How did we end up in 2023 with a set of standard terms for agile ways of working that don’t really make any sense?
I’m talking about the language introduced in Scrum which has become the standard for most agile teams. Terms like Product, Product Owner, and Scrum Master. And backlogs.
Most of us have grown so familiar with these terms from Scrum that we don’t see the concern. However, when I am working with new agile teams, they always have questions about these odd-sounding terms. These terms mean other things to these people.
Could we please change to a more standard set of terms?
How The Scrum Terms Became Pervasive
Most people know that Scrum was created in 1995 by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. Though not the first agile framework, today it is the most popular agile framework with roughly 80% of respondents claiming to use Scrum or a Scrum hybrid.
Since 2010, Sutherland and Schwaber have co-authored the Scrum Guide, which is considered the definitive guide to the Scrum Framework. This is where you will find the terms that I think need to change. (Those of you who are using the ScrumBOK from ScrumStudy should stop reading now, this does not apply to you.)
The Scrum Framework came with a set of terms that have since become pervasive. The terms represent things that are different than what they sound.
I don’t blame Sutherland and Schwaber. The terms kinda work in Scrum. But they are terrible for teams using Kanban, Disciplined Agile, SAFe and other approaches who have adopted these terms.
Let’s roll through the ones that I find problematic.
Let’s start with Product. There are some teams using Scrum that are actually delivering a product. But there are just as many others who are building a solution, service, or maintaining an application. There are also teams using Scrum to deliver Marketing solutions or organize their sales teams.
So why do we use the word product rather than solution?
The term product is only slightly better than the word project. Thankfully Schwaber abandoned the earlier reference to “project” that he used in his 2004 book, Agile Project Management with Scrum.
The challenge is, once you start with the word product, you spawn other issues. Like Product Owner and Product Backlog.
The term Product Owner is problematic. Some people in the PO role actually do “own” a “product”. But most people with the title don’t. They are simply there to prioritize the feature list. They are not able to own anything at all.
And how is a Product Owner different or the same as the industry-standard term – Product Manager? Why should we have two terms that mean very similar things, setting up situations where they conflict in organizations?
Unfortunately, the term Product Owner is now widely adopted in other frameworks like Kanban. On the surface, Kanban doesn’t include any roles (Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities and titles). Most people who adopt Kanban find themselves using the Product Owner title. This even happens for teams that are providing operational support, fixing bugs, or doing anything other than building a product. It could be the department manager that is setting the priorities but we still call her a Product Owner. Why?
What should we call this role instead? The Prioritizer. The Decider. The Sponsor.
Then there is the term Product Backlog. I have two issues with this term, Product and Backlog.
I already mentioned that product is a misnomer since many teams aren’t building products.
Why do we need to use the word backlog? It makes it sound like we are already behind.
Why not call it what it is – a list of desirable features? Or simply a Features List?
The term backlog just sounds negative.
Most of us have lived with this term for a while and don’t give it a second thought. But for someone new to agile, being told to “SPRINT” is not comforting. Oh no, here comes the Product Owner, we had better get sprinting.
Sprints and sprinting are not great terms for the timeboxed iteration. Sprinting and sustainable pace are incongruent. Full stop.
Why not simply use iteration? It was already a term used for this concept when Scrum was being dreamt up.
It’s like what Steve Martin said about the French – they have a different word for everything!
Boy, those French! They have a different word for everything.
– Steve Martin
We don’t need new words for the same old things. It only confuses.
Yes I also have an issue with the term sprint backlog. As stated, I don’t like sprint.
Why is it a Sprint Backlog?
The sprint backlog is created during the Scrum event called Sprint Planning. So why the hell are we calling it a Sprint Backlog?
Why not just call it what it is – a sprint plan. It is a plan for the sprint. Drop the backlog!
Why call the daily meeting a daily Scrum? Why not just call it a daily meeting?
Have you ever heard someone refer to the scrums? Happens frequently with people new to Scrum. It always makes me cringe.
Sometimes when someone says “the scrums”, what they mean are the sprints. Sometimes they mean the scrum teams. Rarely has someone said the scrums to mean the daily meetings.
Now let’s get right to the point on this. Calling the role a Scrum Master came with it all sorts of baggage. And the arms race of agile certifications hasn’t helped.
The Scrum Master is rarely a master of anything. Sure they could be after training and perhaps 10,000 hours of experience. But they certainly aren’t after a 2-day training course. So why continue to use the term Scrum Master?
Simply having “master” as part of the term also calls to mind an unfortunate history of slavery in the US. That’s why the main bedroom in a home is now called the “primary” or the “owners”, rather than Master Bedroom.
Why not simply call them a team guide or team coach?
If you don’t like coach, what term do you like? You could pick any of the 25 different terms people use to explain Scrum Master to others because on its surface, the term Scrum Master doesn’t mean anything to people. Do you like sheepdog, gardener, firefighter or race-car mechanic any better?
