Essence of Scrum

By / Filed under WORK is GOOD / September 18th, 2010

This article titled as “Essence of Scrum” was originally published by Tobias Mayer at on April 6, 2009 and this version is adapted by David Sheriff.

Scrum began life as one of the new “lightweight” Agile approaches to building software. These approaches rose to prominence in the software world first because existing methods were so poorly adapted to managing creative knowledge workers.  Scrum became the most widely used framework because it works quickly over a broad range of projects.  Scrum is a transparency engine that shows no favorites.

Scrum promises one thing only, to expose obstacles in 30 days or less.  If users embrace the challenge and resolve deficiencies quickly, Scrum morphs into a unique solution best adapted to each company’s challenges.  Scrum is not a method, it is a mindset and an infinitely adaptable empirical framework.  Scrum is often resisted by individuals and organizations more invested in power status quo than fixing what’s broken.  If someone is not willing to change how they work, they will probably seek to distort Scrum, sometimes until it ceases to function in anything but name.

These days Scrum is considered an approach that can be used to improve the world of work in a more general sense than it’s huge success in software. Scrum changes the way individuals think and interact with one another in work situations. The full potential of Scrum has yet to be explored.  The application of Scrum outside software development has been successful, but remains on the forefront of the field with a very limited number of experienced practitioners.

In a nutshell, Scrum is a simple approach to the management of complex problems, providing a framework to support innovation and allow self-organizing teams to incrementally deliver high quality results in short iterative cycles. Scrum is a state of mind; it is a way of thinking that unleashes the creative spirit while remaining firmly grounded in solid and long-respected theoretical principles, including empiricism, emergence and self-organization.

Empiricism refers to the continuous inspect/adapt process that allows both workers and managers to make decisions in real time, based on actual data, and as a result respond quickly to new information and realizations. Complete transparency is necessary for empiricism to function.  Empiricism is the principal mechanism for refining and adapting processes and methods.  Empiricism also permits product requirements to evolve as we regularly demonstrate and witness growing product functionality throughout development. We regularly reconsider priorities and requirements in response to changes in the environment, including market developments.

Emergence results from an empirical approach. It implies that all solutions to all problems will become clear as we work. They will not become clear if we simply talk about them. Big Up Front Design will only result in Big Wrong Design or at best Big Working But Totally Inflexible Design. When we allow solutions to emerge it is always the simplest and the most appropriate solution for the current context that rises to the surface. Emergence coupled with Empiricism will lead us to the most appropriate and the most flexible, changeable solution.

Self-organization refers to the internal structure of the teams creating the product of work. Small multidisciplinary teams are empowered to make the important decisions necessary to create high quality product and manage their own processes. The thinking here is that those doing the work know best how to do the work. These teams work in a highly interactive and generative way.  The product emerges through continuous dialog, exploration and iteration. Self-organization works when there are clear goals and clear boundaries.  Self-organizing teams take mutual ownership of the work.  Ownership and collaboration within teams increases the speed work is accomplished.

In addition to these principles Scrum relies on two core mechanisms: Prioritization and Timeboxing.

Prioritization simply means that some things are more important than others. This is obvious, yet quickly forgotten when the “we need it all now” mindset is entered. Scrum helps put the focus back on selecting the most important things to do first — and then actually doing them! Making time to prioritize, and being rigorous about it are essential to the success of Scrum.

Timeboxing is a simple mechanism for handling complexity. We can’t figure out the whole system at this time, so let’s take one small problem and in a short space of time, say one week or one month, figure out how to solve that problem. The results of that will then guide us towards a solution for the next, bigger problem and give us insight into the needs of the system as a whole.

Organizational Change

With Scrum, the management hierarchies of organizations tend to get leveled and development teams have a more immediate and direct contact with customers. The work environment becomes less command-and-control and more collaborative. Regular, open dialog is encouraged over extensive documentation, and negotiated agreement is preferred to formal and impersonal contracts of work.

The qualities of openness, honesty and courage are fostered at all levels, and individual gain becomes secondary to collective advancement. A Scrum environment is a supportive one, where people at all levels show respect and trust for one another. Decisions are made by consensus, rather than imposed from above and all knowledge is shared in a fearless and transparent way.

Ideas which claim to affect development productivity by an order of magnitude are usually greeted with skepticism.  Scrum is one new formulation of classic ideas in which such productivity increases are regularly observed.  Complete visibility into formerly opaque processes eliminate surprises and enable mid-course corrections.

Scrum is still at the early-adopter stage. It will take years for the majority of companies to recognize the benefits of creating more trustful and compassionate workplaces. Without such change many companies will simply be left behind to perish.  Time to market has overriding importance.  Development processes that can accommodate new knowledge relatively late in the process have additional advantages. Those who dare to embrace the lean, lightweight, agile approach of Scrum stand a greater chance of surviving and prospering. For those who turn to Scrum, and fully embrace it, a reversion back to the old way of working becomes unthinkable. A paradigm shift is occurring in the workplace, and Scrum is an important part of that shift.

Related posts:

  1. Scrum is not enough to revolutionize workplaces
  2. Choices, Autonomy, Expectation, Pressure at Work and… SOLUTIONS!
  3. Core of Agile and Scrum
  4. 8 Agile UNfriendly Scenarios
  5. Agile in India
  6. Ingredients of an effective self organizing team



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