If you could teach just one thing about Scrum, what would it be?
I wouldn’t teach anything about Scrum if I only had one thing to teach, I would focus on the underlying principles that underpin scrum. Empiricism and navigating complexity effectively.
When I’m delivering the APS course (Applying Professional Scrum) or talking to clients about how to effectively develop products in complex environments, I spend a great deal of time talking about the concept of empiricism, also known as Empirical Process Control.
Empiricism is built on three (3) pillars:
We make language, jargon, terms, and work transparent and we ensure it is visible to everyone relevant to the product. So, for example, if we use the term Minimum Viable Product, we ensure that everybody knows what that means, and what we, specifically, mean when we use that term.
So, a shared language and understanding is the first element of transparency.
The second element is making work transparent.
That may be:
- Our working hypothesis.
- What outcomes we are hoping to achieve.
- What work is planned.
- What criteria must be met before the work is considered complete.
- What the flow of work throughout the system looks like.
- What problems or impediments exist.
- How the work is progressing.
- What outcomes have been achieved.
And so forth.
Every element of the work is transparent and visible. Every element of our process and systems is transparent and visible. Every problem we experience and every impediment, large or small, is transparent and visible.
We frequently inspect our work.
In scrum, we have a daily scrum where the team inspect what has happened in the past 24 hours, discuss any impediments or problems that stand in the way, and articulate what is planned for the next 24 hours.
We inspect the work to ensure that we have met the definition of done. The criteria that must be met for the work to pass from one phase of development to another, or to be delivered to a client.
Our clients and product stakeholders inspect our working product near the end of each sprint and provide feedback and reviews. We also gather data through the sprint and inspect what the data is telling us about our processes, systems, and capabilities.
Finally, we inspect ourselves, as a team, and review our performance in the sprint retrospective with the objective of identifying what is working, what needs work, and how we are going to improve in the next sprint.
Frequent inspection with the purpose of gathering data, reviews, feedback, and evidence that we can learn from.
This is the core of empiricism and agile.
The ability to adapt and respond, to opportunities and threats, to gaps in the market or disruption from competitors, from legislative disruption to international lockdowns for Covid.
Adapt and Respond. Adapt and Respond. Adapt and Respond.
The data we gather, the feedback and reviews we receive, and the evaluation / analysis we compile ourselves informs what needs to adapt. Informs what decisions we take moving forward. Informs what the next best step would be, given what we have learned and experienced.
These three things are the core elements of successfully navigating complexity and uncertainty.
A key to understanding why agile is so successful at navigating complexity, is to understand what complexity is and why the traditional approaches don’t work in a complex space.
Traditional project management works just fine in a simple or complicated space because we have built the product hundreds of times before, and we have solved the problem some time ago, so we know that following a simple formula or pattern will deliver the outcome that we desire.
It’s known, tested, and proven.
In a complex space, we have never solved the problem or built the solution before. Added to this, there are so many unknown variables that could impact the success of our product or project, and we can’t possibly know what they are or where they will come from.
We don’t and can’t know what we don’t know.
Even if your brought the brightest, most experienced people in the organization into a room, they still wouldn’t know the answer. They still wouldn’t be guaranteed a positive outcome. These people would need to figure out the answer through trial and error.
They would need to design a hypothesis, run an experiment, validate what is true or untrue, and then design another hypothesis based on what they have learned. Small wins build momentum, and roadblocks encourage us to retreat to what we do know and develop a different hypothesis on how to progress from there.
Like a ship constantly correcting its course, in alignment with a compass, despite the changes in weather and currents. In agile, we have values and principles as guardrails, and we have a product vision and product goal and customer collaboration to guide us.
That is the primary difference between complicated and complex environments.
So, for me, this would be the primary skillset that a team need to acquire and develop. The ability to navigate complexity and uncertainty, using empiricism as a guide, to make the breakthroughs and solve the complex problems that they encounter.
Scrum is an agile framework that enables teams to do this, but it doesn’t solve the problem for you. In fact, scrum tends to reveal problems rather than solve them. It makes problems transparent and visible so that you can solve them and move forward.
If there was only one thing I could teach a product development team in a complex space, it would be this.
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