Scrum: A starter pack to deal with complex problems

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18.08.21
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By: Sahin Guvenilir

Ever since humanity figured out that solving complex problems requires a different mindset from the conventional approaches, they have experimented with various frameworks, methodologies and tools. The Scrum Framework is one of them.

In the traditional approach, an important observation was that everything is made of parts. The scientists wanted to figure out how the parts work in isolation, hence they could know how the whole system works.

People and trees are made of the same building blocks. So, biologists thought the study of biological molecules to be the study of all life. Trees and rocks are made of the same building blocks. So, physicists viewed the study of elementary particles as the study of all of nature. 

In other knowledge works, it’s similar. Earlier in my career as a Scrum Master, I remember the days when ten managers gathered in a room to add up story points delivered by ten different component teams; so they could promise a fixed deadline to the client for a large feature. Unfortunately, it only resulted in a false sense of certainty and harmed trust in the long term.

scrum

This traditional approach helped us understand the world around us better, however, in the last century, we have learned that the most effective way to solve complex problems is to use a multi-disciplinary approach. For instance, where biologists, chemists, computer scientists, sociologists, psychologists, economists and even politicians collaborate to mitigate the effects of a deadly pandemic… Or where cross-functional teams that have all the required skills to solve a customer problem end-to-end work closely with their customers. Don’t believe me just ask the team that helped the vehicles get built in the SpaceX Project!

Scrum is a framework, not a method or methodology

The Scrum Framework also promotes a multi-disciplinary approach. In Scrum, small, cross-functional, self-managed teams work on a complex business problem to generate value through adaptive solutions. It is a lightweight framework to deliver more value sooner, manage risk exposure and reduce waste. 

Before explaining how it provides those benefits, it is important to understand the difference between a framework, methodology or method:

  • A methodology is a general strategy that outlines how research is to be undertaken (Howell, K. E., Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology, 2013). For instance, ethnography, as a methodology, explores social culture, shared beliefs and behaviours.
  • A method is a technique or tool that is used to conduct your research. Like using surveys, interviews, participant observations to collect data for ethnographic research.
  • And we have frameworks. A framework is a structure that creates clear boundaries in which people who do the work can fill the intentional gaps with the methods and processes they choose.

Scrum doesn’t solve your problems – it reveals them

Scrum is like a spoon. Instead of dipping your head into a hot soup bowl, you can use this spoon to consume your food in small increments. Then it’s totally up to you to add more salt or blow on the soup next time to cool it off a bit. Regardless, it helps you reveal adaptation opportunities before it becomes too late to change direction.

As a framework, Scrum gives a starter pack to create enabling boundaries for achieving this outcome. Three roles, three artefacts with a commitment for each, and five events.

Three roles help the team have clear accountabilities. Developers instil quality. The Product Owner optimises the value of the product. Scrum Master enables Scrum Team’s effectiveness.

The three artefacts; Product Backlog, Sprint Backlog and Increment, are designed to maximise transparency of key information. Therefore, everyone can have the same basis for adaptation. 

 

Each artefact contains a commitment:

  • For the Product Backlog, it’s the Product Goal, an intermediate goal that describes a future state of the product to achieve a strategic outcome.
  • For the Sprint Backlog, it’s the Sprint Goal, the single objective for the Sprint to create focus.
  • For the increment, it’s Definition of Done, a formal description of the state of the Increment when it meets the quality measures required for the product. The commitments improve transparency, and they encourage professionalism.

Five events support transparency, inspection and adaptation opportunities for the people who do the work and the ones who benefit from its results.

silver bullet

Scrum isn’t a silver bullet

Once Ken Schwaber, the co-creator of the Scrum Framework, said this in an internal Professional Scrum Trainer Community event:

“I have seen people try to turn it (Scrum) into magic. It’s not. It’s so simple but it’s hard. Because you actually have to think”

Scrum is a framework that helps people, teams, organisations harness change to gain a competitive advantage. It’s not a silver bullet that will magically eliminate all types of difficulties a team or organisation could face, however, it’s really effective at making them transparent. Scrum requires people to think for themselves, show curiosity, professionalism and resilience. It’s easy to understand, difficult to master. 

Read the Scrum Guide, if you like it, find someone with real-life experience and ready to support you in your journey, and if you think it’s helpful, continue using it.

Remember, we discovered that when competent people from different disciplines collaborate and get the required support from the policy makers, they outperform traditional/silo mindset approaches in eradicating complex infectious diseases. What makes us think that it would be any different in other complex knowledge works?

Sahin Guvenilir is a UK based Agile Consultant and Professional Scrum Trainer with Scrum.org.

Throughout his career, he has worked in various fields including FinTech, E-Commerce, Real Estate, Energy, Insurance and helped more than 100 teams deliver more value sooner and manage their risk exposure continuously.

Sahin has a particular focus on supporting companies to manage their complex products with Agility from concept to cash, to build valuable products and resilient, secure, rapidly evolving distributed systems at scale.

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