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Empiricism is not just a fancy word

I confess that the first time someone told me that Scrum is based upon empiricism, I thought they were a little pretentious. After all, it’s a five-syllable word for a framework with only five events. Why make it so complicated?


But as I’ve coached more and more Scrum Teams over the years, I have learned that empiricism matters. It’s not just a fancy word; it’s the foundation of Scrum. It’s still a lot of syllables. But sometimes, the deepest truths appear complicated at first glance.


The Scrum framework performs best when its events, artifacts and accountabilities embody the three pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation. The more I interact with and coach Scrum Teams, the more I realize that many teams are just going through the motions of the Scrum events instead of thinking about what underpins the framework.


In my recent webinar, Stop Pretending to be Agile, I discussed what happens when Scrum events do not reflect the spirit of empiricism. In this article, I will take a step back to define empiricism and provide three examples of empirical processes. I’ll then unpack why this matters for your team.



What is empiricism?

According to the 2020 Scrum Guide, “empiricism asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is observed.” Dictionary.com defines an empirical process as “derived from or guided by experience or experiment.”


What it comes down to is that by using empiricism, we accept that we cannot predict the future. We can only know the past with certainty. We must take this fact into account in our planning. Rather than planning over long durations, teams using an empirical process are transparent about their progress, inspect what they deliver frequently, and adapt based on the latest information.


Let’s look at three examples of empirical processes.



The thermostat

We use a thermostat to regulate the temperature in our residential or commercial buildings. A thermostat samples the room temperature and adjusts the heating or cooling system to reach our chosen temperature setting.


How is this an empirical process?

The thermostat does not attempt to predict the future. It doesn’t consider variables such as how many people will be in the room or what the weather will be like an hour from now. Instead, the thermostat simply “remembers” the goal temperature and frequently checks progress towards that target temperature. The thermostat adapts by turning the heat or air conditioning on or off depending on its frequent temperature inspections.


The thermostat uses an empirical process by responding to what is known.


Why it works

Temperature regulation may seem simple, but hundreds of factors impact it. The building materials, weather, number of people in the room and their activities all impact the inside temperature. If a facilities crew tried to program these factors into a system, they could never successfully regulate the temperature because these external factors are unpredictable. Sometimes, in complex environments, it’s better not to try and take into account every variable. Sometimes it’s best to try something, see how it goes, and adjust from there.



Kayaking

I enjoy kayaking on Wisconsin’s rivers. When I start my trip down the river, I don’t know every stroke I will make or every turn my boat will take down the river. But I do know that my goal is to get to a specific destination point — preferably without losing any of my gear or hitting my head too hard on a rock.


How is this an empirical process?

I try to keep the front of the boat pointing downstream, but sometimes I get turned around and need to take action to reposition myself. Kayaking involves an empirical process because I have a goal (to get down the river without hitting my head too hard on a rock), and I am constantly inspecting my progress and taking action to adjust my direction or the balance of the kayak.


Why it works

With my properly sized boat, paddle, and experience, I have all the skills to keep the pointy end downstream. If I were to try to plan out every twist and turn down to the second — even if I could remember everything — my plan would be irrelevant after the first turn of the river. It’s impossible to predict the future to this level of detail. Empirical processes accept that reality and set goals rather than tasks. Teams using empiricism have the resources they need to pursue organizational goals and are empowered to make the decisions necessary to achieve them.



Gardening

I enjoy roses, which might be the most challenging thing to grow in Wisconsin. At the start of the year, I have high hopes that the Japanese beetles have all moved to Illinois. I confidently use my organic fertilizer. I spray my roses with natural repellants. And I wait to see what happens.


How is this an empirical process?

Sometimes it rains and washes my repellants away. Sometimes it’s too dry, and I need to water my roses. But I always have a vision of glossy, uneaten green leaves and piles of outrageously fragrant roses. Rather than planning my watering and fertilization schedule at the beginning of the year and sticking to it regardless of the weather, I inspect my roses frequently and take action based on what I find.


Why it works

It’s a complicated world, and roses are persnickety. When planning the care for my roses, it’s best to accept that there are many variables I can’t predict. I’ll have greater success if I inspect and adapt frequently rather than creating a project plan upfront and hoping for the best.



Why empiricism matters

Teams use Scrum in complex environments where more is unknown than known. Even when a developer sits down to build something as simple as a web form, there is no set of work instructions to follow. Instead, they must bring their skills and experience to bear on whatever the complicated business problem before them. Every page is unique in its way. That’s why an empirical approach works.


In complex situations, we cannot predict with 100 percent certainty every adjustment we’ll need to make to reach our goals. Instead, we must empower the teams responsible for achieving those goals to decide how to approach their work. By inspecting frequently, team members are able to adapt their approach which leads to better outcomes for the customer. Teams that do not adopt empiricism are not able to adapt to changing environments, which results in higher risk and lower flexibility for the organization.



Conclusion

Empiricism is not just a fancy word; it’s the foundation of the Scrum framework. It describes a new way to work that acknowledges that we cannot plan for everything in complex environments. Empiricism involves teams planning as they go based on what they experience doing the work. As a result, it requires us to think differently about how to lead teams to maximize our chances of reaching our goals and building high-performing teams.


If you want to learn more about how to lead in an agile environment, the Professional Agile Leadership course gives you the tools you need to navigate your teams to success in complex environments. Participants of the Professional Agile Leadership course discuss why Scrum Team members work on objectives rather than tasks and how to hold team members accountable for delivery.


For Scrum Masters who want to sharpen their skills, the Professional Scrum Master class covers the principles and empirical process theory at the heart of Scrum. It’s a powerful class that asks hard questions and arrives at answers through hands-on learning that’s practical and immediately applicable.


To learn more about how to embody empiricism for your team, check out our article, Is your team “pretending” to be Agile.