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Scrum: The Unity of Knowing and Doing

13 February 2013

Human beings have two basic kinds of capabilities. One is knowing, including learning, making decisions, and planning. Making decisions and planning are based on using past experience to judge the future. The other capability is doing, including execution, action, and adjustment. That means following a plan, and then adjusting it according to both reality and perception.

The Scrum Guide says that three pillars uphold every implementation of empirical process control: transparency, inspection, and adaption. Inspection is pretty much about knowing. Adaption is pretty much about doing. Transparency is to unite inspection and adaption. It's the unity of knowing and doing.

From a team perspective, knowing comes in the form of consensus. Consensus means composing a team point of view out of different individual points of view. Consensus is involved in lots of Agile activities, such as pair programming, team planning, and collective code ownership.

From a team perspective, doing is in the form of flow. There are two level of flow: The base level is work flow. The key to make work flow is to identify and remove obstacles. The higher level is psychological flow. It's a state of mind, that you are fully committed to your work, forgetting time and other worries. We need flow in many Agile activities, including test-driven development, continuous integration, following team code standard, and task-pulling management.

Knowing is about planning, decisions, requirements, inspection, definition of done, goal setting, discipline, and a proactive mind. Doing is about execution, action, implementation, adaption, flow, competency development, and team synergy. In Scrum we can observe the unity of knowing and doing everywhere.

  • Everyone unity of knowing and doing: Everyone is involved in the planning, and everyone is involved in the execution.
  • Any time unity of knowing and doing: The plan is made at any time, and execution occurs at any time.
  • Team unity of knowing and doing: The team makes decision, and the team executes it.
  • Agile unity of knowing and doing: The team makes decisions quickly and acts quickly.
  • Requirement unity of knowing and doing: Developers work closely with the customer and master the real requirements.
  • Pillar unity of knowing and doing: Inspection is to know, and adaption is to do.
  • Done unity of knowing and doing: Define definition of done, and reach consensus on Sprint goal.
  • Transparency unity of knowing and doing: Transparency makes the process flow well.
  • Discipline unity of knowing and doing: Self-discipline helps build individual and team capability.
  • Virtue unity of knowing and doing: Be proactive, and synergize.

In a summary, unity of knowing and doing is a state of mind that's well prepared for ready-ready and done-done. Consensus is how the team understands the world, the project, the situation, and themselves. Flow is the way to make things happen in a time line.

Finally, Agile involves trusting people. People, by nature, have the ability to know and do well.

My team and my organization have just transferred from old way of working to the Agile method. Below I'll describe some of my observations of the transition, in hopes that this will help teams who feel the pain of old ways of working and look forward to adopting Agile.

In the old way, plans and decisions are made by the project manager, and requirement and analysis are done by architects. What can the team do? It can only do implementation, such as low-level design, coding, and testing. Tasks are assigned without full involvement of team. It's a separation of knowing and doing. Under such a way of working, people can't see the big picture, have less opportunity for personal development, and can't feel achievement and growth. They aren't engaged.

Under Agile, the plan is made by team. Decisions are made by the team. The ScrumMaster is only a facilitator. The product owner can only define what to do. The team has the authority to decide how to do it. That's unity of knowing and doing, when the team's potential is fully released, they can see the big picture, they can volunteer for tasks that interest them (which helps their personal development), and they can feel a sense of achievement from their day-to-day decision making and implementation.

After some time of working in this way, the team becomes proactive and synergized. I've been part of teams that share knowledge as part of team competency development. They set up a word of the day and a story of the week as a way to learn English together. They set up team lunch meetings to forge better personal connections with each other. They create fun and unusual methods at meetings, such as using pictures in a retrospective meeting instead of just talking. All this has happened on the team's initiative, without any manager's command and control. This change from pushing a team to having the team pull themselves forward is part of the Agile culture, and it manifests itself in the planning meetings, daily stand-ups, and definition of sprint goals.

