This core Zen concept can help you modify your behavior.

Can an Emptty Mind Help You Adopt Scrum?
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Scrum does not fit your organization.

How could I know that Scrum does not fit you? I have not seen you practice Scrum. And I have not witnessed your successes or struggles.

I know this because Scrum was not designed to fit your organization. It does not have everything you need. Scrum requires you to add complemetary practices so that it will thrive within your organization.

Scrum is:
– Lightweight
– Simple to understand
– Difficult to Master

—The Scrum Guide

Let’s take that last aspect of Scrum: it is difficult to master. The main cause of this difficulty is the hardened norms of your organization. Your current status quo is in the way. Scrum appears not to fit when your ingrained behaviors run contrary to the Scrum Values.

Scrum is difficult to master because you refuse to let go of your existing, limiting beliefs and behaviors. Your resistance to change is the culprit behind the difficulty.

As a result, many decide to adapt Scrum to fit their organization or give up on it altogether. You know this is true when someone describes their use of Scrum to you like this:

“We use Scrum, but…”

”We have a hybrid Scrum model.”

“Scrum did not work for us, so now we use Kanban.”

“We are not purists.”

At its core, Scrum is all about empiricism. It is built on the three pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation.

This means that Scrum will shine a light on existing patterns that must change. Then, it is up to you. You must first investigate the root cause. And then, you are responsible to modify your behavior to a better, different pattern.

In other words, Scrum does not need to change. Your organization must change. You need to alter your behaviors to produce a better result. And this will change your belief over time.

But this is hard. It makes Scrum difficult to master.

The difficulty of adopting Scrum stems from the stickiness of our existing behavior. Our patterns are a routine and run on autopilot. We know what to expect, and reliable results reinforce our belief system.

And our organization relies on our typical behavior and results. As such, we become experts in our status quo. But there is an unfortunate consequence of expertise. Our expertise makes it difficult to learn something new; it blinds us.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

—Albert Einstein

I know from experience that most adoptions of Scrum go south due to a resistance to change. And most times, we don’t know we are resisting. Our minds kick into autopilot to eject the foreign element called Scrum.

So, what are we to do?

There is a Zen concept that can help. Let’s discuss the concept. Then, we will dive into how to use it to help us adopt Scrum.

The Beginner’s Mind

The Zen Concept of Shoshin—a beginner’s mind—can help us deal with change. It can help us overcome the pull of our existing status quo. And it can help us pursue continuous learning no matter how advanced we have become.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”

—Shunyru Suzuki, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”

The concept of a beginner’s mind is best explained by comparing it to an expert’s mind. Take the opposing descriptions of each below.

Figure A – Comparing the Beginner’s Mind and the Expert’s Mind

A beginner’s mind allows us to be open to new possibilities. By approaching a change with true curiosity, we can begin to open our minds to trying new behaviors. This requires putting our assumptions and current beliefs aside. Then, we can make room and let learning in.

Shoshin provides the path for lifelong learning.

Shoshin and Scrum

So Scrum is difficult to master. It is difficult because we resist change. The Zen concept of Shoshin helps us harness a beginner’s mind to counteract our resistance.

Let’s discuss five ways the beginner’s mind can help you adapt your behavior to embrace Scrum.

№1–Regain Your Sense of Wonder

When we try to predict without using learning as our guide, we lose our chance for playful curiosity. We predict upfront our customer’s needs and the best technology to use. We prescribe the best way of working as a team. And we set in stone the exact date we will deliver before we begin work. Predictive behavior limits our options and ignores the empirical process.

Product development is complex and uncertain. As such, we need to open our minds to multiple possibilities to find the “right” solution. We need to “play” with different options instead of locking into our first instinct.

Our instincts originate from our existing patterns and habits. We should try something different and break away from our instinct. Here are some ways to promote curiosity in Scrum:

  • Think of the Product Backlog items as “options” rather than a recipe to follow.
  • Set Sprint Goals combined with a flexible Sprint Backlog. Avoid forming a rigid Sprint contract or commitment of what you must deliver and how you will deliver it.
  • When solving a problem, generate at least three alternatives. Instead of picking one, try any two of these options at once and compare the results.
  • Don’t assume every team has to behave the same. Expect context-specific variation. It produces better results.

Exploring options through experimentation allows empiricism to take root. It helps form new behavior patterns.

№2–Do Not Fear Failure

We don’t like to talk about failure in the business world. Many of the companies I coach avoid the word altogether. They use the word “opportunity” or “learning” instead. This avoidance highlights our primal desire to avoid any sign of failure at work.

