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Better Scrum through Essence

Key Takeaways

  • Scrum is simple but hard to master. Teams need more help to achieve the full benefits of Scrum.
  • The freely available Essence Scrum Essentials practice family can help teams to focus and improve their Scrum.
  • Essence cards and games can help bring training courses and retrospectives to life. 
  • Essence cards and games can help teams to configure and set up their Scrums.
  • Once the essentials are in place additional practices can help teams take their Scrum to the next level.


Recently I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with Dr Jeff Sutherland on the creation of a family of Essence practices to help teams master Scrum and Scrum@Scale. The results are a family of practices - Scrum Foundations, Scrum Essentials, Scrum Accelerator, Scrum of Scrum Essentials and Executive Scrum - that are freely available in both a physical and electronic format.

A key element of any Essence Practice are the practices cards that capture the essence of the practice: such as the things to achieve, the things to do, the things to produce and patterns of behavior. A selection of the cards from the three core Scrum Practices are shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1: A selection of cards from the Scrum Essentials practice

Figure 2: A Selection of cards from the Scrum Foundation and Scrum Accelerator practices

Given that the Scrum Guide is an effective, succinct and freely available description of Scrum, it’s interesting to reflect on why Jeff has spent so much of his valuable time on this endeavour.

As Jeff recently commented on a LinkedIn thread, discussing the need for Scrum Masters, “58% of Agile teams (conservatively) are late, over budget, with unhappy customers. We have data on thousands of companies showing this.” Now as Scrum is by far the most popular team-level agile practice it is fair to assume that many of these teams are applying Scrum.

So why is this? Are they failing because Scrum is fundamentally flawed, or because they are just not applying it properly? Are they just using Scrum in the wrong context? Would they be better off using an alternative work management practice? Or are they just doing Scrum badly?

As a coach for over 30 years, I have seen 1,000s of teams applying 100s of practices, and it’s fair to say that whenever a particular practice becomes popular there will be more bad applications than good. This is as true today with Agile practices as it was when I started coaching Object Oriented Design.  

So, this isn’t a problem unique to Scrum – it equally applies to Kanban, Use Cases, User Stories, SAFe, LeSS, Spotify, XP or anything else that has ‘crossed the chasm’ and gone beyond adoption by innovators and enthusiastic early adopters.

As the Scrum Guide used to say, “Scrum is lightweight, simple to understand and difficult to master”, which for many people means two days to learn and a lifetime to master. Although for those teams doing Scrum badly it might be truer to say 2 days to learn, 2 months to screw up, and 2 years to abandon. Sadly, they then just move on to another practice that they will again fail to master.

Teams don’t fail with Scrum because of the training (generally very high quality) or even the coaching (although the quality here is much more variable) but because mastering Scrum and other agile practices is hard.

This is where Essence comes in – its primary goal is to make practices easier to master – and why Jeff has been so supportive of the efforts to essentialize Scrum.

Essence – Bringing Practices to Life

Essence is an OMG standard intended to make practices easier to share and apply. It is intended to free practices, teams and organizations from their self-created method prisons and allow teams to take full ownership of their way-of-working.

It provides both:

  • A language for describing executable, composable practices – a textual and graphical notation for capturing the essence of a practice, and
  • A software engineering kernel – a map of the territory that defines the key concepts of software engineering in an actionable fashion and supports the composition of practices into more comprehensive ways-of-working.

In Essence practices are described in an actionable, lightweight form using the language (for representation) and the kernel (for context). The result is a set of cards, checklists and, where necessary, additional guidance. The latter is only needed where the source materials for the practice are out of print or generally inaccessible to the practice users.

The process of taking an existing practice and representing it in Essence is called Essentialization. The evolution of the Essence Scrum practices provides a great example of what this entails and how it adds value.

We start with the Scrum Guide – this is a good place to start as it really focusses on the essential rules of Scrum.  Usually, the most challenging part of any essentialization is reaching agreement about what parts of the practice are truly essential.  Jeff and Ken have really helped by focussing on stripping everything non-essential away and making the Scrum Guide smaller and more focussed with each release.

We then map the essential elements of Scrum into the language and onto the kernel, and then fill in any gaps needed to make the emerging practice executable from an Essence perspective. In the case of the Scrum Essentials this first led to 21 cards and then some refactoring to place more focus on the Scrum Values themselves as the foundation of Scrum.

From a methodologist’s point of view the process of Essentialization is fascinating. As well as identifying what elements of a practice are truly essential, it requires the adoption of a standard taxonomy for the elements of the practice, the identification of the progressable elements, the separation of outcomes from outputs and the filling in of any gaps. It doesn’t require any rewriting of the source materials or changing of the practice itself. The Scrum Essentials practice accurately reflects and complements the Scrum Guide – it doesn’t replace it.

Once the Essentials have been established popular extensions can also be created. An example of this is the Scrum Accelerator practice, which extends Scrum Essentials with a set of patterns that are proven to produce hyper-productive Scrum Teams but are 1) not essential to the successful application of Scrum, 2) are not the only options that can be applied, and 3) are often only applicable once the essentials are in place.

The great thing about Essence is that once a practice has been ‘essentialized’ then it can be used without any need to learn the inner workings of the language. As Mahesh Jade, an attendee at one of our Essence workshops said - The cards and games were “…something that really caught the depth of each thing without participants having to know excessive Essence theory. The focus was on the application of it - in the group we related this to driving a car, yet not really needing to know how it is built.” 

Better Scrum Through Essence

So how does Essence help you master a practice, and more importantly, how do the Scrum Practices (the Scrum Foundation, Scrum Essentials and the Scrum Accelerator) and potentially the Essence Kernel help you to master Scrum?

