Agile Book Essentials #2: Scrum: A Pocket Guide, by Gunther Verheyen

I recently received a copy of Gunther Verheyen’s ‘Scrum: A Pocket Guide’ and decided to save it for my ‘Christmas Break’ reading list. So, yesterday I picked it up and read it from cover to cover in under two hours. This book, I thought, certainly deserves a review. So here it is.

The author, Gunther Verheyen, is Director of the Professional Series at Scrum.org and is responsible for the content and quality of the Scrum.org certification courses. Having enjoyed my (excellent) Scrum Master training from Gunther, and working with him on occasion, I know him as someone who is very passionate about Scrum and who has a clear, articulate vision of what it can and should be. In this book, he presents Scrum and his perspective  on the matter.

Before diving into Scrum, the book kicks off with a chapter devoted to the Agile Paradigm. It talks about the origins of Agile, it’s definition,  the road towards Agility and the overlap with Lean.  This was the part of the book I enjoyed most, as it emphasises - repeatedly - that Agility is a paradigm and not a silver bullet methodology you can just plan or do. It’s all about balancing high responsiveness, speed and adaptiveness while controlling risks, and continuously changing your organization towards that goal. This is a difficult journey and requires time, effort and discipline. A powerful message.

The second chapter discusses the Scrum framework in detail. In just 40 short pages, the author describes the roles, events, artifacts and practices that are part of, or strongly associated with, Scrum and does a great job at also describing why the framework is the way it is. Although this chapter doesn’t really tell you anything new if you already know Scrum, the chapter will help you understand better why the various parts of Scrum are important and how they relate to Agility. What I really liked about is how concise and to-the-point this description of the Scrum framework really is. Over the years Scrum has accumulated practices and tactics that are often assumed to be a part of the framework - such as user stories, burndowns or planning poker - but really aren’t. The author has cleverly decided not to write about these topics in this chapter. They may be very helpful when working with Scrum, but they are neither necessary nor required by it.

While the second chapter is about the core of Scrum, the third chapter is about useful tactics. This is where we spend some time on user stories, burndowns, planning poker, stand-ups, backlog refinement and scaling Scrum. Again, the message is repeated that these tactics may be beneficial to teams working with Scrum, but are not required and can even get in the way. Its up to teams to decide which tactics work best for them, given the Scrum framework. 

In the final chapter, the author talks about the future state of Scrum. It’s clear that Scrum has crossed the Chasm and is being widely adopted in (and beyond) the IT industry. In many cases this is still limited to the lower levels of organizations where teams are excited about Scrum. But this excitement has to be carried upstream and supported within all tiers of the organization (sales, management, finance, HR, etc) to sustain change and benefit from it. Scrum calls for radical organizational change, away from hierarchical structures with specialized functional silos towards flat structures with autonomous cross-skilled teams that work closely with customers and end-users. In the future, the author predicts that Scrum will have become the norm and organizations will have re-invented themselves around it. 

What I really like about this book is it’s no-nonsense approach. There are no fluffy success stories and no idle management banter. The book really delivers as a pocket guide; it tells you all about Scrum and its foundation in just under 100 pages. I also like how it distinguishes the framework from practices and tactics that have become part of Scrum in the minds of most. This is a good, refreshing, perspective. The same goes for the broader focus of the book. It does not only talk about Scrum, but places it in the broader focus of Agility, Lean and the future of Scrum. Finally, the book presents a number of metaphors, like the Scrum game board, that I think are quite useful in training sessions. 

I do believe that the high quality content of this book would benefit from a better (hard?)cover, better typesetting and better visuals though. It may have to do with the pocket guide format of the book, but it comes of a bit cheapish compared to other books in the field. This is really one of those books you shouldn't judge by its cover.

Because the book is very consise and to the point, it is also quite theoretical. Although I personally prefer this kind of writing, I can imagine that some readers are looking for more practical examples or use cases and need help translating the abstract principles and concepts in this book into something they can do in real-life. The book actually makes a point out of this by not focussing on tactics and practices, by sticking to the framework and its core principles. Although this is an understandable writing decision, it does make the book more suited for readers that can fill in the blanks themselves. I’m not sure if this theoretical focus will convince people that are skeptical or on the fence about Scrum, as most of their concerns have to do with the practical application (like how to sell it, how to get a good product owner, who should be the Scrum Master and how to organize cross-functional teams). But there are other books on the market for these audiences.

From the above, it must have become obvious that Gunther Verheyen is very knowledgeable and passionate about Scrum. He presents a clear, articulate vision of Scrum and it’s future. With its high density in facts, insights and information, the book reads like a good espresso. In just two hours you’re up to speed on the Scrum framework, its history, core principles and its broader context (e.g. Lean, Agile). If you’ve been hearing about Scrum and want to know more, or if you’re already working with Scrum but want to read up on its foundation, then I highly recommend this book. And definitely an essential Agile book!

You can get a copy here.

Christiaan Verwijs
Christiaan Verwijs

Scrum Master, Trainer, Developer & founder of Agilistic