I saw an interesting article, outlining the use of the speech form Subject-Verb-Object, Present Tense, recommending:

“I congratulate the writers who write articles for free.” 


“The people who write articles for free are to be congratulated.” 

Having spent a long time in my twenties writing copy for direct marketing, exhibitions, tourist attractions and websites, I know the SVO-p form is immediately impactful and very powerful in relaying information. It’s also surprisingly hard to write for most educated people in the UK: educated writing is assumed (see, even I’m doing it) to be in the passive voice; educated writers use it instinctively and have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, away from it.

So far so positive. But the article goes beyond that, promoting it as the default mode of communication for Scrum:

Responsible action in the present moment is consistent with Scrum values. For example, in daily Scrums it is the responsibility of the ScrumMaster to make immediate decisions in the present rather than deferring decision-making into the non-existent future. Likewise, in Scrum there is an emphasis on learning empirically, in the present, while avoiding making any specific predictions about the future. In this sense, Scrum and SVO-p are a perfect match.

The use of SVO-p by Scrum practitioners actively supports the success of Scrum in the present.

I notice that Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle, co-authors of the book Agile Software Development with Scrum, write in nearly 100% SVO-p. The entire book except for a small part is written in SVO-p. This makes total sense, because the SVO-p form is consistent with the beliefs, values and behaviors of authentic Scrum. It is therefore no surprise that the original and most experienced practitioners of the art of Scrum use SVO-p as the preferred syntax for communicating the essentials of it. SVO-p is a very natural, nearly automatic fit with Scrum.

I’m not sure of this logical leap at all. It brings to mind a story of Rudolf Steiner I once heard: he had his students locked outside his lecture theatre while he tied his shoelace. When challenged about this, he responded “It’s so they don’t take my shoe-tying as a doctrinal instruction”

Yes, SVO-p is a great way of writing for powerfully communicating ideas. But it’s a very large step to use this as a doctrinal instruction for every mode of communication.

Something else bothered me about this too. The focus on individual responsibility. From one point of view, I perfectly understand that this is a derivation of the idea of empowered individuals owning their own work, which has a lot of positives going for it. But adopting that as a norm is very much culturally specific, both in terms of method and national culture.

The use of SVO-p in Scrum, therefore, might not be optional. SVO-p is the best syntax available for communicating very directly in English [My emphasis]. I wonder if one of the foul “Scrum Smells” is the avoidance of SVO-p syntax when communicating about current Scrum projects… 

It is my belief that if you are really a candidate for a role in an authentic Scrum project, then you are ready for implementing your communications in SVO-p… Scrum and SVO-p confront reality, identify the subject, and assign responsibility. 

This focus on the heroic individual striving and succeeding or failing on their own is very much a Western (and indeed American) construct, and is by no means universal. Other cultures — particularly Eastern cultures based on more collective values — would struggle at a deep level to work and think in this way. If you’re predicating the success of your method on local cultural norms, then at best you have a local optimisation.

I also contrast this focus on individual success or failure with Lean values, where there is a holistic team and system focus. While of course individual poor performance can bring bad results for everyone, the focus is on end to end systemic improvement rather than narrow optimisations within the system. As Deming noted:

A bad system will beat a good person every time

Of course this too has a national cultural element, resonating strongly with collectivist cultures.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Agile methods evolved in the West, while Lean ones first took hold in the East. I also wonder how compatible Lean and Agile values are, and whether anyone claiming to be both Lean and Agile beyond shallow tool usage isn’t in for a harder time reconciling the two cultures than they expect.

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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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