Scrum Is Not Agile

Scrum Is Not Agile

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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28 thoughts on “Scrum Is Not Agile”

  1. Allan Thurø Hansen

    Tanner, I totally agree. You’re putting many of my thoughts on paper.
    I have often stated that we’re not agile, we’re running agile – mecanics versus mindset as you describe.

    – Thank’s

  2. Great post, Tanner! I would also say that to successfully be agile within Scrum, you need to be willing to admit your mistakes and imperfections. That can be difficult when you’ve worked hard on something, but in order to continuously iterate and improve, you have to admit that what you’ve created isn’t perfect!

  3. Hey, I like your post! It reflects the sins we encounter in companies that do the motions of Scrum, but just replaced words in their minds and kept old behaviour patterns.

    I like to regard Scrum as a vehicle, a stepstone you could say, towards agile wonderland. It offers a structure most of us need in the transition process. Once they sit in this vehicle and drove some miles in it, a coach would work on removing the training wheels one by one. Until the mind set is equally formed and you can reach new tops with your hovercraft 😉

    1. I agree, Ric. Scrum is an excellent framework for sure. Are you familiar with the term cargo cult? It’s essentially what you describe in your first paragraph and Allen Holub explains the term in his video.

  4. All I can say is “Amen”.

    Simple but beautiful message.

    Thanks for putting it on paper. Ill be forwarding this to many.

  5. Clear thoughts to differentiate Agile and Scrum. I’ve seen many people around me who would use Agile and Scrum casually taking it granted for one another.

    You have explained it in a simplified version. I Agree!!!

    Trying to convey same to people around me.

  6. Your posts always make me think. I’m used to say that if you are using scrum and you are not being agile, you are using it wrong. Do you think I’m wrong in saying that?

    1. Great question, Thiago. Agility is a hard thing to teach and also runs counter to how most organizations operate. It often requires people to unlearn what they think works and a willingness to try something new and uncomfortable. I might phrase it a bit differently:

      “Scrum is a means to an end, not the end itself.”

      It opens room for a conversation about agility where your statement, while not wrong, assumes others know what agile is. Agility is esoteric, and I admit that I have a lot to learn about it myself.

  7. Continues integration is possible by shorter deliveries, continues improvement is possible through retrospective. All efforts are towards becoming lean. Scrum inherit agile principals into framework. Thought agile is mind set it needs to bring in delivery. If team has capacity they can take new story for development which was not part of sprint planning. Scrum not need to be 100% productive. So I kinda believe scrum is AGILE development framework.

    1. Great point, Sanjay. As you say, it’s possible. But many teams are having sprint reviews but lack a potentially shippable product. And many teams conduct retros but aren’t adhering to their proposed changes come next sprint. So it’s possible, but just because you have Scrum ceremonies does not mean you’re agile. It’s how you behave, not the meetings you have that make you agile.

  8. Tanner,

    Like anyone else I agree to what you are saying. I would like to underline that even in the so cold “old fashion” PM methologies there is space for being agile! PMbok and also IPMA Competence Baseline describe ways of regular reviews, iterations and adaptations, yes, of course it is often not efficient, etc. Don’t get me wrong I am addicted to and a fan of the SCRUM framework. But as you say, agile is a mindset. I saw a lot of people discussing epics and stories over and over again in a manor as if they want to deliver 100% in the first round….especially here in Germnay…so where is the agility here? Doing retrospectives again and again nearly without any “personal” improvements.

    So I am fully with you. Agile is a mindset which requires more than a framework and / or methodology!

    1. Thanks, Jorg. Another way I’ve heard agile described is people over everything so even the traditional methodologies can have an agile slant. Admittedly, frameworks that fall under the agile umbrella tend to lend itself more nicely to such an approach.

  9. “But many teams are having sprint reviews but lack a potentially shippable product” – Grooming not done properly, team shy away from asking questions to PO, collaboration is missing. What Scrum Master is doing?

    “And many teams conduct retros but aren’t adhering to their proposed changes come next sprint” – start retro with action item from previous meeting, ask developer to create stories with point and assign it let be that part of their sprint goal. Make them matured.

    “Scrum ceremonies does not mean you’re agile” – Scrum framework designed keeping in mind agile manifesto, Scrum follows it at every step. Meetings are important to minimum and that’s why for scrum it just reduce to 4. Agile break meeting and email culture out-of SDLC. Huddle it as you need, move out of formalities as much as possible. Don’t keep most important information in emails bring it on to one platform (JIRA/Rally) so everyone can see it. Let team know final goal and benefit out of it. ultimately why they are doing something they even don’t know whole purpose behind it.

    Let team plan their next MVP, ask their commitment in planning meeting. I able to complete 4 scrum team planning in 1 hr. As they come planned with all stories tasked out. No need of daily stand up on planning, demo, review or on first/last day of sprint. If team is not ready don’t go for demo.

    Yes there are fallback, some time velocity get hit but on an avg try to maintain 30 points sweet spot.

  10. Agile is a set of values in the Agile Manifesto that describe primarily Scrum and XP put together by the founders and a group of consultants and though leaders. Our number 2 value is working software at the end of a sprint.