For us, gone are the days of a strictly phased program process, in which every phase must be approved before we can enter next. There are no separated design phases. We do analysis, design, code, and test for each user story. After each sprint, we create a product increment. People are more confident about product quality and customers show an interest in product increments. We can handle change easily. Knowing (requirement) and doing (implementation) are closely aligned.

I must point out that senior leaders are very important in the transformation to Agile. They must set the stage and remove organizational-level obstacles. They must have confidence in Agile — and once that's achieved, it's not difficult for the whole organization to transform.

In the old way, the leaders handled the knowing and followers the doing. There was a gap. Now, everyone is about knowing and doing. This is the key to transformation to an Agile culture.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.8 (9 ratings)


Glen Wang, CSM, 2/18/2013 2:45:51 AM
Scrum has 2 sides: people side and things side. Scrum Master focuses on people side, just like a mother takes care of her baby. PO like a father, figures out what to do. Team figures out how to do, extending Scrum to agile techniques such as XP.
Continuous learning applies to SM, PO and Team, while Scrum Master plays an important role in creating such agile culture, or the mindset of unity of knowing & doing.
Mishkin Berteig, CST,Educator,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 3/6/2013 12:27:34 AM
Wow!!! This is amazing Glen! Thanks so much for writing this. I feel like this way of understanding Scrum (and Agile) is deep, powerful and perhaps most of all, _important_!
Paul Heidema, CSM,CSPO, 3/6/2013 10:54:05 AM
Thank you very much for writing this Glen. I echo Mishkin's comments and add that this way of explaining Scrum joins the inherent truth of human beings with the organizational truth of Scrum. Superb!
Mike Cohn, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 3/29/2013 1:40:14 PM
Thanks, Glen, for the thought-provoking article. For me it would be hard to ever separate knowing from doing because I'm not sure I really know something until I do something with that knowledge. Otherwise what I think I know is just theoretical.
Glen Wang, CSM, 4/1/2013 9:29:18 PM
Hi, Mike, thanks your encourage to an agile beginner like me. You create Scrum and I just use my way to explain it. I'm very happy if I happen to contribute something to Scrum.
Bill Li, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 5/15/2013 12:07:45 PM
Glen, thanks for the great article using Knowing and Doing. In Tao, there is that ONE unity and that is the ONE.
Ken Rubin, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 5/15/2013 1:28:03 PM
Glen, very nice job applying Chinese philosophy to help others understand the essence of agile!
Jeff Sutherland, PhD, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 5/22/2013 4:42:14 AM
The unity of knowing and doing reminds me of Nonaka's concept of ba which is directly related to his concept of Scrum. The ba is the knowledge and energy that arises from the dynamic interation of the team that allows the team to know and enter into the flow of doing. The team only comes to know when the dynamics of interaction surface implicit knowledge that becomes concrete in an emerging product. Perhaps Nonaka was influenced by one of the four great Confucian philosphers, Wang Yangming (see Wikipedia).
Kenji Hiranabe, CSM, 6/26/2013 11:24:21 PM
Really an interesting blog posts. I found this non-decomposition of Knowing and Doing the most essential part of Agile/Lean thinking.
Tom Mellor, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 7/30/2013 9:37:38 AM
Jeff is, as one might expect, right on the mark. His article on ba can be found at
Tom Mellor, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 7/30/2013 9:40:39 AM
That is Nonaka's paper, not Jeff's :. The title of the article is "The concept of ba; building a foundation for knowledge creation" and was co-written with Noboru Konno.
Glen Wang, CSM, 9/9/2013 10:47:03 PM
Unity of Knowing and Doing is the unity of "all your life" and "today".
Glen Wang, CSM, 9/11/2013 9:25:33 PM

作者首先感叹哈佛MBA教育的重术轻道, 导致各种丑闻与危机.

武士道的来源: 释迦, 神道教(自然,祖先,天皇), 孔子, 王阳明.

武士道, 作者心中的MBA, 跟Scrum一样, 都看重价值观, 或道.

