April 19, 2014

Agile Coaching Blog

Scrum Purists, Posers, and Pragmatists

Scrumsters in the Scrum community are breaking into three major groups. Which camp are you in?

Purists are all about what Ken said 10+ years ago. They represent the once radical movement that launched Scrum. Problem is that even Ken doesn’t practice what he advocated in “the day”. Take a look at this list of early terminology.

Scrums – is it still only 30 calendar days long?

Do retros and sprint planning meetings have single required time boxes?

Is this the correct Sprint Backlog: “A list of tasks that defines a Team’s work for a Sprint. The list emerges during the Sprint. Each task identifies those responsible for doing the work and the estimated amount of work remaining on the task on any given day during the Sprint.”?

Done was defined as “Complete as mutually agreed to by all parties and that conforms to an organization’s standards, conventions, and guidelines. When something is reported as ‘done’ at the Daily Scrum, or demonstrated as ‘done’ at the Sprint Review meeting, it must confirm to this agreed definition.”

The funniest thing is that the “Sprint” was called an iteration.

Posers – This could be the fastest growing camp in Scrum. Here the goal is to take the sizzle and the visibility of Scrum, label it as Agile, then demonstrate that by relabeling the processes in their traditional methodologies you can be AGILE/SCRUM, improve your able to be right, and still use the same insufficient facts. The bonus value in joining this camp is that you don’t have to change how you operate. Unfortunately, many of these campers truly think they are the next generation as they take the names, the ceremonies, and the cache, of Scrum and Agile values and believe these will enhance existing ways to deliver functions and activities.  Somewhere along the line what “value” stood for shifted away from what stakeholders and customers want and back to how well the project is run. 

Finally the Pragmatists.  This camp sits between the Purists and the Posers.  These scrumsters practice Scrum because it creates a transparency that encourages continuous improvement as it  emerges. This camp focuses on exploring what they can learn about improving the way they deliver value. Scrum is used as a framework reflecting what an organization does to inhibit its ability to deliver value to their stakeholders and customers. Pragmatists use Agile Tenets and Principles to incrementally and pragmatically find ways to improve what they are doing and how to better deliver value. 

Pragmatists are easy to identify. They learn their skills, keep up and share what they have learned, and use the Agile Manifesto and Principles to measure how well their implementation of the Scrum Framework is improving the way value is delivered.

 So, which camp do you want to part of?

About Mike Dwyer Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a Principal Agile Coach at BigVisible Solutions working with IT organizations as they adopt Agile and Lean methods. He has extensive experience as a manager, coach, and consultant transforming high growth organizations into hyper-productive Agile organizations. Having held senior positions in healthcare, professional services, manufacturing, and Product Management, Mike brings over 20 years experience managing all areas of software development, quality, operations, and support. He is a well-known and respected contributor to the Scrum, agile, and Lean software community as well as a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST).


  1. Mike, I’m not sure the Pragmatists sit between the Purists and Posers. Certainly they’re not directly between. It’s true, as you point out, that the Pragmatists look to the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto to measure the benefit being received from the way Scrum is being practiced. That closing of the loop is a manifestation of one of the Agile Principles: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” While the manifesto doesn’t specifically call out the use of feedback, that’s what’s behind many of the principles and practices. It’s the use of feedback, comparing our results with our desired results, adjusting, and watching what difference it makes, that’s behind many Agile practices, from Test Driven Development to Release Planning. I’ve written (http://blog.gdinwiddie.com/2006/12/16/its-all-about-feedback/) and talked (http://idiacomputing.com/pub/Baby%20Steps%20and%20Pervasive%20Feedback-notes.pdf) about this aspect many times.

    So, from some points of view, the Purists and Posers are closer to each other than either is to the Pragmatists. They’re both working in a open-loop fashion, not using the results they get to direct efforts to get closer to their desired results. Whether following a recipe in a book, or doing the same-old-same-old with new names, they’re not reflecting and adjusting behavior to be more effective.

    Indeed, some Pragmatists get results way beyond what was dreamed of in those early books. They didn’t get there by adopting some practices, though, but by mindfully and continuously improving how they work.

