Skip to main content

Two Ways to think about Scaling Scrum

January 29, 2015

In the book Scaling Up Excellence by Sutton & Rao, they discuss two different ways to think about scaling: the “catholic or buddhist” approaches.  I think this is a very interesting way to think about Scaling Scrum.

The jist is: catholicism scales by having standardized practices and procedures, then scaling via creating perfect replicas of its already excellent self; buddhism scales by standardizing values and principles it deems excellent, then scaling via letting each practitioner vary the methods and practices in order to find a more perfect version of itself.  In a nutshell, you might describe it as a centralized top-down approach versus a decentralized self-organized approach.

Two very different approaches.  Guess what approach most businesses take?  Guess what’s most successful?


I was recently in’s Scaling Professional Scrum course.  Over two days, the course examines various approaches to scaling.  The thing I really loved about the course was it’s principled approach toactually thinking about what might work in your specific context.  We started by examining what makes a single Scrum Team click, and how to get more out of the Scrum you already have.  Then when thinking about adding teams, adding products, or even adding an entire organization that you’ve just acquired, the class guides you through a series of exercises that force you to take a thoughtful, curious, critical look on what practices and methods might work or not work.

For those of us that were “stuck,” there’s enough guidance and suggested practices in the course to give everyone a springboard to act on new scaling ideas. This balance of tools & techniques


It turns out that if the thing you’re scaling is a complex, involves many different types of people, is subject to changing markets and conditions, and is at least a little bit unpredictable, then the best long term results come from a buddhist scaling approach.  Now if the thing you’re scaling is mostly repeatable, predictable, the work is uniform in nature, and there is little ambiguity, then the best long term results come from a catholic scaling approach.

You might guess that most businesses choose a catholic approach.  We hear the following micro-narratives all the time: “That team is really successful, let’s do what they’re doing.”  “We need to have standard work built upon best practices of the entire organization.”  But it turns out what we need is not centralized methods and practices given by the top of the organization, but rather values, principles, and vision from the top and the freedom to explore practices within the boundaries those values create.  The narrative in organizations that are successfully scaling goes more like this: “how does this help us live up to our goal of delivering products to customers more frequently?”  “We really need to find a way to increase transparency around this project, one of our core values is transparency.”  “If we created all the UX designs a sprint ahead of the coding sprint, how would that enable us to ‘welcome changing requirements’ and recognize that ‘the best designs emerge from self-organized teams’ ?"

Notice there are no right or wrong answers from the top, yet concepts may be deemed right or wrong after we examine them in relationship to the values we hold.  For example, the UX Sprint concept above is an extremely common scaling approach that seems to work mechanically, is very easy to implement in a catholic sort of way, yet in many ways doesn’t stand up to the agile principles we might deem excellent.  Concepts from various scaling models might be perfectly suitable to your context, and I encourage you to start with a the principles and values you want your organization to reflect, and choose scaling techniques as you view them through the lens of these values.

What did you think about this post?