The Church Of Scrum

Why does Scrum so often feel like organized religion? And how can we make things better?

Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators
Published in
7 min readJan 23

Have you ever noticed the many parallels between organized religion and Scrum? Or with Agile methodologies more broadly? It's been a recurring joke between Barry Overeem and me as we attend conferences, interact with critics and advocates of Scrum and follow the comings and goings in our profession. Some of these parallels are merely funny to point out, whereas others are a bit more concerning.

So for the purpose of this post, I invite you to imagine that you’re future archeologists who uncover the traces of our Agile community many thousands of years into the future. How would they understand it? What would it look like to them? And please allow me some exaggeration, as there is a purpose to it.

The Creation Myth

Like religion, the story of Agile starts with a creation mythology too. Deep in the snowy Wasatch mountains of Utah, seventeen men passed down their divine inspiration in the form of the “Agile Manifesto” as they huddled together in a ski resort. This manifesto distilled the wisdom of these “holy fathers” of Agility in an online shrine that we can still visit online today. Like their religious counterparts, these commandments were passed down with the promise of a better life. Not personally, but for the salvation of teams, organizations, and their customers.

“Like religion, the story of Agile starts with a creation mythology too.”

As happens with all religious manifestos, it eventually gave rise to a host of churches that each claimed to embody the holy tome most correctly. The first of these was Extreme Programming. This group of rebels emerged before as they fought their nemesis, the false religion of “Waterfall”. More churches entered the stage, each claiming to be more true to the holy tome than the others. Scrum, DevOps, SAFe, DAD, ScrumBan and FAST Agile, and so on. Like their religious counterparts, these churches introduced their own doctrine, their own ascension rites, and their own disciples, monks, saints, and priests.

Illustration by Thea Schukken.

Two Churches Of Scrum

Scrum in particular is interesting. It has its own creation mythology too. It was founded by two arch founders. The fathers conceived their doctrine “the Scrum Guide” and passed it down through the Scrum Alliance. Unfortunately, the founders soon ran into theological and personal differences. So one broke off and founded its own church,

Like the Catholic church, the Scrum Alliance took a practical approach to the holy texts and offered many concrete rituals and practices to implement the otherwise abstract holy texts. The ascension ritual for people to join this church is to participate in theological classes where the holy texts are taught by anointed teachers, with the option to ascend to higher levels of spiritual understanding of the founding texts. Yearly renewal of the vows is necessary to remain in this order, and of course to financially support the church.

In contrast, took after the Protestant church in a fashion. It takes a more cerebral, intellectual approach to understanding the founding texts. There is more focus on abstract principles and intellectual debate, especially among its close followers, and less focus on specific practices and ways to apply the teachings. Instead of a required theological class as an ascension ritual, everyone who can read the founding texts can take a test to join, with the option to ascend further. If you’re a follower, you’re one for life. too has its seminary and host of anointed teachers.

The Followers

The disciples, priests, saints, monks, and sages of these various churches frequently wage verbal wars with each other. These heated theological debates often revolve around how to interpret the founding texts (e.g. “The Scrum framework, as outlined herein, is immutable”), or whether or not the holy tome sanctions something in real-life (e.g. “Can a Scrum Master also be a Product Owner?” or “Can Scrum Masters remove people from teams?”). The debate also happens in various study groups across the world, where enlightened students try to make sense of the holy texts to see how it relates to their day-to-day experience, as well as what is allowed and what isn’t according to doctrine. This kind of exegesis is going on continuously as the saints of each church fight each other and their words in polemic writings on various social media, even though their goals are ultimately quite compatible.

Some followers preach strict adherence to the doctrine in order to achieve salvation, whereas others are more flexible and pragmatic, just like their religious counterparts. Despite the verbal wars these followers frequently engage in, they share a mutual dislike for the heathens who practice “Waterfall” or “Project Management”, and especially the tribe of “Managers”. Such shared dislike is often loudly professed during Scrum and Agile conferences, which are religious events where people congratulate themselves and each other on their piety and the correctness of their church.

Too Much?

Yes, this is over the top. And a tad disrespectful to the great work done by those on whose shoulders we stand. I apologize to those who took offense, although I hope you recognize the humor in the hyperbole. My use of exaggeration is on purpose though, as we can often reveal the truth if we blow things out of proportion.

So what was the point of all this?

As I mentioned before, Barry Overeem and I frequently joke with each other about how similar our community sometimes feels compared to organized religion. Let me be clear; I have no qualms with religion. In fact, my own Christian faith has been a hopeful and uplifting theme throughout my life. I have enjoyed the beauty of religion and its traditions. But perhaps because of this, I also see the ugly sides. And some of those I recognize too much in our profession too.

“I have enjoyed the beauty of religion and its traditions. But perhaps because of this, I also see the ugly sides. And some of those I recognize too much in our profession.”

The problem with organized religion and its doctrines is that it creates very strong “us versus them” dynamics. This is particularly true when each church has its own ascension rituals that encourage cognitive dissonance (“I’m putting in all this money and effort in these certificates, so it has to be important”). This results in a strong identification with one’s own church, and an almost automatic dislike for others due to the primate parts of our brains. The mindset becomes one of “Our doctrine is right and yours is wrong — and we’ll show you”. Even though virtually all religions strive towards a similar goal — to live a good and moral life — this is often lost in theological disagreements about the minutia of the holy texts. Doctrine trumps the goal, the means become more important than the ends. Entire historical wars have been fought over tiny disagreements on how to interpret a single sentence. In the heat of “us versus them”, and as humans, we often lose sight of the big picture and how we’re not at all different in our aims and goals.

Barry Overeem and I sometimes say that “we don’t care about Scrum”. This isn’t entirely true, because we do. But with this statement, we mean to say that we are not dogmatic in our adherence to the doctrine of Scrum or Agile. It's a place where we feel comfortable and at home, but it's not the only truth. They are merely ways to make the lives of teams and organizations easier and more satisfying. And they are not the only paths. But too often, the debates in our community turn into exactly that; people argue over details or express only theological arguments without any sort of meaningful proof or evidence to support them. The aim becomes to make others feel bad about belonging to the wrong church, or that they are doing things wrong, or have the wrong beliefs.

Ultimately, this is where Scrum and Agile share something else with religion. You can talk about the holy texts all you want, but it doesn’t make any difference if it isn’t practiced in one’s own life. It's like self-proclaimed Christians who go about judging everyone and anyone for their failures and sins, while they themselves make no effort at living a good and moral life.

Compared to the loud-mouthed thought leaders who feel the need to show up with strong opinions in every discussion on social media, I have infinitely more respect for all those quiet people who try hard to make it all work, even when it doesn’t fit the “holy books” precisely. I have infinitely more respect for those people who are not interested in making others feel bad because they’re in the wrong church or not following the doctrine properly but instead try to lead by example. Let's focus more on the practice of our “faith” and less on who’s right and who’s wrong. Isn’t that also what servant leadership is about? I will certainly try!

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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.