Learning the Scrum values through Aesop’s fables

Scrum Values Mar 16, 2020

Decipher and remember the Scrum values through ancient Greek nuggets of Wisdom

Becoming more proficient at living the Scrum values is essential to make Scrum work. By embodying the Scrum values, the three pillars of empiricism: transparency, inspection, and adaptation, come to life.

But what does it mean to act according to the Scrum values? How do we know our behavior is compatible with these values?

Portrait of Aesop by Velázquez

Aesop, the Greek slave and storyteller, is believed to have created 725 fables more than 2500 years ago. Every fable tells a witty story with an important moral at the end. Aesop’s fables have stood the test of time and contain excellent examples of what it means to live by the Scrum values.

For each of the five Scrum values: courage, respect, focus, openness, and commitment, I have selected a fitting fable to illustrate the meaning of that value.

All fables and illustrations in this article were published by Milo Winter in 1925 and are now in the public domain. The only exception is ‘The Ape and the Two Travelers’, which was published by George Townsend in 1867 and is part of the public domain as well.

Courage — Belling the Cat

The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.

Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last, a very young Mouse got up and said:

“I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful.

All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”

All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said:

“I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?”

It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.

For the mice, belling the cat is a tough problem that, if someone had the guts to do it, grants clear benefits. The tale illustrates the necessity of courage to change the status quo. The mice live in fear of the cat. To better protect themselves from the cat, they need to overcome that fear.

It is not enough to come up with an idea to change the current way of working. There needs to be enough courage to address the matter and pull through with it. When courage is lacking to step up and take action, nothing will change.

The Scrum Team members have courage to do the right thing and work on tough problems. — Scrum Guide

Scrum requires courage because significant change can only happen by overcoming resistance that exists within yourself and pressed upon you by your surroundings. Without courage, you end up doing what you did before with a slight twist.

Respect — The Lion & the Mouse

A Lion lay asleep in the forest, his great head resting on his paws. A timid little Mouse came upon him unexpectedly, and in her fright and haste to get away, ran across the Lion’s nose. Roused from his nap, the Lion laid his huge paw angrily on the tiny creature to kill her.

“Spare me!” begged the poor Mouse. “Please let me go and someday I will surely repay you.”

The Lion was much amused to think that a Mouse could ever help him. But he was generous and finally let the Mouse go.

Some days later, while stalking his prey in the forest, the Lion was caught in the toils of a hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he filled the forest with his angry roaring. The Mouse knew the voice and quickly found the Lion struggling in the net. Running to one of the great ropes that bound him, she gnawed it until it parted, and soon the Lion was free.

“You laughed when I said I would repay you,” said the Mouse. “Now you see that even a Mouse can help a Lion.”

The lion laughed at the timid little mouse. The lion could not imagine any situation where the puny mouse would be able to repay him.

Scrum Team members respect each other to be capable, independent people. — Scrum Guide

This lack of respect could have cost the lion’s life. If the mouse were petty and spiteful, the lion would have surely been captured. The mouse was grudgeless and decided to spare the lion. As a result, the lion has a new-found respect for the mouse.

Focus — Boy & the Hazelnuts

Image by lloorraa

A Boy was given permission to put his hand into a pitcher to get some hazelnuts. But he took such a great fistful that he could not draw his hand out again. There he stood, unwilling to give up a single hazelnut and yet unable to get them all out at once. Vexed and disappointed he began to cry.

“My boy,” said his mother, “be satisfied with half the nuts you have taken and you will easily get your hand out. Then perhaps you may have some more hazelnuts some other time.”

The little boy wants to grab all hazelnuts and refuses to change his initial choice. He accepts nothing less than all hazelnuts. As a result, he doesn’t get any at all.

Everyone focuses on the work of the Sprint and the goals of the Scrum Team. — Scrum Guide

Like the boy, we need to make choices and apply focus. There are always countless ideas and opportunities, but which ones are truly worth pursuing? That’s what we must try to figure out. We must eliminate any distractions and single-mindedly direct our attention toward the goals that matter to achieve the best results.

