What is the relation between Scrum and empiricism ?

Last post 02:13 pm June 9, 2021
02:13 pm June 9, 2021


« Scrum is founded on empiricism and lean thinking. Empiricism asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is observed ».

I looked for explanations of the relationship between scrum and empiricism. I found that there was not a detailed and clear answer on this topic.
This research has led me to question my certainties and therefore to doubt.

By studying what has been written on scrum (books, publications, certifications, feedback, etc.), I noticed that beyond the rules, responsibilities, events and artifacts, Scrum was a state of mind, a "Mindset". To live in accordance with this precept, I share with you my discoveries to try to answer the following question:

What is the relation between Scrum and empiricism ?

Here are 3 distinct, independent but complementary topics that I want to publish.

Publication 1 - Scrum, an empirical philosophy.

Publication 2 - Scrum, a scientific revolution.

Publication 3 - Scrum, a collective constructivism to reveal reality.

This synthesis tries to replace Scrum in a global thought.
To analyze Scrum I base myself on the scrum guide but also on the literature and on the practice of Scrum because as the Scrum Guide indicates: « Scrum is simple. Try it as is and determine if its philosophy, theory, and structure help to achieve goals and create value. The Scrum framework is purposefully incomplete, only defining the parts required to implement Scrum theory. Scrum is built upon by the collective intelligence of the people using it. Rather than provide people with detailed instructions, the rules of Scrum guide their relationships and interactions. Various processes, techniques and methods can be employed within the framework. Scrum wraps around existing practices or renders them unnecessary »[i].

The gist of the subject is presented. To go into more detail, I invite you to consult the footnotes that I have disseminated throughout this document.


Scrum, an empirical philosophy


« Scrum is founded on empiricism and lean thinking. Empiricism asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is observed »[ii]. Empiricism relates more broadly to the study of knowledge [iii] which is called epistemology. Anglophones understand epistemology as the global study of knowledge while the French have a more restricted view and assimilate it only to the study of scientific knowledge [iv].
Epistemology provides answers to the following questions:

How to define knowledge ?

How is knowledge constituted ?

How to establish the validity of a knowledge ?

This study of knowledge is carried mainly by two opposing philosophical currents, empiricism and rationalism [v]. We will only develop the empirical thesis. Empiricism groups philosophical doctrines which assert that the source of knowledge is sensory experience, that is information perceived through our senses [vi]. The term comes from the Greek empeiria, it means « experience ».

According to empiricists our perceptions are the only source of our knowledge.

The empirical approach to knowledge is arguably the oldest. Since prehistoric times, people have observed their environment and learned its principles. The contact of fire burns, the sight of a lake surrounded by dead animals on its banks indicates that its water must not be good. Like the prehistoric tribe, the Scrum Team protects itself from dangers by considering its environment. Poor perception can distort assumptions, increase the risk of making the wrong decision and decrease the value delivered. In other words, « Observe, orient, decide, act »[vii]. If I hesitate between two web interfaces and I have the means, Scrum invites me to make my decision by asking the question directly to the users. I can use the techniques of AB testing, make the first interface available to some of the users and the second to the other. The quantitative returns that are made possible by the analysis tools may or may not validate my hypotheses. By this approach I understand how the market perceives my achievement and I can make informed decisions. Unlike the traditional Top-down approach, where the sponsor deduced from their reasoning what should work, Scrum questions users. So it's a revolution in determining what is viable and what is not. Scrum invites daily to take into account its environment rather than carrying out speculative plans « However, these [practices] do not replace the importance of empiricism. In complex environments, what will happen is unknown. Only what has already happened may be used for forward-looking decision-making »[viii].

