Wed Nov 22 2023
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 and again for 2023. This includes some newly published books as well as some on my list that I finally read.
Limiting the list to just the 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:
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. Stone 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!
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 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.
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 Ryan Ripley and Todd Miller
Ripley and Miller have outlined the common anti-patterns for Scrum Adoption and provided recommendations for improvements. It is essential reading for Scrum Masters. Check out my review here: Review of Fixing Your Scrum
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!