Essence and Problem Solving Blog

January 3, 2021

Build a Better Scrum using Essence and the Heart of Agile

Filed under: Essence and Problem Solving — pemcmahon @ 3:46 am
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Today, thousands of companies are conducting agile transformations and according to Forbes 77% of those transformations are Scrum [1].  Yet, despite its popularity, according to Jeff Sutherland, co-founder of Scrum, 58% of all Scrum implementations are late, over budget and have unhappy customers [2]. Given these sobering statistics, a natural question we must ask is:

How can we build a better Scrum increasing our chances of success?

At least part of the answer, according to Sutherland, can be found in the Essence framework [3]. Sutherland tells us he has conducted an exercise with thousands of people in hundreds of companies where the participant teams build their own Scrum using Essence Cards [4] and then the teams presents their Scrum to the other teams as in a science fair.

Sutherland says:

“These Essence Cards flush out what is Scrum, what people are doing with it and how it is working…and we now have extensive data showing which parts of Scrum are implemented well,  which are implemented poorly,  and which are implemented not at all…  And on the average we find that about a third are implemented well, a third poorly, and a third are not implemented at all…. Essence immediately flushes out where the problems are, and then the next question is how can we use Essence to fix it?” [2]  

As a simple example of how Essence can be used to fix these problems Sutherland tell us one common problem you have in a vendor/customer relationship is who is responsible for what… By laying the cards out on the table and asking what the customer is responsible for, what the vendor is responsible for, and what do they jointly have to work on together, success rate is significantly increased.

Sutherland is not the only leader in the Agile movement looking at ways to fix common problems with Agile teams.  Alistair Cockburn, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto has observed similar issues with Scrum, stating:

Scrum is pretty good.  It has very few rules, but it doesn’t tell you if anything goes wrong how to fix it.”  [5]

Cockburn, who believes that Agile has become overly decorated, has started a new initiative referred to as the “Heart of Agile” (HOA) in which he focuses on just four words—Collaborate, Deliver, Reflect and Improve [6]  The focus of HOA seems to be on the human or emotional side of software development.  Cockburn told me:

“If you see me emphasizing the human component more and more it’s because my experiences show it affects success more than other things.” [7]

The importance of the human dimension in software development success is supported by my own experience and the experiences of others working as SEMAT [8] volunteers on the development of Essence. In one of our Essence working group meetings we heard:

“The reason Scrum works so well is because we have come a long way on the technical side; how to develop requirements, how to design, how to test.  But it is the team side where we have been lacking and where Scrum fills a big hole.” [7]

While Scrum has helped many teams become more successful in areas such as collaboration through practices including Daily Standups and Sprint Reviews, the HOA initiative seems to be poking at a deeper underlying human issue.  One place you can learn more about it is in the first five minutes of a talk Cockburn gave in 2019 at a Lean Conference in France. [9]   

He starts this talk by saying he wants to make one small correction related to Agile, based on what he heard others saying at the conference the day before.  He then says:

“…Others put their energy into processes and tools and documents and plans, whereas the ‘magic’ is actually the way people interact with each other…. The magic comes from the movement of ideas between minds…”

 He goes on to say that the value that many people leave off when they summarize Agile is the very first value of the Manifesto and it is the one he is most proud of

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”  [10]

What struck me listening to this talk wasn’t so much what was being said, but rather the implications to successful software development. I was certainly aware of the Agile Manifesto Values, but I hadn’t previously given a lot of thought to the consequences of not emphasizing the values when people try to communicate what is essential to Agile.  

In the Essence language, the Pattern construct is used to reflect Values.  As an example, in Scrum Essentials, the Scrum Values are captured on an Essence Pattern Card. [4] Refer to Figure 1.

Figure 1 Scrum Values Pattern Card   

Those values, as depicted on the card, are:

  • Commitment
  • Courage
  • Focus
  • Openness 
  • Respect 

Note particularly the words on the card preceding the five values:

Successful use of Scrum depends on people living the five Scrum values.

These values are clearly an essential element to the successful use of Scrum, but in my own experience– and I would bet in the experience of many of those involved in the poor Scrum implementations referred to by Sutherland that– the essential values are too often not implemented well.

Reviewing the essential values of agile caused me to reflect on the fact that values must be lived, not just written down. It also caused me to reflect on just what the heart of agile is. 

From the Heart of Agile website [6] we learn that HOA is actually a “community of ideas” and that:

“The community forming around the Heart of Agile is what is interesting these days. People exploring better ways to collaborate, to communicate, to probe, to learn, to reflect, and to have more fun at the same time as having more impact.“

It occurred to me while reading these words that the degree to which teams truly “live” their values often has a significant impact on the success of a software development effort.  This also caused me to reflect on just how HOA might work effectively with Essence and Scrum.  To aid this reflection I recalled something Ivar Jacobson, the primary visionary behind Essence, once said to me, and that is the fact that practices are not just static descriptions. They are what we do! They are alive! 

More specifically, Jacobson recently said:

”…it is high time for a new paradigm. Where practices can be explored, experimented with, adopted and adapted interactively, in the same space where teams plan and execute their work, and continuously inspect and adapt their working practices.” [11]

The value of Essence is that it provides a reference framework that gives users the freedom to compare, and mix practices and patterns to form the best solution for their specific situation. Thinking of Essence this way brings me back to Jeff Sutherland’s exercise and something we all can do, particularly anyone reading this blog who believes they can implement a better Scrum. 

We can all conduct our own ”Build a Better Scrum” exercise similar to the exercise Jeff Sutherland referred to.  If you are one of those organizations that may be implementing Scrum poorly, or failing with Scrum, I suggest you download your own set of Scrum Essential cards [4] and conduct your own Build a Better Scrum exercise.  And when conducting this exercise be sure to pay close attention to the values your team holds giving particular attention to not only the Scrum Essential Values, but also HOA patterns, such as the one that captures the first value of the Agile Manifesto. 

You can use the Heart of Agile along with Essence to help your team build a better Scrum by bringing back the focus on the real essentials—including the values– to successful software development. 

Comments are encouraged. 


[2] SIGSOFT Seminar, April, 2020,, Refer to 14, 26 and 28 minutes into presentation



[5], Refer to 38 minutes into presentation


[7], Refer to Epilogue and Chapter Five.

[8] SEMAT stands for Software Engineering Method and Theory. Refer to for more information.




1 Comment »

  1. Paul, we are finding that the use of Agile is particularly suited to virtual development. We have a highly distributed team and Agile provides a great tool for managing and motivating virtual progress. Any thoughts? – Jim Grebey

    Comment by grebey — January 3, 2021 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

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