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Scrum and the 5 Dimensions of Human Social Experience (SCARF)

April 10, 2022

Imagine the stress of getting to work and observing your heart rate rising. It feels as if everyone is out for blood, anything you say can be used against you no matter how genuine it may seem-and managers don't really know what's going on either; they've got favourites among their team members who make most decisions behind closed doors with just a few people involved in each one (those "in the know").

According to recent brain research, the brain does not differentiate between real and perceived threats and one thing the brain does is to detect whether we are in a threat or reward situation and react accordingly.

David Rock identified 5 dimensions of human social experience that helps to explain situations in which the brain can perceive threat or reward and respond accordingly. The dimensions, otherwise known as the SCARF model are StatusCertaintyAutonomyRelatednessFairness.


In this blog, I will explain how the apply the scrum values to create safe environment where the perception of threat from these five dimensions are reduced, and perception of reward is highly enhanced.

Scrum Values

The Scrum Values gives the Scrum Team direction with regards to work, actions and behaviours. Focus - the team focusses on the Product goal, sprint goal and the work at hand, Openness - the Scrum Team and the Stakeholders are open about what’s working and what’s not, Respect - respect for each other, respect each others views and opinions (even if we do not agree), Commitment - each Scrum Member is personally committed to the Team and the team goals, Courage to solve challenging problems, and courage to do the right thing.

So how does this relate to the SCARF Model?

Status - In a group or team settings, we care deeply about our relative ranking in the group. Going down in ranking is perceived as a threat, while going is perceived as a reward, with the brain releasing dopamine.

  • There's no hierarchy on the Scrum Team and leaders and scrum masters adopt the servant-leader style of leadership
  • Respect, one of the Scrum Values, is about not diminishing anyone on the team. Respect for what everyone brings to the team and the diversity in views, skills and experiences

Certainty: We crave for knowledge about what’s going to happen to us. Not knowing what’s going to happen is perceived as a threat by the brain.

  • Scrum is built on Empiricism and Lean principles. Empiricism is about relying on learnings from experience, not theories and dogmas, to guide decision making. Empiricism relies on 3 pillars - Transparency, Inspection and Adaptation. Transparency is not just about making work visible, it’s also about shared understanding of the goals, the work required to reach the goal. 
  • The Scrum accountabilities (Scrum Master, Product Owner and Developers) creates certainty around expectations in addition to other elements like the Definition of Done, which creates certainty around the work required to be done to required quality expectations.

Autonomy - Having a say in decisions that concerns us is one of the intrinsic motivators, according to David Pink. The brain perceives threat whenever we do not have the autonomy to make our own decisions.

  • Scrum Teams are self-organizing and self managing. This means the team and only the team is responsible for deciding how they work. One of the not so secret ingredient of Scrum is that once a sprint goal is established, the team is fully responsible for deciding how to hit the goal, including work assignments and decisions around solutions

Relatedness - Sense of belonging. Any perception of not belonging or not being included creates the threat response by the brain

  • Scrum Values help teams to establish trust and sense of belonging amongst team members. 
    • Commitment - members of great Scrum Teams are connected to one another as well as committed to the team goals and product goals. Great Scrum teams build trust by imbi`bing the scrum values

Fairness - We want to see everyone treated fairly and equitably. This is an innate yearning that’s developed from childhood. 

  • Scrum is based on Empiricism, with transparency as one of the pillars. Transparency here is a shared understanding between the team and the stakeholders. Transparency, coupled wth the Scrum Value of Openness enhances overall sense of fairness because team members have clear understanding of what’s going on and what drives the decisions.

Scrum and SCARF

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