First an anecdote from Jeff Sutherland – ‘The VP of one of the biggest banks in the country [USA] said recently: “I have 300 product owners and only three were delivering. The other 297 were not delivering”. And, he said, “I checked on where the three that were delivering, where they got the right way of working. They went to your class. So, you need to tell me what you are doing differently.” I said, “What we are doing differently is using Ivar’s work with Essence to really clarify to people what is working, what is not working, what you need to do next to improve things.”

By using Essence on many Scrum Master courses we (Jeff, I and others) have also observed that of the 21 components of the original Scrum Essentials, the average team implements 1/3 of them well, 1/3 of them poorly and 1/3 of them not at all. With that level and quality of implementation it is not surprising that we are not always seeing the full potential that Scrum offers.

At the heart of getting better Scrum through Essence are the use of the Scrum Foundation, the Scrum Essentials and the Scrum Accelerator practices to play games, facilitate events and drive team improvements.

Assessing Scrum and its Values

The best way to get started is to use the cards (either directly or as tokens on an electronic white board) to self-assess 1) the value and usefulness of the elements of Scrum and 2) how well the team is living the values and pillars that under-pin Scrum.

The cards are great for facilitating this kind of self-reflection – in person they provide a tactile version of Scrum for the team members to engage with whilst electronically they summarize each element as an aide memoire and glossary for the team members.

Figures 3 and 4 show a team assessing their implementation of Scrum and their living of the Scrum Values.

Figure 3: Assessing a team’s Scrum using the Scrum Essential Cards in Miro

Figure 4: A team assessing how they are living the Scrum Values (with a close up of one of the value cards).

Adding games to your toolkit

In addition to the two games shown above there are lots of games that can be played to brighten up training events, help teams to customize their Scrum implementation and generate new insight during retrospectives.

These include:

  • Pick a Card
  • Practice Mapping
  • Build your own Scrum
  • Build your own calendar
  • Build your own Kanban Board
  • Role of an Artifact / The focus of an Event
  • Chartering a Team / Role Clarification
  • Contract Bridge / Customer - Supplier
  • What Scales?
  • What’s missing?
  • Exploring your agile bubble
  • And many more

With Essence practitioners coming up with new games and gaming mechanisms all the time. Figure 5 shows how one ‘games master’ has even implemented some of the games in a spread sheet.  

Figure 5: Essence Gaming in Excel


Gaming in this way is incredibly powerful, the response to even a simple game such as ‘Build Your Own Scrum’ can be transformational:

One participant in this exercise using the Scrum cards said he learned more about Scrum in one hour with the Essence cards than he did in the previous six years of being on a Scrum team.

 – Dr. Jeff Sutherland

For more general information on using Essence games to improve your teams Scrum see the ACM Queue article “Scrum Essentials Cards: Experiences of Scrum Teams Improving with Essence”.

Going beyond Scrum Essentials with the Scrum Accelerator and other Essence Practices

The Scrum Guide provides the basis for all Scrum implementations – it covers the rules of the game. Over the 25 years or more Scrum has been practiced in the field we have seen the emergence of many practices that teams can use to boost their agility and their performance. This includes practices such as ‘point-based estimation’, ‘user stories’ and many other generally accepted Scrum practices. Now, although widely accepted these practices are not essential – there are credible alternatives to all these practices (for example, some teams use use cases as opposed to user stories) many of which are context dependent.

The goal of Essence is to capture these as additional Essence practices that teams can compose into the Scrum framework as, and when, they are ready to experiment with them.

As part of the essentialization work undertaken with Jeff we have developed a Scrum Accelerator practice that captures his favorite patterns for generating ‘hyper-productive’ Scrum Teams. Again, this is freely available and forms the basis for a number of games. Figure 6 shows the results of a team assessing the applicability of the patterns and deciding when and where to use them.

Figure 6: A team assessing the relevance of the Scrum Accelerator Patterns and when to use them (with a close up of a couple of the pattern cards).

Using the Essence Kernel to understand your context

There are also ways to use Essence directly to help your team improve. The Essence Kernel supports a number of games that can help teams understand where they are and analyze any gaps in their way-of-working.

These include:

  • Chase the State
  • Lifecycle Layout / Checkpoint Construction
  • Wayof-Working SWOT
  • Practice Composition
  • Team Competency Profiling

And many others.

This is a topic that is more fully explored in Agile and SEMAT: Perfect Partners paper published back in 2013. Figure 7 shows a team using the Kernel to see where they are by playing Chase the State, and where they should be by looking at a Lifecycle Layout.

Figure 7: A team using the Essence Kernel to play ‘chase the state’ and ‘lifecycle layout’

To access the cards and get more information on how to play these games go to

Onwards and Upwards

Imagine a world where all practices had been essentialized – everything we’ve discussed here could be taken to the next level where we mix, match and even compose ‘cards’ from different practices. All the Scrum games mentioned above can be played with any practice and there are even games to help you understand how practices fit together and complement one another.

All the Scrum practices mentioned here are freely available in pdf form or can be browsed electronically (or you could follow the QR code in Figure2).

To find out more about Essence games and to continue your essence journey please visit

About the Author

Ian Spence is the Chief Scientist at Ivar Jacobson International where he spends his time coaching the teams working on some of the world’s largest and most technically challenging endeavours - such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, building the world's largest radio telescope to explore the Universe - and working with industry thought leaders such as Dean Leffingwell, Dr Jeff Sutherland, Dr Ivar Jacobson to improve the art of software development. He led the creation of the OMG’s Essence Kernel and many of the most popular Essence Practices.

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