The 5 Best Agile Books for 2021

I am frequently asked about the best books for learning about agile and Scrum. It’s not easy to answer. I have nearly 100 books on agile-related topics and there are so many new agile books published every year that it is difficult to keep up!

As we head into 2021, I thought I would share my lists of best agile books. I am only recommending books that I have read, and just the top 5 books. My list of best agile books may not match your list of best agile books. That is OK. I urge you to comment if you disagree or if you have other books that you think warrant a top 5 spot. I’ll add those to my own reading backlog.

To make the task a little easier, I am organizing my lists by roles. After all, there are hundreds of books and they are written to appeal to different audiences. Here are the four roles that I focused on for my recommendations:

  • Scrum Masters
  • Product Owners
  • Agile Coaches
  • Managers and Leaders

Best Agile Books for Scrum Masters

The list of best agile books for Scrum Masters is one of the tougher lists, as I explain below. But first, here are my five picks:

  1. The Scrum Guide by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland. The Scrum Guide remains the definitive guide to the Scrum Framework. Pay attention to what is in the guide as well as what is not in the guide.
  2. Essential Scrum; a Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process by Kenneth Rubin. Rubin does a good job of putting the Scrum Guide in context and providing the additional details that beginning Scrum Masters will find helpful.
  3. Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition by Lyssa Adkins. Adkins has done a terrific job of outlining the various people dynamics of coaching teams. Effective Scrum Masters are coaches after all and not taskmasters, team administrators or God forbid Jira Lackeys.
  4. Agile Retrospectives; Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. I’ve always thought of the retrospective as the most essential event of the Scrum Framework. Without retrospectives, you aren’t really improving. This book from veterans Derby and Larsen provides lots of tips and techniques to keep retrospectives fresh and effective.
  5. Scrum: The Art Of Doing Twice The Work In Half The Time by Jeff Sutherland – If you can look past some of the hype, this is actually a pretty good book that gives real examples of the ways that Scrum is a big improvement over traditional ways of working.

Here is why this list is tough. To be a great Scrum Master, you need to know more than just the Scrum Framework. I mean, any high school kid can read the Scrum Guide and Rubin’s book above and understand Scrum, but would they be effective as a Scrum Master? I think not.

Good Scrum Masters Need More Than a High School Education - Read the Best Agile Books Also

To be a good Scrum Master, you have to master Scrum obviously (though lots of Scrum Masters do not, sadly). You also have to be a combination of coach, process expert, team therapist, and zen master. It is pretty important that you understand how technology products are developed, and that you are not showing up to your first rodeo.

In fact, when I took my Certified Scrum Master training from Craig Larman back in 2013, he claimed that any capable Scrum Master would have read and mastered the content of 70+ books. I’ve included that list of books below for your reference. (And BTW, it’s been years since I took that training and I’ve still only read about 2/3 of the books he recommended).

So yeah, putting together a list of just five books for the Scrum Master is pretty tough.

Best Agile Books for Product Owners

The list of best agile books for product owners seemed easy to me; perhaps because I’ve read fewer books that target this audience. It could be because I am not that interested or it could be because there are fewer books in this category. Who knows? Here are my top 5 picks:

  1. Agile Product Management with Scrum: Creating Products that Customers Love by Roman Pichler. Pichler did a great job of writing a concise guide to the role. I refer this book to every new Product Owner I work with.
  2. Scrum Product Ownership: Navigating The Forest AND The Trees by Bob Galen. I should admit that I am a friend and admirer of Bob Galen. That aside, Bob has written a quite readable yet comprehensive guide that goes well beyond what Pichler has provided.
  3. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries. I guess technically this book is not about being a Product Owner. You can be a hack product owner who creates a product backlog that is reminiscent of the WBS from your PM 101 course. Good luck. In today’s hyper-competitive business environment, successful Product Owners will run small experiments to test their assumptions, collect data, and seek out feedback and pivot when needed. This book tells you how.
  4. User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product by Jeff Patton. I’ve been lucky enough to see Jeff present live at various Chicago events and he is not only quite knowledgable, he is also quite human. His book describes the story mapping approach that he developed. Every Product Owner should master story mapping.
  5. Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs by John Doerr. Doerr did not write a book for Product Owners but his approach to setting objectives and key results represents the kind of data-driven thinking that good product owners will follow.