Openness — The Apes and the Two Travelers

Two men, one who always spoke the truth and the other who told nothing but lies, were traveling together and by chance came to the land of Apes. One of the Apes, who had raised himself to be king, commanded them to be seized and brought before him, that he might know what was said of him among men.

He ordered at the same time that all the Apes be arranged in a long row on his right hand and on his left, and that a throne be placed for him, as was the custom among men. After these preparations he signified that the two men should be brought before him, and greeted them with this salutation: “What sort of a king do I seem to you to be, O strangers?’

The Lying Traveler replied, “You seem to be a most mighty king.” “And what is your estimate of those you see around me?’ “These,” he made answer, “are worthy companions of yourself, fit at least to be ambassadors and leaders of armies.” The Ape and all his court, gratified with the lie, commanded that a handsome present be given to the flatterer.

On this the truthful Traveler thought to himself, “If so great a reward be given for a lie, with what gift may not I be rewarded, if, according to my custom, I tell the truth?’ The Ape quickly turned to him. “And pray how do I and these my friends around me seem to you?’ “Thou art,” he said, “a most excellent Ape, and all these thy companions after thy example are excellent Apes too.” The King of the Apes, enraged at hearing these truths, gave him over to the teeth and claws of his companions.

The lying traveler told the ape what he wanted to hear instead of telling the truth. The lie did not change the reality that a king of apes, is still an ape. The truthful traveler decided to be open about the reality and by doing so revealed the true and brutal nature of the apes.

The Scrum Team and its stakeholders agree to be open about all the work and the challenges with performing the work. — Scrum Guide

The reality of a situation may be a bitter pill to swallow, but we must not sugar coat our observations to the extent that the reality of what we observe becomes obscured. Reality harbors its own clouds and you can never observe it directly. By supplementing reality with more fog we may impede the ability to act upon the true nature of the situation.

Commitment — The Hare and the Tortoise

A Hare was making fun of the Tortoise one day for being so slow.

“Do you ever get anywhere?” he asked with a mocking laugh.

“Yes,” replied the Tortoise, “and I get there sooner than you think. I’ll run you a race and prove it.”

The Hare was much amused at the idea of running a race with the Tortoise, but for the fun of the thing, he agreed. So the Fox, who had consented to act as judge, marked the distance and started the runners off.

The Hare was soon far out of sight, and to make the Tortoise feel very deeply how ridiculous it was for him to try a race with a Hare, he lay down beside the course to take a nap until the Tortoise should catch up.

The Tortoise meanwhile kept going slowly but steadily, and, after a time, passed the place where the Hare was sleeping. But the Hare slept on very peacefully; and when at last he did wake up, the Tortoise was near the goal. The Hare now ran his swiftest, but he could not overtake the Tortoise in time.

Everybody is familiar with this tale in some form or the other. The hare did not see the tortoise as a worthy opponent and therefore, was not committed to the race. In the hare’s head, the race was already over before it even started.

People personally commit to achieving the goals of the Scrum Team. — Scrum Guide

The tortoise knew the only way he could win is by staying committed to the race and keep plodding on. Lack of commitment is what lost the hare the race.

Aesop’s fables help bring the Scrum values to life

The simple writing and minimalism of Aesop’s fables is what makes them so memorable. The oral tradition that was practiced back then, forced the stories to have a simple core, otherwise they would fail at being passed on to others.

The Scrum Guide is not very descriptive, laying out each value in a single sentence with a dry tone. The fables of Aesop help bring them to life and assist in memorizing the values that underpin these stories.

The key to living these values is not only to understand them, but to use them in action. As eloquently expressed by Aesop:

Example is better than precept — Aesop

It is better to do good as an example than to give advice to others. Aesop illustrates this advice with the following final story about a young crab with his mother:

“Why in the world do you walk sideways like that?” said a Mother Crab to her son. “You should always walk straight forward with your toes turned out.”

“Show me how to walk, mother dear,” answered the little Crab obediently, “I want to learn.”

So the old Crab tried and tried to walk straight forward. But she could walk sideways only, like her son. And when she wanted to turn her toes out she tripped and fell on her nose.

Moral of the story: do not tell others how to act unless you set a good example yourself.