Since ancient times, the search for knowledge has also been done by questioning what opinion held to be true [ix]. The search for the truth consisted in opposing any prejudice to contrary arguments [x]. The first empiricists [xi] asserted that what is invisible cannot be verified. They grouped together in medical sects which adapted their therapies according to the symptoms observed. Observing for oneself, taking into account the observation made by others and seeing similarities made it possible to understand the real [xii]. Scrum does not speculate on what is true or false, it makes assumptions that are verified by experience. Self-observation, observation of market trends and analogical reasoning are at the heart of its principles.
Empiricism asserts that the source of our knowledge is only our perceptions. Only what is visible can be considered. The observation of particular events induces a general theory [xiii], knowledge is a posteriori [xiv]. Scrum also values ​​observation to identify principles and adapt to its environment.
« The purpose of empiricism via Scrum is to help people perform inspections and adaptations upon transparency of the work being undertaken […] the rules, principles and roles of the framework, as describe in the scrum guide, serve this specific purpose »[xv].

Scrum's structuralist approach [xvi] provides a framework, both spatial and temporal, to foster the observation of reality. Creative cycles aim to achieve a vision (product vision) and a transcendent goal [xvii] (product goal). To promote this, Scrum sets a time-limited implementation period (the sprint). It instills a rhythm punctuated by events that give visibility, which limits risks and promotes collective effort. The team begins its creative process [xviii] by selecting the necessary tasks (sprint planning) to achieve a goal (sprint goal). Creation (increment) evolves, it is inspected and adapted daily (daily scrum). The team presents the increment (at the sprint review) to stakeholders and users, their feedback is heard. The definition of the criteria to validate the increment (definition of done) are evolving. Like the exchange processes that promote the perception of reality, they are inspected and adapted during a retrospective exam (the retrospective sprint). The cycle ends and repeats because in addition to being incremental, it is iterative. « Scrum employs an iterative, incremental approach to optimize predictability and to control risk »[xix]. The perception of the environment over time guides the decision-making process to predict and limit deviations. « Plan reality not fantasy »[xx], recommended Jeff Sutherland, one of the founders of the Scrum philosophy.

For Scrum, knowledge is the result of interactions between objects and subjects.

To create an environment conducive to this understanding of reality, Scrum relies on 3 empiricist pillars: « Transparency, inspection and adaptation »[xxi]. These pillars help the definition, constitution and veracity of knowledge, which empiricists analyze from 3 elements:

The object that is perceived.

The subject who perceives.

The interactions between the subject and the object.

The object that is perceived :

Scrum refers to 3 objects created and manipulated by the team during the production cycles: The product backlog, the sprint backlog, and the increment. These artefacts are part of a complex but delimited environment.
« A product is a vehicle to deliver value. It has a clear boundary, known stakeholders, well-defined users or customers. A product could be a service, a physical product, or something more abstract »[xxii].
Take the example of one of the artifacts, the Product Backlog. It is defined: « The Product Backlog is an emergent, ordered list of what is needed to improve the product» [xxiii]. It is made up of individual attributes which, when put together, constitute it. These attributes are made up of ideas, stories, tests, documentation ... They are represented in space by an order, a description, a size ... they are therefore visible:
« Scrum’s artifacts represent work or value. They are designed to maximize transparency of key information. Thus, everyone inspecting them has the same basis for adaptation »[xxiv]. The state of the attributes of objects is temporary, it changes over time within an environment that is complex an specific. « Attributes often vary with the domain of work »[xxv]. They must be maintained to remain observable and therefore continue to exist: « They usually acquire this degree of transparency after refining activities ». [xxvi]This process is performed by team members (subjects).

The subject who perceives.

Scrum defines the subject by its responsibilities [xxvii] (scrum master, product owner, developers). Stakeholders, end users, management, etc. are also subjects external to the team but who also perceive the scrum objects. The authority and responsibilities of the subject depend on the maturity of the organizations [xxviii], but must respect what is mentioned at least in the Scrum Guide. The subject's capacity for observation and action is also linked to the degree of implementation and appropriation of Agile principles.