Best Agile Books for Agile Coaches

When I think of an agile coach, I think of someone who is a transformation agent and someone who is able to help organizations with enterprise agility. While they certainly might be focused on just one team, to be effective they need to understand the organizational context the team is operating within.

My going-in assumption for any agile coach is that they would have expertise in Scrum and they would have mastered the five books on the Scrum Master list above as well. So I won’t repeat any of those titles here.

  1. Unlocking Agility: An Insider’s Guide to Agile Enterprise Transformation by Jorgen Hesselberg. Hesselberg does a great job of providing a blueprint for organizational transformation, based on his experience with Navteq, Motorola, and other large organizations.
  2. Sooner Safer Happier: Antipatterns and Patterns for Business Agility by Jonathan Smart. This brand new book by Jonathan Smart provides patterns and anti-patterns for transformation that will be immediately familiar to those with experience in agile transformation. Smart’s insights (Smart Insights?) come primarily from his experience at financial services firm Barclays. Founded in 1736, most don’t think of Barclays as a nimble organization which makes the transformation there even more dramatic.
  3. An Agile Adoption And Transformation Survival Guide by Michael Sahota. This book by Sahota is one of the first books I read about Agile Transformation. As a coach, I still find it helpful.
  4. Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising. Manns and Rising provide lots of patterns for introducing change and inviting others in without threatening them. Not only is this helpful, but it is also essential reading for coaches and change agents!
  5. Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness by Frederick Laloux. This may seem like an unlikely recommendation for coaches but stay with me here. Laloux looks at organizational development from a historical lens and borrows colors from the spiral dynamics. His framework for looking at organizations provides a useful lens for coaches to see their current org; and where they might need to change and evolve.

Best Agile Books for Managers and Leaders

My hope for this list is that managers and leaders would also read the books for Agile Coaches, especially Unlocking Agility and Sooner Safer Happier. And what I usually find out is that managers and leaders rarely read agile books. So while it was very difficult to narrow this list to only 5 books, I am not sure it really matters what I recommend to this audience.

  1. Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders by Jurgen Appelo. Appelo is a smart guy and is quite entertaining in both his books and in-person presentations. He makes reading and learning easy.
  2. The Age of Agile: How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done by Stephen Denning. I don’t love this book, but it gets the job done. It is one of the few books I’ve read that provides an executive’s view.
  3. Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan. Sheridan shares his experiments and learning as the founder of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor MI. Try not to read this and think “I could never get that to work here”. You can and should.
  4. Lean Enterprise; How High-Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky, and Barry O’Reilly. Authors Humble, Molesky, and O’Reilly review all aspects of the modern corporation and describe how to lean it out in this comprehensive guide.
  5. Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet. Former Navy Captain David Marquet is a terrific storyteller and unlikely leadership guru. Marquet’s leadership experiments from a nuclear submarine under the ocean show that if he can do it there, so can you. You will come away inspired.

OK, that’s it. There are more…lot’s more! I know that I missed a few and of course, people will have their favorites. PLEASE weigh in and let me know what you recommend. I may not change this list, but I will add your books to my list and your recommendation just might make the list for next year.

Oh, and here is that list of 70+ books that Craig Larman referenced in my Certified Scrum Master Course back in 2013. I’ve bolded the ones that I have read – so far 49 of the 73, woohoo!