Having graduated from Harvard Business School in 1991, long before the 2001 collapse of Enron or the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, I was unsurprisingly educated with a far greater weight given to skills and academic knowledge, rather than values, vision and personal mission.
We also take time to explore the Japanese spirit as it applies to values, philosophy and so on. Here, the key text is Nitobe Inazo’s Bushido, the Soul of Japan, published in 1905.
For Inazo, bushido came from four main sources: Buddhism (teaching “calm trust in
Fate”); Shintoism (teaching loyalty, patriotism and self-knowledge); Confucianism (teaching respect for hierarchy); and the philosophy of Wan Yan Ming (teaching the idea that thought and action should be consistent).
The result, he claimed, was a people with six “pervading characteristics”: a sense of justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity and self-control.
Samurai education was primarily about “building character”: money is not a good of itself; all of us have obligations to societies other than ourselves.
One way that GLOBIS helps our MBA students define their personal mission and values is through teaching the concept of kokorozashi. Written by combining the characters for samurai (士) and heart (心), kokorozashi (志) means “ambition, but” in the bushido sense of “Personal vision”.
I personally feel that the tremendous energy will arise from within, if you know what your Kokorozashi (personal vision) in life is. In other words, if you are pursuing Kokorozashi, no matter what hardship you may encounter, you have the energy to overcome it.
With this belief, I am pursuing to create No.1 business school in Asia. This teaching has also pushed our alumni and students to act when Japan encountered difficulties in coping with Great Earthquake and Tsunami. One of the example can be found in my former article on Hiroki Iwasa.
Our alumni are all living their own lives, not other peoples’ lives.
Julien Mazloum, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 10/11/2013 10:44:21 PM
Very good article. An in-depth description and explanation of the Lean concept applied to Scrum "The persons doing the work decide how to do it".
Glen Wang, CSM, 11/24/2013 9:18:53 PM
I met a lot of passionate people working at Ericsson. I was glad to again meet Glen Wang. We have talked before the conference about "Unity of Knowing and Doing" in his blog series.

Kenji Hiranabe
Glen Wang, CSM, 11/24/2013 9:20:17 PM
I'm going to suggest that you sign up for the Retrospectives group on Yahoo -- it's a great place to generate discussion
about your ideas!

All the best,

Linda Rising
Glen Wang, CSM, 11/24/2013 9:21:55 PM
Yes I know Zen. Scrum has Buddhist roots.

Jeff Sutherland
Glen Wang, CSM, 11/24/2013 9:23:22 PM
eduscrum has a foundation and is training and certifying teachers now.

I spent many years in an Aikido dojo never trying to get any belts, only studying the mind of the direct disciples of Ueshiba that I worked with.

Agile is akin to martial arts. I was discussing this with three black belts in Aikido, Karate, and Kung Fee last night. We agreed we need a martial arts group to review strategies for training in Scrum.

Jeff Sutherland
Glen Wang, CSM, 11/24/2013 9:25:35 PM
Waterfall was clearly ineffective. I had been prototyping solutions for 10 years. I knew how Bell Labs teams were formed with only one job title because of the research there that showed specialized roles slowed things down dramatically.
Many of the people I hired were out of the MIT AI Lab or MIT Media Lab. I knew delivering cool demoes every few weeks was essential.

Radical refactoring, continuous integration, pair programming etc., I had been immersed in for many years.

I knew because of Conway's law that the structure of the organization would reflect in the code and that would produce bad object design. I was one of the key drivers of thinking on model driven development at the OMG.

What we were missing was a formal model to frame what we wanted to happen at Ford Motor Company. Nonaka gave us that.

Jeff Sutherland
Glen Wang, CSM, 11/24/2013 9:28:08 PM
I looked at what you do and was even more pleasantly surprised. Historically, XP has its roots in Scrum, which has its roots in the culture of the Orient (mainly by way of Japan). Some of the roots of Scrum go back to the Tao te Ching. Many of them found their way into American and Japanese culture through the Pattern discipline (closely associated with architecture and Christopher Alexander), which I helped nurture in the field of software design. Patterns in turn have roots solidly in the Tao te Ching.