But the beginner’s mind sees failure as an important part of the process.

Our journey to the “right” product built “right” requires experimentation. And experiments will not always succeed. This is necessary for learning to occur; the only failure is if we do not learn.

To conquer a fear of failure, three things must occur. First, we have to have the courage to “try.” Second, we must have an environment where we feel safe to experiment. Third, we need Agile Leaders to support a learning environment, celebrating all results.

An experiment is a way to explore the unknown and assess the results. Fortunately, Scrum has many opportunities to exploit experiment feedback and learn. Here are a few:

  • Sprint Review: Discuss both good and bad outcomes of experiments. Highlight organizational impediments the team needs help solving.
  • Sprint Retrospective: Dive deep into the root cause holding you back. Move past the surface and find what needs to change to make things better. And if you need help to make the change, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
  • Daily Scrum: Highlight obstacles and impediments and address them without any further delay. And if the Sprint Backlog is not going to meet the Sprint Goal, you can pivot your Product Backlog to meet it.
  • Sprint Planning: Use a Sprint Goal and keep your Sprint Backlog flexible for meeting it. Incorporate your retrospective improvement experiment into your Sprint Backlog.

№3–Empty Your Mind

Even when you believe you know exactly what you need to do, it helps to clear your mind and be open to new possibilities.

One of the best ways to do this is to listen actively and ask probing questions. Let others talk. Constructive debate produces better results. By being open to alternate views, you open the door to team innovation and creativity.

Here are some ideas on clearing your mind in Scrum:

  • Embrace the different perspectives inside a cross-functional team. Encourage every voice to be heard.
  • Have full-team conversations around Product Backlog items during Backlog Refinement. Don’t rely on documentation in a backlog management tool.
  • Talk to your customer often, to understand their needs.
  • Embrace vulnerability and try an experiment suggested by other team members.

№4–Take Small Steps and Iterate

A beginner’s mind is eager to learn. Small steps are necessary to feed information to the learning process. When embarking on a new, uncertain experience, choose a small experiment. This will promote rapid feedback and allow for frequent adjustment.

Scrum has many ways to embrace small steps and promote iteration. Here are a few:

  • Choose a shorter Sprint length. This reduces the complexity of your Sprint increment and increases feedback.
  • Check your progress toward your Sprint Goal during each Daily Scrum. Adjust course as needed to meet it.
  • Use the Sprint Review to reflect on your progress toward your product vision. Adjust the course as necessary.
  • Use the Sprint Retrospective to reflect on how you are working as a team. Select one thing to improve. Then, experiment daily to realize the improvement in the next Sprint.
  • Use Backlog Refinement to assess and adjust options for meeting your Product Goals. As your product emerges, the options in your Product Backlog should evolve.

№5–Break Existing Rules

When we use Scrum, areas for improvement stand out. When our old behavior stands in the way of delivering value, our instinct is to hide or protect the old behavior. We fear highlighting our own existing behavior habits as a problem.

Instead of masking the existing behavior, we must be transparent about it. And then we must have the courage to change the existing rules. Rather than changing Scrum’s rules, we should change the status quo of our organization.

This takes courage from the Scrum Team. And it requires support from Agile Leadership.

Here are some common examples of rules that often need changing:

  • A Scrum Team’s work has dependencies on other teams.
  • A centralized review committee has to review and approve the work.
  • Team leads manage the work of the Scrum Team.
  • The Scrum Team must create comprehensive documentation that is rarely or never used.
  • Only the data team can modify the datastore.
  • An outdated checklist must be filled out because it always has been.
  • Only the experienced team members can estimate.
  • Only the testing team can test.
  • Another team or person prioritizes and plans the Scrum Team’s work.

Does This Mean Adopting Scrum Will Now Be Easy?

I wish this was a silver bullet; it is not. A beginner’s mind can provide the proper mindset for letting change take flight. But it requires grit on your part to practice a beginner’s mind and to make the change happen.

With Shoshin, you will be able to better acclimate to change when you are pursuing Scrum. And you will find it easier to try new things. Being mindful during your change journey will reap great returns.

Scrum is simple. Leave it alone. But do the hard work to make a place for Scrum. Change your status quo with Zen—have a beginner’s mind.


  1. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, Shunryu Suzuki, Published by Weatherhill, 1970 ↩

Also published in Serious Scrum on Medium.

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