Can You Do Agile Without Scrum?

Yes, you can do agile without Scrum. Agile is a mindset, whereas Scrum is a framework — and one of the ways in which to practice agile.


Every now and then as I speak to someone about agile, I come across what I call an “agile conundrum.” As Merriam-Webster put it much better than I ever could, a conundrum is an intricate and difficult problem; a question or problem having only a conjectural answer.

I collect these agile conundrums with much curiosity and pleasure, answering them here on Get Agile Right. So here’s one for you: can you do agile without Scrum?

Yes, you can do agile without Scrum. Agile is a mindset that individuals, teams, and organizations use to work in iteratively and incrementally, focusing first and foremost on customer value and continuously improving along the way. Agile is built on 4 values, 12 principles, and gives birth to an unlimited number of agile frameworks. Scrum is simply one of the agile frameworks out there.

In other words, Scrum is simply one way to do agile. Agile is a mindset that you can practice without a framework. Or you could use other frameworks out there such as (but not limited to) Crystal, Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM), Feature-Driven Development, and Extreme Programming (XP).

The Scrum framework’s name comes from the term “scrum” in rugby. Scrum is a way to restart a rugby game after a minor infringement. Players pack together with their heads down as they try to get the ball.

In January 1986, management theorist Ikujiro Nonaka and Harvard professor Hirotaka Takeuchi studied how some of the market-leading Japanese and American companies at the time had adopted a new approach to developing new products.

Nonaka and Takeuchi looked at Fuji-Xerox, Canon, Honda, NEC, Epson, Brother, 3M, Xerox, and Hewlett-Packard. In these companies, projects typically started with a goal, not a clear-cut product concept or detailed work plan. So each product team had extreme freedom but also had to solve extreme challenges — since they operated like a mini-company within the company.

Most of the companies that Nonaka and Takeuchi interviewed said that this process often produced a high number of mistakes. However, the process produced more innovative and revolutionary products faster than the traditional and sequential way of product development, so they had come to view these mistakes as nothing but a learning curve.

The two Japanese authors published their findings in an article called “New New Product Development Game” (yes, the title is correct) in Harvard Business Review (pages 137-146), which drew parallels between rugby and business for the first time.

“Companies are increasingly realizing that the old, sequential approach to developing new products simply won’t get the job done,” Nonaka and Takeuchi wrote. “Instead, companies in Japan and the United States are using a holistic method — as in rugby, the ball gets passed within the team as it moves as a unit up in the field.”

According to Nonaka and Takeuchi, this new approach to product development had six traits:

  • Built-in instability,
  • Self-organizing project teams,
  • Overlapping development phases,
  • Multi-learning,
  • Subtle control, and
  • Organizational transfer of learning.

These pieces fit together like a puzzle to form a fast and flexible process for developing new products. This new approach could also act as a change agent “for introducing creative market-driven ideas into an old, rigid organization.”

Those of you familiar with the Scrum framework will recognize many of these traits from the Scrum Guide. This is because the creators of Scrum, Jeff Sutherland Ken Schwaber, referenced and built on top of Nonaka and Takeuchi’s research when they codified the Scrum framework.

Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber presented the Scrum framework for the first time in 1995 at the OOPSLA Business Object Design and Implementation Workshop. In 2001, they were part of the group of 17 thought leaders who got snowed in at a ski retreat in Snowbird, Utah, and created the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

Scrum is a lightweight process framework that helps teams develop products in agile ways through a set of roles, events, and artifacts, as well as the rules that prescribe the relationships between them.

Scrum has been used to develop products of any kind and has been adopted by companies across geographies and sectors. From software, hardware, and IT infrastructure to defense & aerospace, agriculture, finance, media, government, and non-profit.

Like the operating models that Nonaka and Takeuchi studied in Japanese and American companies in the 1980s, the essence of Scrum is to create small (between 3 to 9 members), self-sufficient, and self-organized teams that build products in an iterative and incremental way, focusing on customer value and over time achieving a sustainable pace through continuous improvement.