So Agile goes back to China.

Here is a slide from Nonaka-sensei, who has done a lot of work with Japanese industry on approaches related to the Toyota Production System. His Harvard Business Review paper was one of the works that inspired Jeff Sutherland to do Scrum. But you'll notice that the patterns, which have roots in the Tao te Ching, fit in between his work and that of Jeff Sutherland:

And here is a talk I have given several times about the pattern principles that eventually made it into Scrum. The source is obvious :-)

I will be in Shanghai, and then in Shenzhen, in a couple of weeks.

I hope our paths cross some day.

— Jim Cope
Glen Wang, CSM, 11/24/2013 9:28:48 PM
Flow is Tao and Kanban is skill. Patterns moderate Tao and skill.

I updated my profile to include your name:) I will spend more time to learn Patterns.
Deeply understand Scrum framework and its three bases: the Unity of Knowing and Doing philosophy from Wang Yang-Ming, the Ba theory from Ikujiro Nonaka and Patterns from Jim Cope (sourced from Tao te Ching).

500 years ago Wang Yang-Ming developed a very elegant philosophy which summarized Confucian, Tao, Buddha and Zen:
Once, when Wang Yang-Ming was on an excursion to Nan-Chen, a friend said: “According to your theory existence is impossible outside of mind. But consider a flower which blooms and withers by itself in a valley. What has it to do with mind?” Wang replied: “Before you see the flower, both you and the flower are in a state of isolation. When you see the flower its color and shape become clearer to you – which means that knowledge of the flower cannot exist apart from mind.”

The key of the philosophy is "I am on the spot". One key word is "I" and the other is "on the spot". It's the thought source of Meiji Reform and later on are inherited by Taichi Ohno and Nonaka.

Glen Wang
Glen Wang, CSM, 11/25/2013 9:43:49 PM
This is a summary of my study on Scrum as a management framework. Scrum has 3 bases:
(1) UKD (Unity of Knowing and Doing) from Chinese.
(2) Ba, SECI (socialize, externalize, consolidate, internalize), and Self-organizing from Japanese.
(3) Patterns from American (root in Tao Te Ching which is based on experience over logic).
UKD is the individual’s flow with Unity of Purpose and Action.
Ba = UKD + “coming together”. Self-organizing is the form of Ba.
Patterns are methods from reusable experience. It’s about thinking, practice and persistence.
In the wide meaning, UKD and Ba are also Patterns. And Patterns are generated by UKD and Ba.
Glen Wang, CSM, 11/26/2013 1:20:33 AM
The rule of game Go is quite simple, that is to make 2 eyes. With this as a metaphor, I think the key of Scum is also to make 2 eyes:
- One is employee or team. The core for employee/team is self managing individual, then self organizing team. As for the roles, artifacts and meetings, they are pretty much peripherals.
- Another is up management. Management team should promote culture transition from control to coach, from push to pull, and ultimately transfer a good team to a great team.

- Glen Wang

I'm very familiar with Go, or Weiqi. I'm horrible at it but am around 15 kyu. The analogy with two eyes may work with your Chinese readers but would certainly be unfamiliar to most in the US. An additional problem with the metaphor is that without two eyes, the Go stones are dead. Without two eyes, a Scrum may just be struggling but will recover and improve. (A set of stones with one eye cannot really improve.)

You may not be surprised to know that one of the very first articles on Scrum (before Sutherland or Schwaber starting writing about it) compared Scrum software development to Go. I've attached that old article (The Chaos Strategy, L. B. S. Raccoon, STRATX23.WPD - AUG 22, 1995). See the heading starting on page 42.

- Mike Cohn
Glen Wang, CSM, 1/17/2014 1:19:24 AM
Scrum Explained: When The West Meets The East.

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