Interactions between subject and object:

The interaction of subjects with objects in a collaborative framework promotes a high degree of transparency. This is made possible by designing a system that highlights transparency and interactions. The team is best able to set up this system because it acts on a daily basis. To facilitate this construction, practices and tools can be implemented. To analyze objects in their environment, these are, non-exhaustive list, burn up - burn down charts, cumulative flow, Evidence Based Management metrics, estimation techniques ... The Scrum team is positioned in an approach of inspection of reality and adapts considering the impacts generated by the observed phenomena. It builds on and helps maintain transparency by communicating with clear language. The importance of these interactions was also explicitly mentioned in the Scrum Guide until 2017.
« Having more than nine members requires too much coordination. Large Development Teams create too much complexity for an empirical process to be Useful »[xxix]. Events, commitments (Product goal, sprint goal, definition of done) and product vision facilitate a better collective understanding. Continuous improvement [xxx] optimizes the quality of exchanges and the interaction between subjects and objects.

Summary of empirical theses

So-called modern empiricism [xxxi] originated and developed mainly in Great Britain [xxxii]. Theorized by Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum, it goes beyond medical observation and is part of a scientific approach. Empiricism reached its peak at the end of the 17th century, the beginning of the 18th century [xxxiii] in reaction to the rationalist theories of Descartes which he denounced. John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume, present their theses on the perception of objects [xxxiv] which can be summarized as follows:

« Nothing is in the mind that has not first been in the senses »[xxxv].

Empiricism is divided into 3 schools of thought: classical empiricism, idealistic empiricism and skeptical empiricism. Classical empiricism is described by John Locke in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [xxxvi]. Locke attempts to explain the differences between what is perceived and what is real, distinguishing the characteristics which belong to the objects and those which come from the subject. It differentiates in an object its primary qualities and its secondary qualities. The primary qualities are "wholly inseparable from the body in whatever state it may be, so that it always retains them no matter how much or how badly the body suffers." it concerns, for example, the shape of the object, its volume, its solidity, its position in space. The second qualities have "the power to produce various sensations in us by means of their first qualities", they are subjective characteristics such as the color of the object, its smell, the sound it produces which can be perceived differently.

George Berkeley in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge [xxxvii], takes up Locke's logic, demonstrates the weaknesses of his theory of primary and secondary qualities and theorizes a mystical empiricism.
By demonstrating that the first qualities are just as subjective as the second qualities he finds that matter does not exist in itself but only because it is perceived. it shows that there are only individuals who perceive [xxxviii].

« When I close my eyes the world disappears » sums up the Berkeley doctrine.

Finally, David Hume in his A Treatise of Human Nature applies experimental methods [xxxix] from the natural sciences to the study of knowledge. He disputes the possibility of theorizing universal ideas. There is no absolute truth, Man can only observe particular cases through subjective constructions. The more powerful a belief, the more it becomes unconscious, the more it strengthens. By belief it designates the affirmation of knowledge that cannot be explained. By this affirmation Hume replaces the importance of the subject and his unconscious on the perception of objects [xl]. Hume develops an empiricism of doubt by asserting that human knowledge comes from the association of individual ideas in space and time [xli]. Scrum would therefore be assimilated to the skeptical empiricism developed by Hume, by his invitation to doubt, the questioning of certainties, the observation of objects by subjects, and the continuous improvement that he values. Each product and each team has its context, induced relativism tries to explain the complexity of a real ephemeral.

A little too simple?

Are our senses still reliable? Can they not alter themselves or be victims of the illusion? Can a phenomenon appear 1000 times and then disappear? Empiricists develop individual thinking while Scrum promotes collaboration and the emergence of collective thinking. Is empiricism the only philosophical current that deals with the principles listed in the scrum guide? Hume's skepticism [xlii] refers to the doubt of Descartes, the mastermind of the rationalist school, the current which is the opposite of empiricism. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes gives 4 rules that resemble Scrum design techniques [xliii]. Much like the principles of Descartes, Scrum values ​​science over belief. Therefore Scrum is also akin to a scientific revolution. I will discuss this argument in my next post, but rest assured Scrum is empirical and promotes listening to the senses. As Gunther Verheyen wrote:

« Scrum is very much about behavior, much more than it is about process »[xliv].


[i] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2020. Scrum Guide.

[ii] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2020. Scrum Guide.

