In 2021, I first published my list of the best agile books, organized by role. I am delighted that it has become one of the most popular posts on the Vitality Chicago website. I am a big fan of book learning and I am happy that my recommendations are serving a need. I hope that the post helps people to prioritize what they spend their time and money on.
I’ve updated that list for 2022. This includes some newly published books as well as some I finally read.
Limiting the list to just 5 best agile books is not easy! There are so many great books out there to consider and all of them have some value. That makes it tough to choose.
A constraint I put on myself this year is to only recommend books that I have read. It kept me busy but I think it is important for the integrity of the list.
One last thing about the list. 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 your recommendations to my reading backlog and prioritize them appropriately.
My list is organized by role. I (mostly) avoided putting any one book on more than one of the lists. Here are the four roles that I focused on for my recommendations:
- Scrum Masters
- Product Owners
- Managers and Leaders
- Agile Coaches
If you are a coach, I believe that you should have read all the books for the other roles as well. To be an effective agile coach, you need a significant amount of learning.
Chris Stone created a wonderful infographic of books and other learning resources for agile coaches shown below. You can see every one of the top 5 books I’ve recommended in his diagram in the outermost ring. Chris even created a Miro board for this diagram and invited others to collaborate with him.
Let’s jump into the lists of best agile books!
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:
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.
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.
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 improving. This classic book from veterans Derby and Larsen provides lots of tips and techniques to keep retrospectives fresh and effective.
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 claim to understand Scrum, but would they be effective as a Scrum Master? I think not.
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, bulldozer, and Zen master. It is pretty important that you understand how products are developed using Scrum, and that you are not showing up to your first rodeo.
Some experts go further. 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. That is because the job of Scrum Master is pretty tough. If you are a Scrum Master and you have less than three years of experience, do yourself a solid and hit the books.
Best Agile Books for Product Owners
Creating a list of the best agile books for product owners was easier than for the other roles. I think it is because I’ve read fewer books that target this audience. Maybe it is just me but I have a difficult time staying interested and finishing books in this category. If I were more passionate, perhaps I would have finished Donald Reinertsen’s highly regarded Principles of Product Development Flow. Or I would start and finish one of the Marty Cagan books that are frequently recommended to me.
by Melissa Perri
Melissa Perri effectively describes how product managers should focus on solving true customer problems and creating business value instead of building lots of features. This is a must-read for anyone performing the role of product owner on an agile team
by Roman Pichler
Pichler did a great job of writing a concise guide to the Product Management function in the Scrum Framework. I gift or refer this book to every new Product Owner I work with.
by Bob Galen
I have to admit that I am a friend and great admirer of Bob Galen. That aside, Bob deserves to have two books on our list of best agile books. This book on Product Ownership is both readable and comprehensive, going well beyond what Pichler has provided on the role.
by Eric Ries
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, seek out feedback, and pivot when needed. This book tells you how.
by Jeff Patton
I’ve been lucky enough to see Jeff Patton present live at various Chicago events and he is both knowledgeable and personable. His book describes the story mapping approach that he developed. Every Product Owner should master story mapping.
Best Agile Books for Managers and Leaders
Managers and leaders are often the bottlenecks when it comes to business agility. Sure you can adopt Scrum at the team level without too much effort. But to create an environment for agile ways of working to thrive, you need managers and leaders on board.
Which is difficult. One of the main reasons is that most managers and leaders are using management practices created over 100 years ago for a workforce comprised of manual laborers. They are often slow to adopt the modern leadership practices required to support agile teams and create true business agility.
Ironically, there are a lot of great books out there. Several of the books in my top 5 list below weren’t even on my list of best books last year! And that made it difficult to narrow the list to just 5 books. I cheated by listing my top 5 and then including several others as “honorable mentions”. I hope that managers and leaders will find something they like in this list, and maybe, just maybe, be inspired to read them all.
by Karim Harbott
Harbott explains the urgency for business agility and has created a great framework for the various focus areas that managers and leaders need to consider. This book was also included on the list for agile coaches. You can get a great overview of the book by reading my review of Harbott’s book.
by Jonathan Smart
This 2020 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 the financial services firm Barclays. Founded in 1736, most people wouldn’t think of Barclays as a nimble or agile organization. Which makes the agile transformation at Barclays even more dramatic.
by Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez
I was initially put off by the title of this book. Who determines what is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to agile ways of working? But once I got past the title, I found this book to be a pretty good resource. Check out my review here: A Review of Doing Agile Right
by General Stanley McChrystal and co-authors Collins, Silverman and Fussel
Wow, I was really blown away by this book! I thought it was going to be all about the military but General McChrystal has instead written a leadership book that describes both why and how to create true agility even in a large organization. It is a great book with many lessons for Agile Leaders! Read my review here: 7 Key Lessons from the Team of Teams book
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. I thought the book did a great job of outlining the considerations for agile transformation. I made this my choice of textbook for my Enterprise Agility Frameworks course at Northwestern University.
Honorable Mentions for Agile Leaders and Managers
As noted, this category contains a lot of choices. There were some other books that I have come to love over the years that simply didn’t make the “best 5 agile books” cut.
- 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. His books are easy to read and extremely helpful.
- The Age of Agile: How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done by Stephen Denning. I wouldn’t say that I love this book but it is one of the few books I’ve read that provides an executive’s view.
- 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.
Best Agile Books for Agile Coaches
When I think of an agile coach, I think of someone who transcends team-level agility. They are a transformation agent who can lead others to improved business agility.
