Do the 5 Scrum values really add value?

The Scrum Guide problematically specifies five Scrum values all members of an effective product development team must embrace:

  1. Openness.
  2. Respect.
  3. Courage.
  4. Focus.
  5. Commitment.

Here's the problem: I don't think the Scrum Guide's discussion of the five Scrum values is valuable. In fact, I'd argue that the five Scrum values aren't values at all.

How the 5 Scrum values work

The idea behind the five Scrum values is that they represent what a product development team must do to be successful:

  • Team members must be open with each other and accept both feedback and criticism.
  • Team members must respect each other, respect the Scrum process and stakeholders must respect the collective wisdom and direction provided by the Scrum team.
  • Team members must have the courage to speak out when they believe the Scrum values and pillars are not being respected.
  • Team members must be able to align their objectives and focus on a common objective.
  • Team members must agree to commit to the Scrum framework and to achieve individual Sprint Goals and the overall product goal.

These five Scrum values circle back on and feed into each other. A team that commits to focus on a goal must be open with each other and respect each other's insights, and everyone should be empowered to share their insights in a psychologically safe space where feedback is encouraged.

The five core Scrum values.
The five core Scrum values: focus, openness, commitment, courage and respect.

Do the 5 Scrum values provide value?

The question is, does the discussion of these five Scrum values provide value to Agile practitioners? For that matter, are these five Scrum values really values at all?

Modern psychological trait theory asserts that there are only five personality traits, as follows:

  • Openness.
  • Conscientiousness.
  • Extraversion.
  • Agreeableness.
  • Neuroticism.

Furthermore, any attempt to analyze personality on an alternative vector is just a microanalysis of one of these five macrocategories.

Scrum values vs. personality traits

In truth, the five Scrum values are not a set of values at all, but instead are a somewhat clumsy discussion of personality traits from individuals seemingly unfamiliar with the latest psychological literature.

  • The first Scrum value is openness, which maps directly to the first of the big five traits.
  • Respect is simply a measure of agreeableness.
  • Courage is simply on the opposite end of the trait neuroticism spectrum, perhaps with an added dash of extraversion.
  • Both focus and commitment are simply manifestations of conscientiousness.

Besides the fact that the Scrum Guide confuses values with personality traits, the question remains: Does the section on the five Scrum values provide any value?

To me, this section reads as very cliche advice, encouraging individuals to work hard, speak truth to power, stand up for what they believe in and be the best team player they can possibly be.

Scrum Team members respect each other to be capable, independent people, and are respected as such by the people with whom they work. The Scrum Team members have the courage to do the right thing, to work on tough problems." – The Scrum Guide, Page 4

It's a great pep talk, but for a document that prides itself on being empirical, concise and actionable, telling people what essentially adds up to "be a hard worker" seems like a waste of ink.

When virtue turns to vice

Any of Scrum's stated values can turn into a vice when pushed beyond a certain limit.

Courage wins soldiers the Congressional Medal of Honor, but it also led Karl Wallenda to his high-wire death.

In his best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell describes how co-pilots' respect and reverence for their captain have led to avoidable plane crashes because of their reluctance to speak out when trouble is on the horizon.

Focus sounds like a great thing to have, but only if it's in the right place. The Scrum Guide isn't clear about where the focus should be. Consider the following questions:

  • Should all the focus be on the current sprint, and neglect the product backlog?
  • Should all the focus be on what the team works on today, with no worries about what needs to be done tomorrow?
  • Does focus always sit in the Goldilocks zone where there should never be too much or too little?

Openness is cited as one of the five Scrum values, but the Scrum Guide doesn't walk the walk.

The daily Scrum is only for the developers. The sprint retrospective is for the Scrum team. If openness really were a priority, these meetings would be open to everyone, including managers, stakeholders and even potential clients.

Saying something while saying nothing

A common frustration among Agile practitioners is that the Scrum Guide often attempts to say something profound, but ultimately says nothing at all. The section on Scrum values certainly falls into this category, but the pattern weaves its way throughout the entire guide.

For example, the Scrum Guide insists Scrum is a framework, but it then backs away from that assertion, insisting it is a "purposefully incomplete framework." Just as an incomplete Ph.D is not a Ph.D, an incomplete framework is not a framework. So is Scrum a framework or isn't it? The Scrum Guide sits on the fence, noncommittally.

We see this pattern again in the Scrum Guide section on breaking down backlog items. Here, the guide says planning "is often done by decomposing product backlog items into smaller work items of one day or less."

An alternative interpretation of that sentence is that "this is often not done by decomposing product backlog items into smaller work items of one day or less." These ostensibly opposite statements are both true -- and therefore the Scrum Guide again offers no actionable, clear or insightful guidance, just vague nothingness that causes confusion among practitioners.

Rethinking the 5 Scrum values

While I believe the Scrum Guide's section on the five Scrum values provides no real value, I do believe it can be salvaged.

My hope is that in the next update to the Scrum Guide, the authors rewrite this section in a more scientific manner and consider the current psychological literature about personality traits.

Infuse the Scrum Guide with some scientific evidence -- for example, which personality traits make the most productive Scrum masters, product owners and Scrum developers? Remove the vague, feel-good tripe and replace it with real, actionable advice and insight.

Such an addition wouldn't be difficult. There is already plenty of research in how the big five personality traits impact team performance. For example, a 1997 study from the Journal of Engineering and Technology Management found that successful teams possess "higher levels of general cognitive ability, higher extraversion, higher agreeableness, and lower neuroticism than their unsuccessful counterparts."

And a 2003 Journal of Industrial Psychology study on job performance stated that "Emotional Stability, Extraversion, Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness were related to task performance and creativity. Three personality dimensions, namely Emotional Stability, Openness to Experience and Agreeableness, explained 28% of the variance in participants' management performance."

The Scrum Guide should prune away the unscientific, ineffectual section on the five Scrum values or replace it with a more scientifically accurate discussion on personality traits with reference to empirical evidence. That would truly help Scrum teams do a better job of product development, and provide readers with some real, actionable value.

Darcy DeClute is a technical trainer and Agile coach who helps organizations apply Scrum-based principles to adopt a modern DevOps stack. She is a certified Professional Scrum Master (PSM), Professional Scrum Developer (PSD) and Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO), and author of the Scrum Master Certification Guide.

View All Videos
App Architecture
Software Quality
Cloud Computing