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Courage and Accountability (go hand in hand)

Accountability, commitment and transparency are terms that frequently pop up in the context of agile and Scrum. Unfortunately, but not uncommon in our industry, the use of these terms seems to happen a lot without much reserve or consideration, out of context, from a superficial or no understanding, as self-elevation attempts by self-acclaimed charlatan-experts; and in a way that even contradicts the principles and values of agile and Scrum. Yet, despite the misuse, they can be essential and powerful drivers of behavior in agile and Scrum.

Good enough reasons for further inquiry, thoughts and consideration, starting with the observation that accountability, commitment and transparency are inter-connected and have the requirement of an important quality in common: COURAGE, also one of the 5 Scrum Values.

Accountability complements Collaboration

‘Accountability’ is the state of a person, a group of people, an organization being accountable. This in turn refers to the expectation, the ability and the willingness to share how a certain result came about in a specific domain or area of accountability; what actions or decisions were or were not taken, explain why these were or where not taken, what the considerations were, etc. Accountability has less to do with the actual result than it has to do with sharing, explaining and justifying the path leading to the actual result.

Definition - AccountableAccountability thus requires the courage to be honest, to work hard, to do the best you can, to act responsibly, to share information, to reveal reality; not the destructive ‘courage’ commonly demonstrated in achieving a desired result, at any price, cost or damage.

All too often accountability is (mis)understood as the assurance of a desired, future result, the promise of a future outcome, with the built-in threat of laying total blame with the one(s) bearing the accountability when the predicted result is not exactly or completely achieved. It is a hideous expression of a desire for command and control. It builds on a blame culture, not on a goal-oriented culture of learning and improving.

Shall we rename the false understanding of ‘accountability’ to ‘commandability‘?

The undertone of commandability is: „YOU are accountable. It is therefore YOUR job to make it happen, whatever it takes.“ It is in itself obviously disrespectful. Beyond that, in the complex, unpredictable and uncertain environment of software development no approach with the characteristics of commandability is viable anyhow. Because software development by nature thrives on emerging knowledge and facts, and ongoing discovery. It requires the ultimate superhero to live up to the (false assumption of) accountability.

Being accountable for work, a task, a goal is not a promise of a result. Neither is it an obligation to do everything alone. It looks like courage to try to do so, but it isn’t. It is mistaking courage for individual heroism. And in a complex environment, like software development, it reduces the chances of success to extremely low and even zero, at the cost of an extreme feeling of loneliness and being burned. It doesn’t work like that in difficult, creative, unpredictable work. It doesn’t work when being part of a team.

The person taking such individual expectation of a promised result seriously is likely to wander off into a personal death march when lacking this courage to admit it can’t be done alone, that it takes collaboration and help from others to live up to the assigned accountability. It takes courage to ask for help and engage with fellow travelers. It is a type of vulnerability that enables better living up to accountability.

Commandability, the falsified and perverse form of accountability, even brings about the danger of creating silos, silo-thinking and silo-behaviour; at the level of an individual, a team, a product, a department, a company.

Using inverted accountability in a context of Scrum leads to exactly the opposite of the Scrum tenets; cross-functional collaboration, utilizing collective intelligence, bottom-up knowledge creation, shared goals. Yet, accountability remains essential. The false application of it doesn’t drive out its importance. Removing and avoiding accountability has disastrous effects as well; no vision, no focus, no direction, no choices, endless discussions and meetings, indecisiveness; a Gordian knot.

Scrum foresees clear accountabilities:

  • The Development Team is accountable for creating releasable Increments.
  • The Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the value of the work.
  • The Scrum Master is accountable for facilitating the understanding and application of Scrum.

These accountabilities are separated, yet all needed. It is why these roles need to collaborate as a Scrum Team with a shared responsibility toward the organization, its customers and the wider ecosystem. The built-in tension, resulting from the separate accountabilities, invokes productive dissent, helping teams to rise above artificial harmony, recognizable as accommodation, silence and apathy. The tension is a foundation for emerging ideas and the creativity to create the best possible solution. The level of tension however is to be observed and protected from accumulating into unhealthy levels and types of dissent and (personal) conflict.

In the end, true accountability complements collaboration, not supersedes it.

Commitment mirrors Accountability

Accountability is the mirror to commitment. A committed person or team fears not taking up accountability, often it happens even spontaneously and voluntarily. Accountability works better if it induces commitment, if it appeals to intrinsic motivation.

Commitment suffers from a misunderstanding very similar to the misunderstanding that exists over accountability, i.e. being interpreted as a hard-coded contract with a promise of a certain future result. In a context of Scrum this misuse was somewhat reinforced by the past requirement for teams to ‘commit’ to a Sprint. It caused creation of the expectation that all scope would be delivered, no matter.