[iii] Epistemology comes from the Greek epistèmê which designates both scientific activities and knowledge. This term is in opposition to the doxa which designates opinions, prejudices, assumptions.

[iv] Continental Europe and French-speaking countries use the term gnoseology to denote the global study of knowledge.

[v] Since ancient times Plato has considered experience to be misleading. Like the prisoners locked in a dimly lit cave who mistake the shadows parading on the walls for reality, the senses are victims of their perceptions and prevent access to the truth. So-called modern rationalism is theorized by the philosophers of continental Europe of the 17th century (René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza and Nicolas Malebranche). It reached its peak following the publication of Descartes' "discourse on method". Rationalist dogma considers that the sole source of knowledge is individual reason, that is to say the faculty which enables man to know, judge and act in accordance with principles. Man identifies effects from causes, starting from a general theory and deducing specific cases. Knowledge is a priori, it comes from logic, it does not need experience. The rationalist by exercising his reason rejects perception.

[vi] Aristotle categorized the 5 senses in his treatise De Anima (On the soul). It's about sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch. Contemporary scientists add 4 additional external senses which would be: proprioception (knowing where your limbs are located), equilibrioception (maintaining your balance), thermoception (feeling temperatures), nociception (knowing pain).

[vii] SUTHERLAND Jeff et SUTHERLAND Jeff J. 2014. Scrum the art of doing twice the work in half the time. P180. Edition Currency New York.

[viii] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2017. Scrum Guide.

[ix] The collection of opinions, prejudices, assumptions, confused or relevant that are generally accepted by society is called the Doxa. The Doxa is opposed to the Aletheia that is to say the essence of things, the unveiled truth.

[x] Some ancient philosophers used dialectics as a method of reasoning to question ideas. The rationalist Socrates in his dialogues questioned his interlocutors. He used maieutic to give birth to their ignorance, the famous "I know that I know nothing".

[xi] At the same time as the disciples of Pyrrhon of Elis (Pyrrhonians) who had brought Indian philosophy to Greece, physicians such as Philinos of Cos founded empirical sects in the 3rd century BC. These have strongly influenced skeptical philosophers such as Sextus Empiricus. These principles opened a 3rd voice by continuing to seek the truth by the suspension of judgment instead of considering it either 1 / that the truth is impossible to grasp or that 2 / the truth is dogmatic.

[xii] It is about the autopsia (act of seeing for oneself), of the historia (what is reported in writing), and of the analogia (similarity of form between 2 things).

[xiii] Empiricism is based on inductive reasoning. By observing the effects, the empiricist deduces the causes.

[xiv] A posteriori knowledge is posterior, it is deduced from the data of experience and observable facts. The effect helps determine the cause.

[xv] VERHEYEN, Gunther. 2013. Scrum a Pocket Guide, a smart travel companion. Van Haren Publishing.

[xvi] “Scrum is a lightweight framework that helps people, teams and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems”. In English Framework means a frame but also a structure. Structuralism brings together a set of philosophical theories that claim that human behavior is impacted and can be understood by analyzing the structures in which it evolves. Jean Piaget and Claude Lévi-Strauss are at the origin of the concept.

[xvii] From the Latin Transcendens, which means to cross, to surpass, is said of what is distant, distant.

[xviii] Creative process: Creating an increment based on a goal

[xix] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2020. Scrum Guide.

[xx] SUTHERLAND Jeff et SUTHERLAND Jeff J. 2014. Scrum the art of doing twice the work in half the time. P111. Edition Currency New York.

[xxi] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2020. Scrum Guide: “Scrum combines four formal events for inspection and adaptation within a containing event, the Sprint. These events work because they implement the empirical Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation”.

[xxii] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2020. Scrum Guide.

[xxiii] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2020. Scrum Guide.

[xxiv] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2020. Scrum Guide. 

[xxv] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2020. Scrum Guide.

[xxvi] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2017. Scrum Guide.

[xxvii] In previous editions of the Scrum Guide, the product owner, scrum master and developers were designated as roles. To understand why this change was made I invite you to read this post from Dave West.