Scrum is based on the theory of empiricism, according to which the best way to attain knowledge is through “sensory experience.” Scrum has three pillars (transparency, inspection, and adaptation) and five values (commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect). A Scrum Team uses the Scrum framework by adopting its roles, events, artifacts, and rules, and internalizing the three pillars and five values in their communication and collaboration.

10 Ways to Do Agile Without Scrum

Agile has been called many things by many people. Some call it a philosophy. Others a methodology. Third claim that it’s a Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). But agile is actually a mindset.

The agile mindset helps individuals and teams to focus on creating value and responding to change through an iterative and incremental approach to work. Iterative as work is done in short cycles called iterations. And incremental as each iteration builds on top of the previous iterations by delivering a working product in small chunks.

Though the Scrum framework predates the Manifesto for Agile Software Development (Scrum was created in 1995 and the agile manifesto was signed in 2001), Scrum is an agile framework. Which makes it one of the possible ways to practice agile in a team setting.

Here are 10 ways that any individual, team, and organization can use to practice agile with or without Scrum:

  1. Work iteratively. Split a year, quarter, month, or week into timeboxes that allow you to focus on working in small chunks.
  2. Stay synced. Communicate transparently and collaborate cross-functionally on the products, services, and projects in your organization.
  3. Understand that agile is about self-sufficiency and self-organization, which can only be practiced by motivated individuals and empowered teams.
  4. Welcome change. Instead of resisting it, acknowledge that circumstances change and plans become outdated. Harness changes to build a competitive advantage.
  5. Focus on creating a sustainable pace of work. Agile teams work in a structured and cyclical way, so as to achieve a rhythm of iterative work and incremental delivery over time.
  6. Seek out feedback early. Measure effectiveness (“Are we doing the right things?”) and efficiency (“Are we doing things right?”) continuously. Use your findings and learnings to improve continuously.
  7. Don’t forget about process efficiency (the amount of effort required to achieve a business outcome) and technical excellence (the number of decisions that improve or worsen the -ilities of your product over time).
  8. Capture your work on a backlog in the form of work items. Split large work items into small chunks that you can deliver in one iteration. Estimate in relative terms (like story points) and measure your velocity for each iteration (story points completed per iteration).
  9. When something is working out well, inspect it, and keep on doing it. When something is broken, inspect it and adapt it. This includes people, processes, and technology.
  10. Reflect on what’s working and what isn’t at regular intervals. Turn reflection and continuous improvement into a habit and a ritual, not a one-time event.

It’s important to note that these are not the only ways to do agile without Scrum. Get familiar with the 4 values of agile. Spend some time reading and thinking through its 12 principles. Check out all posts about agile on Get Agile Right — as well as all other blogs, websites, and YouTube channels.

Unlike mindsets and methodologies that precede it (the agile manifesto has 68 words whereas the Project Management Body of Knowledge has close to 1,000 pages). Like the saying, agile won’t give you a fish. It will teach you how to fish instead.

Why Agile Frameworks Are Necessary

If an individual and team can work in agile ways without an agile framework, then what’s the value of agile frameworks in the first place?

Agile frameworks make agile understandable to individuals and teams who are not experienced with agile. They also help organizations make agile ways of working repeatable and scalable.

One way to look at agile framework is like the rules of a game. Professional players don’t need to learn and remember the rules. They have internalized them through thousands of hours of playing and have an intuitive knowledge of how to use them to play the game. Which is not the case for new or inexperienced players.

Agile frameworks take much of the guesswork and many of the mistakes away from implementing agile on a team level. There are also “scaled agile frameworks,” created for large organizations who are going through an agile transformation, that help them to scale agile at the enterprise level. This includes Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), Scrum@Scale, as well as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe).

By Dim Nikolov

Jack of all trades and master of none. Dim is a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and Certified Scrum Master (CSM). He has a decade of experience as a stakeholder, member, leader, and coach for agile teams.