The Spirit of the Game

... the Scrum framework does not have all the answers, which means problems might arise with no given solution.

✥       ✥       ✥ 

Rules can be written, but spirit is part of culture that guides interactions and may be discerned only when ignored or violated.

Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself. The major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains. [1]

On 16 May 1999 the actions of the captain in a world cup cricket game caused the umpire to intervene even in the absence of any violation of an explicit cricket law. The captain of the Indian team complained to the umpire that the South African captain was using an earpiece to communicate with the coach. The earpiece, though not in violation of a stated law of cricket, was in violation of the spirit of the game and was removed for breaking this spirit. [2]

Scrum requires a spirit of interaction between people that can be difficult to define. This spirit is part of the culture of the organization and may be indiscernible for the people within the culture. Though the spirit may be difficult to define it is easily recognized when it is broken.

Scrum is a lightweight process framework which is simple to understand but difficult to master. [3] Because it is easy to understand people tend to fill in their blind spots with assumptions. It’s easy to assume that Scrum is a simple change to work practices and to miss its core spirit. As a consequence some treat Scrum as a method rather than a framework. Scrum does not give any answers but creates transparency on a daily basis. So that people can start to gain insights on their way of working. With this insight they can start to improve.

Changing habits is difficult. Moving from a command-and-control organization to Autonomous Teams might feel uncomfortable and managers might feel that they are losing power. Individuals in the organization might claim “we have always done it like this.” We take comfort in the fact that what we are doing now works in some known way. We don’t want to mess with success — just tweak it a bit. An organization can sabotage Scrum by holding on to the old ways of working. The organizational design can be at odds with Scrum principles. An example is when a Vice President demands a fixed date and scope, that creates constraints that cannot be satisfied. This likely to result in unintended consequences such as poor quality or burnout. Another example is when a project manager requests daily reports from the Development Team.

In Scrum the Development Team should be autonomous and self-organizing. There is no hierarchy within the team. This is easier said than done because prior hierarchy might still persist. A first example on organizational level is when a manager “tries to improve” the Scrum implementation, and the Development Team may elect to use a specific Scrum tracking tool which the manager uses for individual performance assessment. This thwarts the team autonomy, self-organization and may constrain the way the team works making them less effective than they could be. A second example is when a resource manager changes the team composition every Sprint trying to optimize the knowledge needed for each Sprint.

Scrum is about teamwork, but some prefer to pursue personal success instead of the team success.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. An individual can claim to be an authority on Scrum and impose their view on the teams. On the other hand everyone in the organization can claim to have the knowledge. The team members, Vice President, Project Manager and the managers respectively claim some particular practice does not violate any rules in the Scrum Guide [3] and claim compliance to Scrum. Some misunderstand the spirit, ignore the spirit or are being forced to break the spirit.

The examples above are not in contradiction with the Scrum Guide [3] but neither are they in the spirit of the Agile Manifesto and its 16 principles. [4] As Scrum is under the umbrella of these values, it is contrary to what these examples say about their organizations, on the basis of at least one principle: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support their needs, and trust them to get the job done.”


When using Scrum the product community must focus on explicitly creating a culture in the organization where people know and follow the spirit of Scrum.

Everyone working in or with a Scrum Team needs to be developing this culture by leading by example. They are inspired by the Agile Manifesto [4] and the Scrum values: commitment, focus, openness, respect and courage. [5]

✥       ✥       ✥ 

To create the culture you must be the culture, which involves deliberately breaking from old ways of thinking and acting (which themselves may be imperceptible [6]). In the examples above, the goal should be to resolve the problems within the spirit of Scrum. When starting to use the Scrum framework the team will find it challenging to work within the spirit. It will feel uncomfortable for people, and will be effortful. To overcome this challenge it is essential to have good ScrumMasters and Product Owners and to provide ongoing support. A new culture emerges, where the spirit will be inherent in the ways of working and interacting.

In Scrum and Cricket there are clear rules for the game; in both, it is essential that the spirit is a guide for the people using these rules.

The Spirit of the Game plays out in The Patron, Community of Trust, and Fertile Soil.

[1] Marylebone Cricket Club. “The Laws of Cricket.”,, 2012 (accessed 13 August 2013).

[2] —. “SA Captain told to remove hearing device that’s ‘against spirit of game.’”,, 1999 (accessed 13 August 2013).

[3] Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. “The Scrum Guide, The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game.”, (accessed 15 August 2013).

[4] Kent Beck, Mike Beedle, Arie van Bennekum, Alistair Cockburn, Ward Cunningham, Martin Fowler, ... Dave Thomas. Manifesto for Agile Software Development.,, 2001 (accessed 2 November 2017).

[5] Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle. “Scrum Values.” In Agile Software Development with Scrum (Series in Agile Software Development). London: Pearson, Oct. 2001, Chapter 9.

[6] Edgar H. Schein. Organizational Culture and Leadership, 3d ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Picture from the Book “The Spirit of Cricket: What Makes Cricket the Greatest Game on Earth,” by Rob Smyth.