Definition - Commitment‚Commitment’ however was always intended as a promise to do the maximum possible in the Sprint and to be transparent about the achieved result at the end of the Sprint. In the complex, creative and highly unpredictable world of software development a commitment on scope is impossible anyhow.

So, commitment is about dedication and applies to the actions, the effort, not the final result. As such it is still a core value of Scrum. Committed people show the courage to do the best they can, to promise they will do the best they can, given the conditions they work in and the means they are given.

Committed people accept accountability. They show no fear of being transparent over the work done, the work not done, changes to a plan, opportunities discovered, problems encountered. Transparency even helps them demonstrating that the best possible result was accomplished, even when it is not the supposed or hoped for reality, whether it is less or more than what was expected. Such transparency comes not without courage.

Transparency Serves a Purpose

Accountability requires transparency. Commitment offers transparency. But transparency serves a purpose, the purpose of learning. Accountability and commitment without the goal of validated learning are meaningless. Transparency for the sake of transparency is meaningless. Accountability, commitment and transparency are the ingredients of progress, not a hammer for blame over the past. Accountability, commitment and transparency without trust, self-organization and regular validations are pointless.

Validated learning is also why work is organized in time-boxes in Scrum, as a way to limit any type of risk and to frequently learn, thereby superseding the traditional notion of failure. Scrum makes validated learning explicit via its implementation of empiricism in software development. Transparency in Scrum serves the frequent cycles of inspection and adaptation. Transparency is needed for all inspectors to know about reality, to assess and evaluate the actual, real status, and adapt to it in order to move on.

Transparency is not necessarily applicable to any sort of information, independent of situation and context. Transparency applies on all information that the people accountable for inspection and adaptation require.

Some illustrations

  • In Scrum, the Product Owner typically maximizes the value of the work by ordering the Product Backlog. The Product Owner is accountable for the Product Backlog, accountable for identifying, ordering and expressing product ideas and options. A Product Owner will have an extremely difficult time trying to do this all alone. Consulting with users, stakeholders, and the Development Team, appealing to the collective intelligence of the ecosystem augments a Product Owner’s accountability (and credibility). And it doesn’t prevent the Product Owner from having the final call and prevent being stalled in endless debate.
  • In Scrum, the Development Team is accountable for creating an Increment of releasable product by the end of the Sprint. Inspection of the Increment requires transparency over the state of the Increment, over its quality. A much used practice to achieve such transparency is the definition of „Done“. A Development Team will have a difficult time providing full transparency through the definition of Done when only allowing in what they like or care to care about. Consulting with the Product Owner, taking into account the organization’s quality standards, regulatory requirements, etc. augments a Development Team’s accountability (and credibility).
  • In Scrum, the Development Team plans and organizes its work for a Sprint. On a daily base the work is optimized and re-planned against the Sprint Goal. What is a demand to make Sprint Backlog transparent outside of the Scrum Team based on? What inspection and adaptation would such ‘transparency’ serve?
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Scrum Is A Stance (too)

-An inquiry into the expression of behaviors through Scrum-

Scrum is not a cookbook ‘process’ with detailed and exhaustive prescriptions for every imaginable situation. Scrum is a framework of principles, roles and rules that thrive on the people doing Scrum. The true potential of Scrum lies in the discovery and emergence of practices, tools and techniques and in optimizing them for each organization’s specific context. Scrum is very much about behavior, much more than it is about process.

(from the preface of „Scrum – A Pocket Guide“, Gunther Verheyen, 2013)

It is worthwhile elaborating on the importance of people and behavior in Scrum. Because, indeed:

Scrum is very much about behavior, much more than it is about process.

Introduction: the simplicity of Scrum

Presumably there are many reasons why Scrum turned into the leading framework for Agile software development during the past decade. One of the reasons may be the simplicity of Scrum. Or, perhaps it is the opposite, the wide adoption of Scrum is more like a miracle given that same simplicity.

Yet, the simplicity of Scrum is ESSENTIAL. The simplicity of Scrum reminds us of the fact that the real complexity to be tackled in software development lies outside of the rules and roles of Scrum. The real complexity resides in the specific context within which Scrum is applied. In software development, ‘context’ starts and ends with people; what people do, don’t do, like, dislike, prefer, hate; how people jell, feel and behave. The rules and roles of Scrum help people tackle complexity. But no ‘process’ can replace or compensate the people aspect of software development.

