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Is Scrum a Discipline?

5 October 2015

Is Scrum a discipline? The short answer is, "Yes." As a software engineer with a martial arts background, I see many parallels between Scrum and the martial arts style that I practice. Therefore, I see Scrum as a discipline.

With any martial art, there's a foundation or a core from which all aspects of the style are derived. Scrum is no different. Scrum has its core, empiricism, and the following Scrum events:
  • Daily stand-ups
  • Planning
  • Sprint reviews
  • Retrospectives
To be good at anything, you must practice a lot. This is why I believe Scrum is a discipline. Both martial arts and Scrum require a disciplined mindset so that you can succeed at them. Nothing comes easy. You have to train hard and regularly. But once the principles are instilled and understood, you must then maintain the skills and mindset.

Continual practice improves likelihood of Scrum success

Scrum has a core that must be practiced regularly and correctly in order for you to be good at it. Take the daily stand-up, for example. The purpose of it is for daily introspection and adaptation (where needed), and to see where the team stands in regard to achieving its sprint goal. To turn up late to your Daily Scrum or to miss it is ignorance at the core. By missing the stand-up, your team has no idea what you're doing, and you have no idea what's going on with the team. By being late, you will partially miss what's going on. By not bothering to turn up or give a darn about the stand-up, you've let your team and, perhaps more important, yourself down.

Scrum requires a shift in attitude and mindset that you can overcome yourself. A simple self-discipline technique of turning up on time is all that is required. The reward of your own efforts will help guarantee that you won't slip back to your old ways, because you will begin to see the value of what you are doing and practicing. More important, your understanding of Scrum will have deepened by your regular practice and commitment to doing it correctly.

One of the things our instructors tell us is, "Don't believe everything we tell you; try it out for yourself." It's one of my favorite lessons. Scrum is no different. You can't know or do Scrum only by reading books. That's only the theory. To really understand the theory and be good at what you're doing, you need to be able to put it into practice. You have to test it out and see what it's all about by attending the events and participating. Theory is the foundation of practice. Without the theory, you're merely mimicking what others do without understanding what's truly going on.

Achieving Scrum maturity

We can use the simple analogy of learning a basic martial arts block to explain this point. You learn to block by either mimicking the instructor as he or she demonstrates it or by having the principles of the technique (theory) explained. To be proficient with that technique, you need to practice it over and over, and test it against other people's strikes. This will then give you the experience of it works or it doesn't work. If it works, great; you have gained an understanding from practical experience that proved the technique works. If it's not working, the common reaction is, "It doesn't work, so it's of no use to me." If you were to encounter a real fight, you'll regret this kind of thinking after you recover from a broken nose or a jaw.

Instead, you're far better off asking, "Why didn't this technique work?" You're now aligning with the mindset required for Scrum. What did I do wrong? How can I fix or improve it? This is one of the fundamental concepts of Scrum: Inspect and adapt. When you probe into what's going wrong, and why, you look for ways to improve or fix it. You go through a process of correction or refinement. You then apply this, and with practice and persistence, you'll find it working for you.

With any martial art, you're always looking to improve and better yourself and your techniques, along with deepening your understanding of them. When you understand the principles of the technique, you'll need to maintain and refine these principles. These refinements become more subtle the further you progress. This is what I would liken to a Scrum team becoming mature, self-organizing, and self-managing to the extent that their retrospectives are short because there are few issues. Stand-ups are efficient and transparent, and the team achieves a Zen state in which they already know exactly what's going on. Therefore, you become extremely productive by building a good cadence and efficiently and effectively dealing with issues when they arise.

When you're at this proficient level, you can be an example to others on your teams. You can be the sensei (one who has gone before) or sifu (teacher or mentor) who educates them. Your own disciplined nature and the application of Scrum principles will rub off on others, as they will begin to understand the value of Scrum events as you do.

So what can you take away from this?
  • A disciplined mindset is key for Scrum to work and be effective.
  • Treat all your events as your dojo or kwoon (training halls) to improve yourself and the team.
  • Learn and understand the core principles of Scrum, and apply them correctly.
  • Experience will tell you what's working and what's not.
  • You reap the rewards of your own and your team's efforts.
  • Lead by example rather than preaching, but educate gently.
I hope this helps beginners and gurus of Scrum alike. Good luck.

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: 4.6 (8 ratings)


Tim Baffa, CSM, 10/5/2015 2:03:55 PM
Good article. I especially like the last statement about "educating gently". Critical mindset for helping others to understand Agile. Lead them to water, and hope that they drink.

I am also fond of the Shu Ha Ri application (follow, master, transcend) when practicing Agile.
Upesh Amin, CSD,CSM, 10/6/2015 3:30:19 PM
Thank you Tim. The Shu Ha Ri is exactly the path I'm talking about.
Robert Day, CSM, 11/5/2015 5:02:11 AM
I am reminded of the Japanese sword master Miyamoto Mushashi's Nine Principles for Strategic Living:

1. Do not think dishonestly.

2. The Way is in training.

3. Become acquainted with every art.

4. Know the ways of all professions.

5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.

6. Develop the ability to see the truth in all matters.

7. Learn to perceive those things which are not obvious.

8. Pay attention to even small things.

9. Do nothing which is of no use.

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