Agile coaches need to understand agile inside and out including from the perspective of each of the other three roles mentioned above. So they should read the 5 books below AND all the books above that are recommended for the other roles. That’s right, agile coaches need to hit the books even more than Scrum Masters!
Here are my top 5 recommended best books for Agile Coaches.
by Bob Galen with co-authors Jennifer Fields, Mark Summers, and Rhiannon Galen-Personick
As I mentioned above, I am a friend and admirer of Bob Galen and his work and this is the second book from Galen that made the list. Frankly, I think Bob hit it out of the park with this comprehensive book on the topic. Learn more about this book in my review: The Extraordinarily Badass Agile Coaching Book.
by Karim Harbott
Harbott explains the urgency for business agility and has created a great framework for the various focus areas that managers and leaders need to consider. This book was also included on the list for leaders and managers. You can read my review of Harbott’s book here: A Review of the 6 Enablers of Business Agility.
by Michael Sahota
This 2012 book by Michael Sahota is one of the first books I read about Agile Transformation. As a coach, I still find this book to be helpful though it is getting a bit dated.
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.
by Michael Bungay Stanier
This is a relatively short and focused read that will boost your coaching abilities. Michael Bungay Stanier shares the power of asking great questions, and listening for the answers. Read my review here: 10 Key Takeaways from The Coaching Habit Book.
Honorable Mention Book for Agile Coaches:
- 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!
Summing it Up
OK, that’s it. There are more books of course…many more! I know that I missed a few and of course, people will have their favorites. PLEASE weigh in with your comments below. Let me know what you think should be on the list. I may not change the list for 2022, but your recommendation just might make the list for next year.
Before I go, here is that list of recommended reading for Scrum Masters, from my CSM class by Craig Larman back in 2014.
A Comprehensive Reading List for Scrum Masters
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!
- Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game (2nd Edition) by Alistair Cockburn
- Agile & Iterative Development; A Managers Guide by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde
- Scaling Lean & Agile Development by Craig Larman
- Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit by Mary and Tom Poppendieck
- Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
- Succeeding with Agile by Mike Cohn
- Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams: A Human-Powered Methodology by Alistair Cockburn
- User Stories Applied by Mike Cohn
- Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change by Kent Beck
- Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances by J. Richard Hackman
- Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders by Jean Tabaka
- Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn
- Working Effectively with Legacy Code by Michael C. Feathers
- Test-Driven: TDD and Acceptance TDD for Java Developers by Lasse Koskela
- Practices for Scaling Lean & Agile Development by Craig Larman
- Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen
- Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising
- Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash by Mary and Tom Poppendieck
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
- Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming
- Agile Product Management with Scrum: Creating Products that Customers Love by Roman Pichler
- Implementing Beyond Budgeting: Unlocking the Performance Potential by Bjarte Bogsnes
- The Fifth Disclipline by Peter Senge
- Managing the Design Factory by Donald Reinertsen
- Agile Software Development, Principles, Patterns, and Practices by Robert C. Martin
- Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship by Robert C. Martin
- The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach
- Teamwork is an Individual Skill by Christopher Avery
- Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee Hock
- Maverick by Ricardo Semler
- Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner
- Agile Coaching by Rachel Davies
- Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests by Steve Freeman
- Software for Your Head by Jim McCarthy
- The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor
- Just Enough Software Architecture: A Risk-Driven Approach by George Fairbanks
- Continuous Delivery: Reliable Software Releases through Build, Test, and Deployment Automation by Jez Humble, David Farley
- Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins
- The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master by Andrew Hunt, Dave Thomas
- Bridging the Communication Gap: Specification by Example and Agile Acceptance Testing by Gojko Adzic
- Specification by Example: How Successful Teams Deliver the Right Software by Gojko Adzic
- Impact Mapping: Making a big impact with software products and projects by Gojko Adzic
- The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development by Donald G. Reinertsen
- Flexible Product Development: Building Agility for Changing Markets by Preston G. Smith
- The Human Side of Agile – How to Help Your Team Deliver by Gil Broza
- High-Performing Self-Managed Work Teams by Dale Yeatts
- Business without Bosses by Charles Manz
- Leading Self-Directed Work Teams by Kimball Fisher
- The Self-Managing Organization by Roland Purser
- Freedom from Command and Control: A Better Way to Make the Work Work by John Seddon
- First, Let’s Fire All the Managers (article) by Gary Hamel
- The Future of Management by Gary Hamel
- Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations by Robert D. Austin
- Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead by Tom Coens
- Get rid of the Performance Review by Samuel Culbert
- Hard Facts, Dangerous Truths, & Total Nonsense by Jeffrey Pfeffer
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
- Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfied Kohn
- Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change by Diana Whitney, et al.
- Appreciative Team Building: Positive Questions to Bring Out the Best of Your Team by Diana Whitney, et al.
- The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change by Diana Whitney, et al.
- Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, Revised and Updated by James P. Womack
- Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results by Mike Rother
- Toyota Culture: The Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way by Jeffrey K. Liker
- The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful by Eric Ries
- Inside the Mind of Toyota: Management Principles for Enduring Growth by Satoshi Hino
- Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews by Norman L. Kerth
- Kanban by David Anderson
- Peopleware : Productive Projects and Teams by Tom Demarco
- Wicked Problems Righteous Solutions by Peter DeGrace
- Software Cost Estimation with Cocomo II by Barry Boehm
- One More Time, How Do We Motivate Employees? (article) by Frederick Herzberg
- The New New Product Development Game (article) by Hirotaka Takeuchi et al