    – George

  2. George
    I like you blogs on feedback and agree with you that there has to be some mechanism for corrective action or steering. Feedback loops are important to Agilest and Scrumsters, as long as they do not lock people into thinking there is only one destination or goal. Why? Agile in general and Scrum in particular we often see the process of delivering value bring up better, more appropriate goals and destinations because we are getting feedback from the customer.

  3. I’ll hire the pragmatist.

  4. Francois Michas says:

    Hi Mike
    What’s the use of these categories ? What kind of progress path do you propose ?
    Would anyone classify oneself as a poser ?

  5. Francois
    The use of these categories? Partly to start a conversation, Partly to get some feedback and partly to offer a map of the Scrum Community.
    What kind of Progress path do I propose? I have my opinions, but they are probably not correct.
    What Progress Path do I propose? take it to the team. If this turns out to be a priority, then we – the Scrum Community – need to address this.
    I don’t know how anyone would classify themselves.
    It would be interesting to see these great questions answered in the Scrum Community.

  6. Hey Mike,

    I like your idea of breaking apart a community by its mindset. I’m not sure I would pick the distinctions you did. My personal favorite way to break them apart would be based on Warren Buffet’s observation of every major new idea and how it is embraced by three successive waves of adopters. First come the innovators, then the imitators, then the idiots.

    Innovators push the boundary of a given idea. Whether they are purist or pragmatists is less important than the idea that they are learning and growing the area of thought. Imitators may fall into any of your three categories, but I think their distinguishing point would be that they are not adding to the conversation, but simply taking from others. Lastly we would come to the idiots, and these are those who don’t even copy correctly, but rather take a few ideas and proceed to use them poorly.

    The reason I like this is because I wouldn’t say being a pragmatist or a purist is inherently a good thing. We need both! But, we can have good purists, who stay true to the principles of something, while continuing to further the body of knowledge in a meaningful way. Conversely, you could have a purist who is an imitator – or even an idiot – who blindly repeats dogmatically what they’ve learned regardless of how appropriate it is to a given situation.

  7. Brian,
    The Scrum Community has self described itself into the Purist and the Pragmatist camps. They are not mine, nor Warren Buffet’s. I don’t like quotes like this, as they take a couple of words, and make it bite-able or suckable. without introducing the speaker’s entire thought.If Warren Buffet feels calling people idiots in print is critical then i think we should understand the context the comment refers to. To use it out of that context is to mudlle and confuse his message and yours.
    I believe we don’t need more ‘red herrings’ to divert the conversation on these three camps. It is time we focus on how we see ourselves.
    I did come up with the label ‘poser’ for the third category as I found the terms and definitions I have seen to be a little too much, even for me.

  8. Hey Mike,

    fair point about context. Warren Buffet was discussing the challenge of innovation and how many good ideas eventually fail (http://blogs.hbr.org/taylor/2008/10/wisdom_of_warren_buffet_on_imi.html). Perhaps our conversation is splitting along two dimensions.

    Some of the groups we’ve identified (purists vs. pragmatists) people would self identify with. While your last group of “posers” is more aligned with the Buffet categories of Innovator, Imitator and Idiot. None would self acclaim themselves as members of the “poser” or “idiot” camp, it’s more a nature of their performance than their own value statement.

    Or have I become completely confused, do you feel that there are a group of people who consider themselves posers. They don’t really believe in Agile, but they are paying lip service to it because they feel that will get them accolades, career advancement or other benefits? Regardless it certainly is an interesting topic.

  9. I like your breakout here, Mike. And on my mind, lately, has been another kind of breakout. I almost want to say that it is between the people who actually know how to write software and those who do not. Scrum is a good outer cycle and offers room to improve pragmatically if you’re that kind of people. However, spread over all those groups there are a lot of individuals who haven’t any real appreciation of what it takes to improve, if software is your product. (My guess is that it would be true if widgets were your product as well, but I don’t know from widgets.)

    The impact of all these people of low software wisdom in the Scrum-software world is that people are not taught that software technique matters and therefore do not thrive. There are other ways not to thrive, of course, but this one is on my mind lately.

