Let me share a story with you to illustrate why Scrum doesn’t make you Agile. When I was about 5 years old, I got my first swimming lessons. I vaguely remember that at first I wasn’t enjoying it at all. But when I was actually learning how to keep my head above the water and how to move in the direction I wanted, things got more interesting and rewarding. My swimming teacher and parents were encouraging me to keep up the good work so that I would be able to pass the examination that would grant me my swimming diploma. In hindsight, passing the examination and being granted my swimming diploma was the most significant achievement in my short life to date. I felt satisfied.

But what does this small achievement tell me about my swimming capabilities?

I’m thinking about the following:

  • Able to swim short distances, at a slow pace
  • Having just enough skill to use 2 swimming techniques
  • Prevent myself from immediate death in case I would accidentally fall into water

Swimming never became a hobby of mine, and I wouldn’t be surprised that if I had to race my 5-year-old alter ego I would lose. But I’m okay with that.

A class mate of mine continued with swimming lessons after receiving his diploma. When we went swimming with some friends, I remember he propelled himself like a rocket through the water. He started competing, winning, and was promoted to regional competition.

Formula for success

So what was the difference between me and him?

He was really passionate about swimming. When he was talking about it you saw a sparkle in his eyes. He was motivated intrinsically. I wasn’t.

He was practicing 2 to 3 times a week and competing in the weekends. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to become better. I wasn’t.

He had a swimming coach
His coach helped him to further develop his skills and physique, and kept challenging him to do better next time. I didn’t have one.

He had competition
During practice and competition he compared his own performance to the others. He used the competition to challenge himself to do better next time. I didn’t.

You get the point.

Start of olympic swimming finals women

He didn’t make it to the top though, but some people do and make their way to the Olympic Games. Neither of these factors alone turn you into an Olympic champion. Improvement and success comes from the sum of them all. Less talented athletes have become champions by immense passion and commitment. And there are examples of less committed ones that were still successful thanks to the unique talent they had.

So hence my formula for success (I never excelled in math, so please excuse me for any mathematical irregularities):

Success =  (commitment + coaching + competition + talent) * passion = Improvement

It’s about the people

Let’s go back to the title of this post. I’ve seen many organizations and teams that do Scrum. I’ve seen very few that are truly agile, meaning that they can change direction any time with a relatively low cost of change. Ironically, the majority of them thought they were agile because they were doing Scrum.

Scrum doesn’t make you agile, people do. People who have the passion to become the best in what they do. Who are committed to be one step better than they were yesterday. People that have access to high quality training and coaching so they are challenged every day. And who operate in a competitive business environment and have to push the boundaries. I’m talking about people with the will to win.

Scrum provides the framework and rhythm to help you grow a winning team. But only professional athletes and professional teams can win.

What often is missing

Let’s have a closer look at the roles:

Scrum Master

Being an Olympic trainer and coach is a very difficult job. And as a Scrum Master your focus is even broader, with the organizational context the team is operating in. This context has a big influence on the performance of the team and needs to be closely managed. I haven’t seen many Scrum Masters that were true masters of Scrum and agile, let alone had the capabilities and network to influence the rest of the organization successfully. Great Scrum Masters are a rare breed.

Development Team

Olympic podium women swimming

Being an Olympic team requires a winning mentality. But I have seen quite a few development teams that reminded me of my attitude after receiving my swimming diploma. Often caused by insufficient commitment to continuous improvement. A good coach can be of great value here. But without passion it will never happen.
The shift from task focused work, with a high degree of specialization, to value focused work, with a high degree of cross-functional collaboration, requires a different way of thinking and working from the people involved. This means that the team needs to change existing behavior patterns and learn how to best serve each other in order to reach the desired outcomes. This usually doesn’t happen by itself and is often overlooked.

Product Owner

As Product Owner you have a great responsibility to develop and communicate a strong vision and purpose that ignites the passion the Development Team needs to excel. You are the most important motivator for the Development Team, you are the customer, and you need to demand high performance and results every Sprint to stay ahead of the competition. Unfortunately I’ve seen many Product Owners accepting the status quo.
Another important aspect is the time to learn what customers value and what not. Validating these hypotheses with a working product requires a different way of slicing requirements. It means that the product evolves over time and is not completely defined upfront. Minimizing this time to learn, which correlates to your ability to respond to change, is often underestimated and not practiced very well.

The rest of the organization

Organization structures and processes are often defined and changed by existing management. We are talking here about the environment in which professional athletes need to be able to deliver Olympic results. This means that they should do everything in their power to grow the best environment possible. In reality, many Scrum Teams feel management is working against them, and not working for them or with them. Management needs to be trained and coached as well on how to successfully contribute to the improvement of the teams that deliver customer value.


Scrum requires a winning mentality to reap its acclaimed benefits, from everyone involved. Agility takes more than the decision to do Scrum. Never underestimate the level of professionalism needed to become agile. Taking lessons on how to keep your head above the water is necessary but not enough. It’s the start of a long if ever ending journey. Celebrate your (small) victories but never be satisfied. Invest in people and their environment. That will help you increase your agility. Scrum only helps you to stay on the right track.


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