some pretty decent agility. You need the proper skills, processes, and tools to deliver frequently and be responsive to emerging needs. You need sufficient autonomy for teams to manage their own work. Teams need to be able to, interact frequently with real stakeholders (users and customers). They also need the skills and time to properly reflect on their experiences and learn from them. Finally, management needs to have their backs and support where they can.

I’ll go one step further. I’d wager that the skills, processes, and ingredients are much more important than the recipe of Scrum. A recent analysis we did also supports the belief that frameworks may be much less relevant to success than we think (although much more research is needed to conclude this robustly). Even though I believe that Scrum provides a good recipe for agility, strict and perfect adherence to the Scrum framework won’t bring agility in itself. It’s the skills and the ingredients that make the difference. I hope organizations and teams would pay more heed to how they’re cooking with Scrum.

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Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators

I liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing, ineffective ways of organizing work. Passionate developer, organizational psychologist, and Scrum Master.