Why Scrum?

Note: This is the second in a continuing series of posts re Scrum Intro. The preceding post is here.

Why Scrum?  How did it get here?  How do we understand it?  How do you explain it to your colleagues?

Why was Scrum invented?

The way I understand it, Jeff Sutherland became a software development group manager at some point in his career. The group was doing waterfall.  Projects were failing. It was hard to understand what the real problems were (no transparency).  People were demoralized.  It was a mess.  Fairly typical for waterfall.

His reaction was: there must be a better way. (Not sure if he used those exact words, but essentially that.)

So, Scrum is a reaction to the pain and stupidity and unhappiness of waterfall.  Or, to put it a better way, Scrum is an attempt to do several things at the same time.  Bring some fun back to work, give us a sense of mission, enable us to see that we have some traction, and give us the transparency we need to make our own lives better.

What are the ideas behind Scrum

There are many ideas behind Agile and Scrum, and I daresay that Sutherland and Schwaber could not accurately remember in 1999 all of these ideas nor where they came from.  People are easily influenced, and forget where the influences came from.

Scrum is a very interesting mixture of very simple ideas (e.g., KISS or Keep It Stupid Simple) and complex ideas (e.g., Complex Adaptive Systems ideas).

Scrum was invented before the Agile Manifesto and Agile Principles were articulated in 2001.  Still, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland were there at Snowbird in 2001.  They would say that Scrum ‘follows’ those agile principles.  So, see, read, and think about those specific ideas.

Scrum was also strongly influenced by many other ideas.  Early on, maybe before any experimental teams, they read one particular Harvard Business Review article.  So, one set of ideas comes from the New New Product Development Game article by Takeuchi and Nonaka.  Here are the six ideas described there:

  1. Built-in Instability
  2. Self-organizing project teams
  3. Overlapping development phases
  4. “Multilearning”
  5. Subtle control
  6. Organizational transfer of learning

I cannot too strongly recommend that article and almost any article or book by Takeuchi and Nonaka.

Let me mention again the Complex Adaptive Systems ideas. See this link in Wikipedia for a start.

I am convinced that Peter Drucker’s idea about knowledge workers, and similar related ideas had a significant impact.  Related are Takeuchi and Nonaka’s (and others’) ideas around knowledge creation.

In my opinion, Scrum is mainly about people. That is, it is an attempt to get smart people working together much more effectively.  So, embedded in Scrum are many ideas about people and how they work, and how they might work together better.

Agile is sometimes thought of as being overly optimistic about people.  Not so, in my opinion.

Scrum is not overly-optimistic. It does not assume that people are always perfect; quite the contrary.  Scrum seems quite well aware of all the weaknesses in human nature, and that humans have strengths but also weaknesses. Examples: We are easily distracted and we tend to procrastinate.  So, Scrum does some things to address these likely issues.  On the other hand, Scrum is somewhat positive, in that it assumes that usually people can work together effectively, and become more effective together.

Schwaber talks a lot about the empirical process.  That is, in our work we should not use a defined theoretical modeling approach (waterfall), but rather an empirical process that requires and supports us in inspecting (using transparency) and adapting quickly.


Scrum did not arise from Sutherland and Schwaber sitting at the top of a mountain, thinking big thoughts.

As I said, I think it arose from a hard practical reality: waterfall sucks. And then they looked and read and sought and, then, experimented. It was the experiments that showed them they were on to something.  They did not believe just the ideas. They believed the experimental results.

So, one could say that at least some of the ‘talk’ is an attempt (ex post) to explain why the experiments worked.

What we do know for sure: Many many people have played Scrum, and a good percentage of them, if they do ‘all’ of Scrum (or as close to all as we can reasonably expect) and do that professionally with rigor, they tend to get amazing results.  Five to ten times better than waterfall, fairly quickly.

And, to the degree they do not do ‘all’ of Scrum, the results come down quickly from amazing. Still, even ‘half-baked’ Scrum tends to get them 20% better.


There are many many more ways to explain Scrum, or to help them understand why a piece of Scrum helps, or why Scrum works.

Here are a few ancient sayings (perhaps one not so ancient):

“Two heads are better than one.”

“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

“Many hands make light work.”

“Live and learn.”

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams!” —H.D. Thoreau


Note that Sutherland and Schwaber both live outside Boston, not far from Concord, MA, where Thoreau lived. No doubt they were to some degree influenced by New England and Boston culture (which of course still includes Emerson and Thoreau).

There still remain many more ideas that will help you explain Scrum.  I enjoy using about half of the Yogi Berra quotes to explain Scrum.  And it helps, I think, to use a humorous method for getting the concepts across. Two examples: “It ain’t over till its over,” and, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”


You will have to use all these methods and more to explain and explain. Because after a bit of time, they will forget why they are doing this part of Scrum and, quite often, if they cannot explain to themselves why they are doing it, they cease doing it. You, as the agile advocate, must remind them again and again.

Note: The next post in this series is here.

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