  1. Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game (2nd Edition) by Alistair Cockburn
  2. Agile & Iterative Development; A Managers Guide by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde
  3. Scaling Lean & Agile Development by Craig Larman
  4. Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit by Mary and Tom Poppendieck
  5. Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
  6. Succeeding with Agile by Mike Cohn
  7. Crystal Clear: A Human- Powered Methodology for Small Teams: A Human- Powered Methodology by Alistair Cockburn
  8. User Stories Applied by Mike Cohn
  9. Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change by Kent Beck
  10. Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances by J. Richard Hackman
  11. Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders by Jean Tabaka
  12. Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn
  13. Working Effectively with Legacy Code by Michael C. Feathers
  14. Test-Driven : TDD and Acceptance TDD for Java Developers by Lasse Koskela
  15. Practices for Scaling Lean & Agile Development by Craig Larman
  16. Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen
  17. Fearless Change : Patterns for Introducing New Ideas by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising
  18. Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash by Mary and Tom Poppendieck
  19. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  20. Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming
  21. Agile Product Management with Scrum: Creating Products that Customers Love by Roman Pichler
  22. Implementing Beyond Budget ing: Unlock ing the Performance Potential by Bjarte Bogsnes
  23. The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge
  24. Managing the Design Factory by Donald Reinertsen
  25. Agile Software Development, Principles, Patterns, and Practices by Robert C. Martin
  26. Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship by Robert C. Martin
  27. The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach
  28. Teamwork is an Individual Skill by Christopher Avery
  29. Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee Hock
  30. Maverick by Ricardo Semler
  31. Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner
  32. Agile Coaching by Rachel Davies
  33. Growing Object -Orient ed Software, Guided by Tests by Steve Freeman
  34. Software for Your Head by Jim McCarthy
  35. The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor
  36. Just Enough Software Architecture: A Risk-D riven Approach by George Fairbanks
  37. Continuous Delivery: Reliable Software Releases through Build, Test, and Deployment Automation by Jez Humble, David Farley
  38. Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins
  39. The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master by Andrew Hunt, Dave Thomas
  40. Bridging the Communication Gap: Specification by Example and Agile Acceptance Testing by Gojko Adzic
  41. Specification by Example: How Successful Teams Deliver the Right Software by Gojko Adzic
  42. Impact Mapping: Making a big impact with software products and projects by Gojko Adzic
  43. The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development by Donald G. Reinertsen
  44. Flexible Product Development: Building Agility for Changing Market s by Preston G. Smith
  45. The Human Side of Agile – How to Help Your Team Delive r by Gil Broza
  46. High-Performing Self-Managed Work Teams by Dale Yeatts
  47. Business without Bosses by Charles Manz
  48. Leading Self-Directed Work Teams by Kimball Fisher
  49. The Self-Managing Organization by Roland Purser
  50. Freedom from Command and Control: A Better Way to Make the Work Work by John Seddon
  51. First, Let’s Fire All the Managers (article) by Gary Hamel
  52. The Future of Management by Gary Hamel
  53. Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations by Robert D. Austin
  54. Abolish ing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead by Tom Coens
  55. Get rid of the Performance Review by Samuel Culbert
  56. Hard Facts, Dangerous Truths, & Total Nonsense by Jeffrey Pfeffer
  57. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
  58. Punished by Reward s: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise , and Other Bribes by Alfied Kohn
  59. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change by Diana Whitney, et al.
  60. Appreciative Team Building: Positive Questions to Bring Out the Best of Your Team by Diana Whitney, et al.
  61. The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change by Diana Whitney, et al.
  62. Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, Revise d and Update d by James P. Womack
  63. Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Result s by Mike Rother
  64. Toyota Culture: The Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way by Jeffrey K. Liker
  65. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful by Eric Ries
  66. Inside the Mind of Toyota : Management Principles for Enduring Growth by Satoshi Hino
  67. Project Retrospective s: A Handbook for Team Review s by Norman L. Kerth
  68. Kanban by David Anderson
  69. Peopleware : Productive Projects and Teams by Tom Demarco
  70. Wicked Problems Righteous Solutions by Peter DeGrace
  71. Software Cost Estimation with Cocomo II by Barry Boehm
  72. One More Time, How Do We Motivate Employees? (article) by Frederick Herzberg
  73. The New New Product Development Game (article) by Hirotaka Takeuchi et al

This article originally appeared here and has been republished with permission