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Is SCRUM Agile?

Most people would agree that the answer to this question is “yes”. And I’d count myself amongst one of those people. However, I’ve witnessed and participated in a lot of projects that use SCRUM, but failed with exactly the issues that Agile wants to avoid. How is that possible?

I’ve found the best summary of the relationship between SCRUM and Agile on stackoverflow:

Agile is a general philosophy regarding software production, Scrum is an implementation of that philosophy pertaining specifically to project management.

RibaldEddie on stackoverflow

If you take this at face value, then SCRUM must be Agile, but Agile does not have to be SCRUM. If that is true, then projects using SCRUM must automatically be Agile.

But experience shows that there’s a strong discrepancy here. In a recent conversation, my conversation partner summarized the reason for that quite neatly: SCRUM is predominantly a way to organize a team, whereas Agile is predominantly a philosophy. If you want to put it poetically, SCRUM is the tin man, and Agile is his heart.

Let’s look at the Agile Manifesto again quickly:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The first line pretty much explains it all right there. SCRUM is a process, no more, no less. If you treat it as a silver bullet, and value it over individuals and interactions, you’re doing Agile wrong.

SCRUM is intentionally designed to enable teams to self-organize, by keeping product owners out of the loop for the duration of a sprint, and by changing how release dates are emphasized. That allows the abilities of individuals to flourish, and their interactions to drive a project towards success.

If, at any point, you value the letter of the process over this spirit, your implementation of SCRUM is broken.

There’s an obvious corollary to this, though: your scrum master needs to understand the spirit of the Agile Manifesto very well, or the likelihood that their implementation of SCRUM fails is pretty high.

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