Agile and Scrum methodologies are well known and often studied and written about in software development. But these methodologies are about managing the activities and the workplace itself.

Are there psychologic or sociologic theories (like those studied in Industrial and organizational psychology) that could explain the effectiveness, or lack of it, of Agile / Scrum methodologies?

I am aware of experimental work on the topic, like that by Elizabeth Whitworth. However, I am not interested in empirical studies about the effectiveness of using Agile / Scrum. I am interested in theoretical justifications for why we would expect Agile/Scrum to be effective or ineffective based on what we know about social and io-psychology. Are there existing psychological or sociological theories that explain the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Agile/Scrum?

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    $\begingroup$ The people who voted to close (one of them has withdrawn their vote since the edits), voted it as "unclear what you are asking". Hopefully this has clarified it for them. $\endgroup$ May 1, 2014 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ maybe the way to go is looking at management philosophies of which there is a lot of study, or management consulting. one might argue that they are just different ideologies and their effectiveness depends on the situation/ environment they are applied in, that they are not universally more efficient etc. $\endgroup$
    – vzn
    Aug 6, 2014 at 15:47

1 Answer 1


Theoretical integration is unknown to me, and i suspect that many I/Os have not yet heard of scrum and agile. These are relatively new even in their native industry(software).

If i had to write my comprehensive exam paper on it, I'd pitch you two models. First, an oldie but a goldie, the Job Characteristics model (Hackman and Oldham). This model has identified reliable job environment features that tend to drive engagement. You could map these features onto some of the features of an agile environment:

  • Skill variety (agile can offer that);

  • Task identity (if they let you see through your project, and the execs don't override creative control, this may be available in agile)

  • Task significance (this is probably independent of agile; may or may not get this)

  • Autonomy (agile can really offer this for the development team; this is probably the number one reason agile may be effective because it separates the development team from the command and control of management that is typical of waterfall methodologies)

  • Feedback (i think this is one of the goals of agile is more quick and dirty feedback on your prototypes; anyway feedback motivates people)

    The second pitch I would make is a social psychological/sociological theory referred to as social exchange theory (e.g., Blau). The core of this theory is that people develop certain quality relationships with others they exchange with. The way this exchange occurs and how frequently can affect relationship quality. There may be two really general types of relationships: economic and social. Economic exchanges are highly equal, visible, short-term and focused on the thing being exchanged (this characterizes a lot of employee-employer relationships). Social exchanges are less concerned with the urgency and equality of transactions, and are more concerned with longevity, empathy and belonging in the relationship (many organizations try to create this with culture; people want this because it can cause employees to give effort selflessly).

Agile may in some cases appeal to this social exchange type of relationship. A lot of effort, creativity, and risk is exchanged and tolerated among teammates without any immediate monetary reward or sometimes without much awareness from management. Due to the frequency of exchanges with team members in agile methodology, perhaps the relationship development process is accelerated. This would yield more committed and engaged team members, at least when they're working within those teams.

Oh, and the goal setting theorists will insist that it boils down to frequently setting challenging, specific and committed to goals.

Hope this helps.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you fro the answer! Could you please also adice some article or book to read about it? $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2015 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ Glad you like it. Those works can be traced to back decades. For a more succinct start, try "Multiteam Systems: An Organization Form for Dynamic and Complex Environments" edited by Zaccaro, Marks, & DeChurch. $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2015 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Google Hackman and Oldham's Job characteristics model. Blau's is a classic "Exchange and Power in Social Life". For a more succinct start on applying modern team-work models to agile, try "Multiteam Systems: An Organization Form for Dynamic and Complex Environments" edited by Zaccaro, Marks, & DeChurch. They don't discuss agile in there, but it will be a good single source to point you to relevant models and similar high speed high ambiguity teamwork contexts (e.g., emergency response teams); can start your thinking from there. $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2015 at 14:54

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