Scrum’s Success Explained using SCARF-model June 15, 2015at20:35

Scrum has become one of the dominant agile organizational frameworks in the software development industry. With its simple set of roles, activities and artifacts, it has gained appreciation among managers and developers alike and has shown great improvements in team and company productivity when done right.

In this article I will try to explain why Scrum works from a social neuroscience perspective using the SCARF-model; a social behavior model developed at the NeuroLeadership Institute.

The SCARF-model

The SCARF-model tries to explain the core motivators of the human social being in context of the anatomy and function of the brain:

The acronym S.C.A.R.F. stands for:

  • Status – the relative importance to others
  • Certainty – being able to predict what lays ahead
  • Autonomy – control over events
  • Relatedness – belonging to a group, being friend rather than foe
  • Fairness –fair exchange between people

The model explains how certain actions are perceived by the recipient.

At the core, the model stipulates that the brain tend to mark certain events as something to avoid, triggering the fight, flight, freeze system of the primitive brain; or something to approach, triggering the reward system in the brain. A person receiving frequent mental rewards is generally more creative; more dedicated in his/her tasks, less risk of reduced mental health; while the reverse is true for someone who is exposed to negative triggers.

The domains covered by the acronym indicate social events/actions that triggers the avoid/reward mechanism. According to the model, a perceived reduction in status triggers the same kind of response in the brain as a threat to once life. Uncertainty, lack of control of one self, lack of belonging to a group, exclusion, and unfair treatment are all things that have negative effect.

SCARF and Scrum

Let look at each domain and how they are affected by the principle and practices in Scrum.


Scrum tends to reduce the hierarchal depth of an organization, making it more flat. A flat organization has fewer situations where status can have a negative impact. Further, the cross functional teams where people of different professions come and work in the same team tend to reduce the status differences between the fields. E.g. historically, members of the test-/QA-department have often been given a lesser status than hard-core developers. In a well-functioning cross functional team where everyone participates in all types of work-items sharing knowledge and contributing outside their core competence, reduces the perceived relative importance between professions. A clear and complete definition of done further emphasizes the importance of all areas.


By locking down the tasks for the coming 2-4 weeks in the form of the sprint backlog, uncertainty is greatly reduced. The routine of established activities (daily standup, sprint planning, sprint review) further promotes this.


Team self-organization, team commitment to workload in a sprint, responsibility for the end-to-end solution and therefore also freedom to decide on implementation, are all key components that boosts the feeling of self-governed destiny.


The team as such and end-to-end responsibility gives a strong feeling of belonging, and perceived value of one self.


The team succeeds and fails together. All tasks are shared across team members and thanks to definition of done, all aspects of a task need to be completed in order to gain full value. All members are treated as full members of the team.


As explained, the gain of organizational structures such as those imposed by the Scrum framework have good chance of setting up a work environment that goes along the grains of the human brain. However, as with everything, good architecture is not enough; it is only realized through its implementation.

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