    Probably because I think I know how to do software. :)

    Thanks for the thoughts …

  10. Mike – in some cases I have seen pragmatists favour a ScrumBut approach. These are people are likely to take a more pragmatic approach from the outset and compromise on some of the key practices without understanding them.

    I think we have to be careful with pragmatism.

  11. The question that interests me is what made them drop the bits they don’t use. More times than not it is because folks read a couple of books, that served their purpose in getting small teams up and rocking BUT don’t fit the needs of today. To be honest that is exactly how I started doing ‘formal’ scrum in 2001. About 30 months into it we tossed all the stuff that was not adding value out by asking “DIT IT WORK? CAN WE IMPROVE?”. And we just got better at it. What we were doing was what Jeff Sutherland called Level C Scrum. Jeff’s concept was good enough that it transmuted into today’s maze of boutique Agile Approaches.

    The type of ScrumBut I find fascinating BUT find is rarely talked about concerns those team that follow every single key practice and understand reasons why they are important, and yet they never improve.
    Given my druthers, give me the butters who constantly evaluate what is and is not working and adapt and inspect so they improve, have more, fun and see their families grow up.

    Personally I think we have to be careful about being too comfortable in what we know, teach, and practice. I also agree with Ron when he notes “there are a lot of individuals who haven’t any real appreciation of what it takes to improve” and as George states “you need to get to the point where you’re looking at how well that methodology is working for you, and make adjustments as needed.”

    People who do not take these veteran’s thoughts to heart have already qualified for membership in ScrumBut.

  12. HI Mike,

    I like where you’re going with your question, but I don’t think anybody would want to associate themselves with the “poser” (or idiot) label – feels like an insult to me even though it’s most likely the largest group of users, as not everybody is a die-hard purist or in the position to develop scrum further with a full understanding of the purist reasons for their methods.

    If somebody chooses to not follow the purist approach, it should be for one of two reasons:

    a) you don’t understand it and therefore you’re ignorant to it’s merits (which may be a result of poor training, lack of motivation to find out or lack of an ability to understand) => seems to be what you tried to get at with the “poser” label
    b) you choose to ignore one of the processes / techniques because it either does not work for you, or you found another and better process / technique that works for you and your team or could and should become a new principle (and again it could be true that you don’t fully understand what you gave up, or you do and you discovered that some other benefit outweighs the merits of the item you chose to ignore)

    So it seems to me that in either one of those two scenarios there is
    - some need for more training / coaching / learning (and that group would likely enjoy being labeled as “learners” rather than “posers”)
    - something to be learnt from those who go beyond the initial purist approach for good reasons (those are some potentially unidentified great new coaches and contributors)
    - a group of hopeless candidates who can’t or don’t want to understand (not sure how to label these without insulting anybody)

    Ron: I’m not sure if this is about who can write software and who can’t. As a product owner who does not have a computer science background I can still be part of a scrum team and applying the scrum process to work with my development team in order to create a software product. And I’m fully capable to learn and see what does not work and needs improvement independent of my lack of skills to write actual code myself.

  13. Tom Vitale says:


    Your article and comments focus on the much needed dialogue that Scrum practices can only be valuable if they improve our results. Whlie that would seem obvious, it is often the case that teams will evaluate their “Scrumminess” without discussion about the completenees, quality or timeliness of delivered software.

    Scrum’s greatest quality is to enhance the ability to adapt by giving meaningful data about where a product is. To quote that great computer scientist, Chris Rock, who said, “if you vote an idea just because you are a liberal or a conservative without understanding it, you are an idiot!”. Simarly, scrum adapters get into to trouble by assuming that methods and practices automatically guarantee success.

    Scrum is effective when used by people who understand that any methodology must be monitored and evaluated honestly on the basis of its objective efficacy rather than because the practitioner is some sort of “ist”. I would say that Agile’s major obstactle is not with its practices but in the fact that it has, like it or not, become very appealing to those who like to rely on religious tenets to meet the objective rather than working the project day to day. Then again, that is the problem with any innovation so discussions like these are constantly needed.

