The Scrum tribe

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Your friendly neighborhood archivist is back! We pick up where we left off: touring the various Agile Tribes.

Scrum is about tribes, it is about building community. Each tribal member needs a sense of belonging, a personal quest.  Whole tribes need gathering places, they need sacred objects, they need focus and they need pulse.  Scrum supports that way of being.  The task board, and its emergent environment provides the central life-force from which these things are born. — Tobias Mayer

This series started somewhat arbitrarily with the Extreme Programming (XP) tribe; we continue with the other early ancestor of the Agile community as it now stands: Scrum.

The Scrum community followed a pattern similar to Extreme Programming: the ideas were formulated in the 1990s, but it only reached critical mass as a tribe during the early 2000s.

People interested in Scrum initially interacted on the “scrumdevelopment” mailing list, hosted at Yahoo! Groups, where you could also find the XP mailing list. Whereas the XP community got started on the C2 Wiki, and used the mailing list as an adjunct to hold a volume of discussions that would have been unwieldy on the Wiki, the Scrum mailing list was for a while the main focal point of the community.

Looking at the mailing list traffic gives us some useful insights into the history of the Scrum tribe. (This is incomplete and noisy data, and must like any data set be taken with a large grain of salt; but it’s better than no data at all – and, we will soon find, there are correlations with external events, which make the analysis much more convincing.) Starting out rather slow, it appears to reach its critical mass around 2003-2004. The first identifiable “peak” in message volume came in March 2003, with 232 messages posted to the list.

(Looking at this chart, one forms the impression that the mailing list started a decline from early 2010 on; this is in all likelihood due to a general decline of mailing lists as a form of interaction, rather than a decline of Scrum as a tribe.)

Something important happened in that 2003-2004 period, something which came to define the early momentum of the Scrum tribe. The March 2003 “peak” in mailing list discussions turns out to be related to conversations about the planned launch of the Certified Scrum Master initiative.

[A CSM] is someone who really knows Scrum, getting it both emotionally and intellectually, through reading, thinking and – most important – experience. When we hear of a bad implementation, we can ask, “did they use a Certified ScrumMaster?” Or, when someone wants to get going, we can recommend a Certified ScrumMaster to them. — Ken Schwaber

This was followed in 2004 by the first Scrum Gathering, the community’s yearly conference, and the formation of the Scrum Alliance, the formal vehicle for organizing both the CSM training classes and the conference.

Over the following years, many considered the “certification” part of the CSM initiative to be a bad idea; the Agile Alliance would eventually publish a statement on certifications, distancing ourselves from something that we considered to have fallen short of Ken’s original intent to emphasize experience: the CSM has remained an entry-level, knowledge-based certification that anyone can get by staying awake for two days in a row.

However, from the standpoint of “Scrum as a tribe”, the CSM initiative functioned quite effectively on several distinct levels:

  • just by itself, the CSM designation gave participants in the classes a sense of shared identity, something that set them apart from others;
  • because the CSM class was standardized, everyone who took it was exposed to an almost identical set of ideas that, beyond any technical merit, functioned as tribal markers: one of the most famous being the (in)famous “chicken and pig” distinction between participants at the Daily Scrum;
  • the “Certified” label made for good marketing with businesses and corporate HR departments, which led to a rapid spread of the tribal markers.
The CSM became the main engine of growth of the Scrum community, which by mid-2008,  had overtaken the XP community at least in terms of discussion volume:

(Again, a note of caution – while activity on the Scrum list never reached the same volumes as the XP list, we must keep in mind that a common decline affecting both mailing lists solely by virtue of being mailing lists is a plausible explanation for the latter part of the chart.)

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Scrum tribe was its strong emphasis on the notion of “roles”. One of these, the Product Owner, is notable in having become over the years a distinct professional status within the vast panoply of IT specializations, much as in the past Analyst once became a recognizable professional description. It is also, perhaps, an example of a “sub-tribe” within the Scrum tribe.

Beyond the roles, Scrum claimed custody over a relatively small set of practices, compared to XP: the Sprint, the Daily Scrum, the Backlog, and Velocity-based planning were its basic ingredients. Retrospectives were a relatively late addition to the set, and a borrowing from a distinct tribe (the Retrospective Facilitators‘ tribe) but are now widely considered a core element of Scrum.

There is an interesting contrast between Scrum as practiced and understood by people who identify as tribe members (or “Scrum users”), and the direction where the formal, official leadership (the Scrum Alliance and the splinter organization are trying to take its practices: for many, the Task Board would be an essential element – “the heart of Scrum” of the above quote, whereas recent editions of the Scrum Guide, which purports to be the “official definition” of Scrum, fail to even mention it. (This is an important principle in looking at Agile through the tribal lens – what matters isn’t what a tribe’s formal leadership says, but rather what tribe members actually do.)

This is one of several signs suggesting a deepening rift between the actual tribe and its formal leadership, not an unusual phenomenon. Nevertheless, the Scrum tribe is definitely a vibrant one, to the point where “Scrum” and “Agile” are widely seen as nearly synonymous, and many newcomers (and even some veterans) take the Scrum Alliance and Agile Alliance to be one and the same. (If you’re reading this, you already know they aren’t… or if you didn’t, you know now.)

Much, much more could be said about the Scrum tribe, and I’m aware this post only scratches the surface; but my intention is to move on quickly to the lesser-known but nonetheless quite important tribes, and dispel the illusion that “Agile = Scrum” or even “Agile = Scrum + XP”.


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