Scrum and SVO-p


Scrum is unique in that the management method is consistently direct. All communication in authentic Scrum is concise, direct and clear. Scrum encourages responsibility. The daily stand-up meeting actively encourages personal responsibility to execute on specific work, and to be accountable to the Team. The three questions of Scrum are questions related to accountability for specific commitments.

Each of Scrum's three roles have clearly defined responsibility for a set of very specific tasks. The Product Owner, for example, is required to gather requirements, place them on the Backlog, and prioritize them. The Team is required to pull the topmost N items from the Backlog to load a Sprint, to attend the daily Scrum, and so on. Each role in Scrum takes responsibility for a specific set of tasks. Scrum roles and ceremonies actively encourage responsibility.

Language directly influences thinking and perception. Syntax that is consistently direct encourages responsibility and clear thinking. Indirect forms of syntax can often obscure the subject and encourage the dodging of direct responsibility. Avoiding responsibility is in direct conflict with Scrum values of Commitment and Focus. Indirect forms of verbal communication are therefore not in alignment with Scrum values. Indirect verbal forms do not support Scrum.

I believe that SVO-p can be very profitably incorporated into the Scrum methodology. SVO-p stands for Subject-Verb-Object, Present Tense.

SVO-p is a syntax. It is a style of communication in which you always know who is responsible for an action. SVO-p is an active form that encourages clear thinking and candid, direct communication. SVO-p can help clarify your thinking.

Communicating in SVO-p requires definition of who is acting, what they are doing and to whom. It requires placing the thought in the present; that is, "in the now". Speakers and writers who actively dodge responsibility often choose the past tense and the future tense for expressing thoughts. Politicians, for example, often assign blame to past events, while making promises about the future.

SVO-p brings clarity to communication, and directly affects thinking through the constraint of language syntax.


Non SVO-p

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

This sentence puts the congratulations out in the non-existing future and also hides the identity of the congratulator.


"I congratulate the writers who write articles for free."

This sentence in SVO-p identifies the user and places the action in the now.

Non SVO-p

"I've yet to meet anyone who has given me a straight answer."

This sentence places the action in the future and obscures the object of the sentence. It also places the giving of ‘straight answers' in the past.


"People don't give me straight answers."

In this SVO-p sentence, ‘People' are acting on ‘me' in the now, by not giving straight answers.

You may find that speaking in SVO-p is difficult at first. You may also find that the use of the SVO-p syntax can be contagious. When you use it, others often tend to naturally speak back to you in SVO-p.

SVO-p is particularly well suited for use during Scrum communications, because SVO-p is consistent and supports the Scrum values: Commitment, Focus, Openness, Respect, and Courage.

SVO-p discourages "passive voice". Passive forms tend to conceal the subject and avoid responsibility. This is a problem because of a much higher likelihood that the receiver of the message may misunderstand the statement. The use of active voice in the present tense supports immediate action in the present moment. The subject-verb-object form tends to support direct and clearly articulated responsibility.

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 now 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 now.

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 very tiny minority of the writing 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.

When you start experimenting with SVO-p in verbal communications, you find that it is necessary to speak in simple and direct (SVO) terms. You find that speaking in the present tense keeps you in the now, and tends to clarify your thinking. SVO-p strongly supports an empirical approach to work and problem-solving by focusing attention in the present moment, and making perfectly clear who is acting, and upon what

The use of SVO-p strongly supports the reception of interactive loops of Scrum feedback in the present. This property of SVO-p tends to support the reception of feedback over the development and acceptance of "predictions" regarding the non-existent future. The use of present tense focuses attention "in the now". The simple Subject-Verb-Object syntax is clear and direct. If you are speaking in a future tense, you find it easy to make predictions about the future. If you are speaking in the present tense, you find it easier to pay attention to what is happening now. This supports the essence of Scrum: empiricism, or "learning by observation"

SVO-p maximizes focus on the present, at the expense of the past and future. Scrum methods identify, acknowledge and directly confront the reality of complex software development. 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. 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. Give it a try. If it feels uncomfortable, the discomfort may be about the difficulty of making fuzzy, indirect statements in SVO-p. You cannot easily make such statements in the SVO-p syntax. SVO-p identifies the subject, makes the action clear, and assigns responsibility for the action in the present moment. The directness of SVO-p is the greatest strength of the form. SVO-p supports the Scrum value of Openness by strongly encouraging clarity in each and every sentence.

Scrum and SVO-p confront reality, identify the subject, and assign responsibility. Scrum depends on interactive feedback in the now, and SVO-p supports that interactive feedback by focusing attention on the present moment.

I welcome your feedback about the use of SVO-p in actual Scrum practice. I am eager to learn about your experiences implementing SVO-p in Scrum. Please give it a try, and be sure to email me your feedback on SVO-p.

About the Author

Dan Mezick is a Certified Scrum Master, a Scrum Coach, and the organizer of the Agile CT and Agile Boston user groups. He is also the Stage producer for Agile2009's "Manifesting Agility" conference Stage. Reach him at [email protected]

About the author

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