  14. Tom Mellor says:

    I imagine for many people, it depends on what they are being paid to be (or feel pressured to be.) Never mind adherence to values and principles. For many, I imagine, it’s about being and staying employed and on the “good list.” Remember, you always want to be invited (back) to the party. That’s an idiomatic phrase I have heard in some form more than once. Translation: get in line, toe the line, don’t part from the line.

  15. Tom M
    For many then, there is no Agile, just the line to stay on. The sad part of being marginalized is having to live on that line.

  16. Tom V
    Ah the dogmatist worried about attaining perfection in Scrumminess. These are the folks who worry more about the having all the meetings run on time and the orderliness of the Task board over the the quality and timeliness of the value delivered. Yeah I see this as a suburb between the poser and the purist camps.

  17. Simonetta
    I like your calling out the fact that ignorance is not a defense for doing Agile/Scrum poorly, it is a way to reveal which camp you are in.
    I applaud your driving home the fact that learning – either from more training or from your experience – is the key to understanding why you are where you are and in doing so clarifying your willingness to accept that.
    As to Ron, what I can’t do is speak for him. He is a very responsive and responsible colleague and you should email him and get clarity. I can tell you that I agree with him. Doing software is not whipping open some piece of bloatware, play a video game, and then submitting the results to see what to fix next.
    Quite the opposite, doing software has always been about the techniques you have to go about thinking through what it is you are going to do to do, spending a lot of time critiquing your own work with unit and acceptance testing, and then writing as little code as you need to create the desired outcome.
    I might go further than Ron and state I am very happy to have Product Owners who do not feel qualified to do software, just as they should be happy that as a software professional i do not feel qualified to own the Product. Recognizing that leads to collaborating based on trust and respect for each others respective skills, knowledge and experience.

  18. Dinesh Sharma says:

    Mike – I have my reservation with definition of purist in this article i.e “are all about what Ken said 10+ years ago. “. I think purist wants to adhere to an agreed framework before thinking of changing (for continuous improvement) following Shu-Ha-Ri i.e. ‘Shu – Traditional wisdom’, ‘Ha- breaking with tradition’, ‘Ri – seperate’. But this definition can easily called Pragmatists as well.

    But I agree more with Tom Mellor’s statement to be in good books. So I think it’s organisations who creates Purist, Pragmatists or posers not individuals.

  19. Tamara Larsen says:

    Along this thread I have two seperate comments. It seems that many of the “Posers” are within an organization that has not chosen to empower their teams. They view Agile as another methology to adhere to and standardize across all teams. They do not have a business willing to serve as a Product Owner nor enable the team to self-organize. You can label these people what ever you want, but without the trust in the team there is no Agile.

    My second comment is in regards to focusing on technical excellence. I would have liked to see this more explicitly called out in the article. Although my role was as a Product Owner, I have my teams strive for technical improvements and teach them to communicate technical improvements into business value so they can get prioritized. After all, our product is software, right. You can have the best processes for communicating, but if you deliver buggy, unsupportable code, have you really delivered any value? Fix the broken windows, refactor as you go, delight your customers!

  20. Hi. I considered maybe a fourth category, which I call the Scrumdamentalists. Check out my post on Scrumdamentalists and Crusaders. http://sanderhoogendoorn.com/blog/?p=1048

  21. Sander
    Thanks for the heads up on your blog. What you describe seeing is, IMO, the current crop of Purist’s who have not expanded their understanding through first hand experience.
    We often permit this to happen when we assume to understand what is attained in becoming a ‘certified ScrumMaster”. Simply this, a person has made it a priority to spend time and money to attend a class where authorized trainers present and provide exposure to what the expectations and outcomes a “ScrumMaster” should be able to meet and then deliver. It is then the person’s duty to learn and gain from the experiences they have.
    Consider the “ScrumMaster” as a position on a team. Many of us played or follow sports and know the positions, strategies, roles on the field. Many of us can critique the actions of the players on the field, be it a children’s game, or the World Cup. The position stays the same, it is the skill level that person reaches that determines whether they watch and that is basically up to learning from experience about their talent and most of all their desire to get better.