It gets even messier in Kanban. I already pointed out that there are no roles in Kanban. That said, most teams use the unhelpful term Scrum Master to refer to the person who coaches the team in Kanban. It doesn’t fit. Who cares if you are a Master of Scrum (whatever that means) if you are working with a Kanban Team? Do we need a Kanban Master instead? No.
This is why I feel that coach is a better word. It is more descriptive and it fits better with other agile approaches.
I think the Disciplined Agile guys really effed up when they decided to use Scrum Master for their certification. It started with Disciplined Agile Lean Scrum Master (DALSM), which is a mouthful. When I would drop that at cocktail parties, people would slowly walk away backwards.
PMI changed the term from Disciplined Agile Lean Scrum Master when they bought Disciplined Agile back in 2019. I don’t think it helped much since they created the Disciplined Agile Scrum Master and Disciplined Agile Senior Scrum Master designations.[See my related post about Disciplined Agile – PMI is Quietly Killing Disciplined Agile]
My final requested change is to the name of the framework itself.
Yeah, Scrum. It should go even though it is pervasive and would be difficult to change.
Scrum is a term from a game called Rugby. What do modern agile teams have to do with Rugby? Is it because they both use teams? It couldn’t be since there are many other sports that include teams like baseball, football, hockey, and basketball.
So why did choose Scrum from Rugby?
My Proposal for Standard Scrum Terms
I am not one to criticize without offering a solution for relevant scrum terms. Neither Schwaber or Sutherland has asked for my input, but I am offering it just the same.
I would have the following three roles in Scrum (and yes I would revert back to role from accountabilities):
- Coach or Guide
I would have the following 3 artifacts:
- Features List
- Iteration Plan
I would have the following Events:
- Iteration Planning
- Daily Meeting
- Iteration Review
- Feature List Refinement
These scrum terms can work if you are using Scrum, Kanban and even if you want to use Disciplined Agile.
There are plenty of misnomers in the agile world. I agree with you on the term sprint (which is non-sensical as it’s a short burst of energy after which you are doubled over, gasping for breath). I wrote this article on the topic using marathon running as a metaphor http://runningmann.co.za/2021/04/08/its-a-jog-not-a-sprint/
I would also add the term “developers” to the change backlog, I mean feature list. 🙂
Many people read ‘developers’ as people who write code (I know that’s not the intention but that’s how many people interpret the term) and it also causes the perception that scrum is just for software development. I like to use the term ‘athletes’ for team members as they are the ‘on the field of play’ and are the only people who can score us goals, win us medals, etc.
Thank you Stuart, I completely agree about developer as well. I cannot believe I overlooked that one!
“I would have the following three roles in Scrum:” There are no roles anymore in Scrum 😉
Thank you Frank. I’d like to add “accountabilities” to my list of Scrum terms that need to change.
Let’s use the term ROLES instead.
Just a thought.
Thank you for taking the time to comment!
It doesn’t really matter what you call these events so long as each event is actionable while delivering incremental value to the customers.
Though, I prefer the roles to have equal responsibility, the term Product Owner is a perfect name for what the role implies. However, most of the larger companies continue with their traditional project planning methodology notably PMI (DA) using agile terminology as well as SAFe, a notably bloated framework.
Structurally, to maximise agility in these companies is to invert the corporate structure such that the teams are the focal point while external groups support those teams. ie Product Managers (whatever that really means) would perform research based on team needs rather than steering the teams. The inside-out approach gives agency to the teams as they should be the closest to their customers.
Lastly, the term scrum in rugby does not equate to other sports teams. Scrum is a meta team within rugby team solely involved in scrum downs which are given based on infringements. Originally used because a scrum has 8 players while the entire has rugby team consists of 15 players. Though, some coaches advocate more team members, I’ll always advocate for a maximum of 9 team members for products and less for support. As you well know, the more communication points, the less effective a team is.
Great read Anthony! One thing I am struggling with right now is what to call my Scrum Masters (current title) who are not Scrum Masters to specific teams but who coach and train over 50 teams along with creating training materials, facilitate large scale problem solutioning meetings, and manage our six week releases.
Hi Al, thanks for joining the discussion. I don’t have a recommendation for you though I see a lot of “Agile Program Manager” roles today and many of them do the things that you are describing. It is not a great fit but it is better than Scrum Master :).
Great article. I would only argue with the term ‘coach’. As both an agile and professional business coach I know, that we do coaching only about 10% of our daily work as agile coaches/ scrum masters. If you’d like to refer to training, agile trainer would be more precise. What do you think?
Hi Anita, I think you are right that coach may not be a great term. Coach was used in XP though a coach in that context was an experienced developer.
My esteemed colleague Tom Cagley prefers to use the term “guide”. I like this a little better than trainer or coach. What do you think?