    The are mainly teams claiming to do Scrum that do not have working software at the end of sprint. These teams cannot deliver and are clearly not agile.

    A proper Scrum today can deploy at the end of a sprint or multiple times during a sprint with a velocity of feature creation 5-10 times greater than people claiming to do Scrum that are not Agile. That’s Agile.

    1. Jeff, it’s an honor to have you comment on my blog, and as I mentioned in this post, it was a pleasure to learn so much from you while you were in Silicon Valley. I recall you sharing this same sentiment in our class, and I was happy to report that our company deploys to production 2.5 times per day on average.

      That aside, I want to be clear on one very important point. I wrote this post not as an indictment of Scrum, and I hope I emphasized this throughout. My indictment is for the cargo cults and those organizations claiming to be agile simply because they have meetings that match the names of Scrum ceremonies.

      Mike Beedle (among many others) were a bit concerned with my title, and after reflection, I understand why. Regardless of title, the spirit of this post can be summed up in a few straight forward thoughts:

      * It’s the people that make us agile not the ceremonies we have or the name of the framework we’ve adopted.
      * Individuals and interactions over process and tools.
      * Scrum is a tool, not a solution.

  11. Gene Kochanowsky

    SCRUM is a YAM (yet another methodology) in a very long line of YAMs intended to be the magic bullet to slay the software development beast. The Agile Manifesto is not a recommendation for any YAM, quite the opposite, it pretty much points out that if you think using a YAM is how you write good software then you don’t get being agile.

    1. I agree, and I enjoy how the manifesto is agnostic, succinct, and focused in its message. I might take a different slant with respect to Scrum. I think the framework is straight forward and easy to understand. The problem though is people. We tend to muck things up more often than we make them better.

  12. View Entwicklertag 2016: How Agile and OO have lost their way together – James Coplien:


    At the heart of Scrum are its patterns and no one ever talks about this, aside from the “old guard”.

    And these patterns are not etched in stone, nor are they an instruction manual. You will adapt them to your specific context, or you might come up with something completely new that might or might not make it into the pattern language.

    As equating Scrum and Agile, it’s like equating apples and oranges.

  13. Best training I have done was all about the “agile mindset” and made no mention of a process like SCRUM. Unfortunately its hard to sell and implement a mindset also its hard to certify your mindset and put that on your CV. I guess thats why SCRUM and others will continue to have a place. Some great points in the article thanks for writing.

    1. Thanks, Darren. You’re right. Minds can’t be read. Instead, it’s through behaviors that we infer mindset, but even that’s up to perspective and interpretation. Further, I’m glad Scrum has the place is does in the lives of mine and many others. The framework is simple yet effective.

  14. There are some great insights in this discussion, but some red herrings too. Let’s not forget that the Agile Manifesto came out of Scrum, XP, FDD etc,. and not the other way round. Its values were the first level of commonality that emerged from a meeting of thought leaders of the “lightweight” methods around at the time. The second level of agreement was in the principles behind the Manifesto. There was no agreement beyond that.
    The claim that Scrum is merely a mechanism to implement Agile ignores historical fact. Even the five values that were added to The Scrum Guide in 2016 were first articulated in Scrum literature by Jeff Sutherland and Mike Beedle as far back as 2002. There’s a danger that in rewriting history in this way we replicate the largely false separation between theory and practice (think science v engineering) that so cripples innovative thinking in Western traditions.

    Of course we’ve all seen teams and organisations dress themselves up in the outward paraphernalia of Scrum and continue in much the same way as before (and the value in this discussion is in highlighting that).

    The elegance and power of the framework (and it is a framework not a ‘YAM’ or any kind of ‘method’) is that it surfaces every problem, issue and dysfunction in your development process – systematically. How ‘agile’ you become depends on the decisions made, and actions taken, to remove those impediments.

    I strongly recommend the Scrum Patterns website ( for those wishing to understand, and more importantly, apply the deep relationship in praxis between Scrum and Agile. The Scrum Patterns group is led by Jeff Sutherland and Jim Coplien, and has developed a powerful resource for the entire product development community

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Alan. I especially like this:

      “How ‘agile’ you become depends on the decisions made, and actions taken, to remove those impediments.”

      In just a few words, you sum up what took me over 500. Too often, I’ve seen organizations define agility by how many ceremonies they have in common with Scrum and no more, and it concerns me. And you’re right. Scrum was around before the manifesto. Some time ago, I researched the history of both, and it’s fascinating stuff. We can learn so much by simply reading the history of the the things we take for granted.

      However, even before the manifesto was crafted in 2001, didn’t it exist in the minds of people like Jeff, Kent, Ron, and so many others? I remember seeing an interesting corollary not long ago:

      “Was math discovered or invented?”

      I think math was discovered as I think agility was discovered. In this sense, history plays a lesser role when I say that Scrum is an implementation of agile.

  15. i feel like… agile is a way of life. scrum is one of many frameworks that may guide someone to an agile way of life but is not a guarantee, it depends on the person.

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