The simplicity of Scrum creates openness. It is an open invitation for discovery and emergence. Yet, the simplicity of Scrum gives rise to many frowns, emotions, reactions, debates. It is experienced as enticing, provocative, offensive, powerful, inadequate, a mystery, impossible. Is the beauty of Scrum, expressed through this simplicity, therefore in the eye of the beholder only? Or is there more to Scrum than meets the eye?

In the end, more than the rules and roles of Scrum, people have the key to Scrum. Behavior is the key to unleashing the potential of Scrum. Scrum is a stance, too.

The eye of the beholder

The rules and roles of Scrum are described in the Scrum Guide. The Scrum Guide was created and is maintained by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, co-creators of Scrum. It is the definite body of knowledge to Scrum.

The rules and roles included in the Scrum Guide can be applied and followed as described, with no further inquiry into the why of these rules and roles. They can be regarded as ‘to be followed’ instructions, merely because the Scrum Guide prescribes them.

Blindly following the described roles and rules is for many in the industry of software development at least a great start to transform to Scrum. It helps. People, teams and organizations start, learn, and improve in creating and delivering software iterative-incrementally, with small steps of validated learning. However, sticking to, not transcending, such blind view and usage of Scrum is likely to turn Scrum into no more than yet another IT delivery process. As such it still leaves many holes, gaps, disconnects and waste. The rules and roles of Scrum, as described in the Scrum Guide, in themselves might not be enough to grasp the depth of Scrum and reap the full benefits of employing Scrum. The simplicity of Scrum may be somewhat deceptive.

It helps to dig deeper by:

  1. Reflecting on the definition of Scrum included in that same Scrum Guide document,
    “A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value.”
    In the Scrum Guide this definition precedes the description of the rules and roles. This definition shows how Scrum is intended, i.e. an aid for the people employing Scrum, a way for people to structure and organize their own work. It sheds a different light on the subsequent roles and rules of the Scrum Guide. Yet, both are in the same document. Ultimately, the roles and rules described in the Scrum Guide can only be fully understood from the definition of Scrum and the clear intent expressed in that definition.
  2. Reading the description of the roles and rules again, e.g. some time after having started with Scrum. It often leads to the discovery that the Scrum Guide describes behavior more than it has technical prescriptions. A typical focus of many processes is on ceremonial technicalities like meetings, deliverables, timings, phases; i.e. on what is expected from people. Scrum is a framework that gives people the room to organize their own work, yet provides boundaries as every healthy ecosystem needs.
  3. Stepping back to a perspective that goes beyond the Scrum Guide document, the perspective offered in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The rules and roles described in the Scrum Guide, the behavior described, don’t just stand on their own. They are grounded in the values and principles expressed in the Agile Manifesto. Ultimately, the Scrum framework can only be fully comprehended when seen as an expression of these values and principles. Ultimately, the rules and roles of Scrum, the behavior described in the Scrum Guide, can only be fully understood in combination with the fundamental views expressed in the Agile Manifesto.

The intent and definition of Scrum, matched against the agile values and principles should ground and then drive the behavior expressed through Scrum.

The Stance of Scrum

Scrum has many facets. Scrum is a framework, not a methodology. The framework of Scrum is not just a set of technical prescriptions, but a recipe to deal with complex challenges. The rules and roles of Scrum support and complement, not replace, the intelligence and creativity of people. The framework of Scrum is an implementation of the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto. Scrum implements empiricism in software development.

The framework of Scrum thrives on implied principles, thinking and… behavior, on people taking a stance to product development through Scrum, a Scrum stance.

The definition of Scrum shows the way to the core of the stance typical to Scrum. If Scrum is an operating system for the values and principles expressed in the Agile Manifesto, the definition from the Scrum Guide shows the way to the kernel of the operating system.

The kernel is expressed as:



  • People are respected for their intelligence, creativity and ability to organize their own work, to self-organize. People collaborate, thereby adhering to the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto and embodying the Scrum values of respect, focus, courage, openness, and commitment.
  • Empiricism serves to deal with the complexity typical to software development. In empiricism only reality and past results are accepted as certain. At a regular cadence outcomes and behaviors are transparently inspected for new and changed insights against set goals. These insights are used to adapt to observed reality.
  • The value of outcomes, work delivered to an ecosystem of creators, stakeholders and consumers, is constantly evaluated, optimized and maximized as a shared goal. Value comes in different shapes and appearances; satisfaction, money, improvement, credibility, risk. Optimizing value is very different from adhering to traditional development drivers like budget, tasks, scope, time, schedule.

In the end, Scrum has many appearances. In the end, Scrum -like all things agile- starts and ends with people. Scrum is a stance, too.

The Scrum Stance