[xxviii] For example on the role of Product Owner: SCHUURMAN Robbin. 2018. Growing as a Product Owner: Five Product Owner Maturity-Levels  https://www.scrum.org/resources/blog/growing-product-owner-five-product-owner-maturity-levels
or on the role of Scrum master: OVEREEM Barry. 2017. The 8 Stances of a Scrum Master https://www.scrum.org/resources/8-stances-scrum-master?gclid=Cj0KCQjwwLKFBhDPARIsAPzPi Kvjn4mmOqWEMnYPPBbJLvuUkSD0NVo_ASkteYExrfFN8dehgVBt8YaAsPJEALw_wcB

[xxix] SCHWABER, Ken et SUTHERLAND Jeff. 2017. Scrum Guide.

[xxxi] By modern is meant modern era. This period covers in Europe a period going from the middle - end of the 15th century to the end of the 18th century. Francis Bacon published his “Novum Organum” in 1620.

[xxxii] French philosophers have also developed an empirical approach. Pierre Gassendi, at the beginning of the 17th century, borrows elements from Bacon's scientific method. Etienne Bonnot de Condillac is the French interpreter of Locke. In 1754 he affirmed in his “Treaty of sensations” that all our knowledge comes from our sensations.

[xxxiv] The theses developed by modern empiricists relate to the subject. How the object is perceived by the subject who is its observer. Kant at the end of the 18th century will reverse the study of knowledge by questioning how the subject perceives his environment.

[xxxv] « Nihil est in intellectu quod non antea fuerit in sensu ». This phrase was used by Aristotle, the Peripatetics, the scholastics of the Middle Ages and the empiricists at the same time, but in different senses.

[xxxvi] John Locke, physician and scientist published in 1689 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. This book deals with the foundations of knowledge and the faculty of understanding (understanding).

[xxxvii] Georges Berkeley published A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710. He developed an empirical idealism, known as intangible empiricism, see spiritualist which is summed up by the formula "esse est percipi aut percipere", "to be is to be perceived or to perceive" . He was only 25 years old when he published this book.

[xxxviii] According to Berkeley the world around us does not exist. There would only be "perceivers". The perceiver refers to the person who perceives what surrounds him. It is therefore influenced by its history, its experience, its physiological characteristics, its values, its ideas, its knowledge, its a priori ... Thus the perception of an object is different depending on the person who observes it. A more modern (easily questionable) interpretation would say that it is the sum of perceptions that defines the object.

[xl] Locke and Berkeley primarily considered object perception. By replacing the subject, Hume announces the answer that Kant will give him in his Critique of Pure Reason (and which we will study in our second publication).

[xli] According to Hume all of our beliefs can be traced through experience. He distinguishes the impression which is the immediate result of the experience and the idea which is the hallmark of the impression. The impression is engraved in our mind and we retain ideas which are diminished images of those impressions. For Hume the production of our mind is just the result of associations of ideas in time and space. He distinguishes between simple ideas and complex ideas. Complex ideas must be broken down into simple ideas (from which they originate) in order to be identified, validated or invalidated.

[xlii] The sect of Empirics founded by Philinos of Cos in the 3rd century BC strongly influenced the Pyrrhonian skeptical philosopher Sextus Empiricus. The Pyrrhonians opened a 3rd voice by continuing to seek the truth by the suspension of judgment instead of considering it either 1 / impossible to grasp or 2 / defined by a dogma.

[xliii] DESCARTES, René. 1637. Le Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences

1 - The principle of evidence "The first was never to receive anything as true that I obviously did not know it to be such; that is, to carefully avoid haste and prevention, and understand nothing more in my judgments than what would present itself so clearly and distinctly to my mind, that I had no opportunity to to doubt it ”.

2 - The principle of decomposition " The second, to divide each of the difficulties that I would examine, into as many plots as possible, and which would be required to better resolve them ".

3 - The principle of order “ The third, to conduct my thoughts in order, starting with the simplest and easiest objects to know, to gradually rise as by degrees until the knowledge of the most composed, and even assuming order between those who do not naturally precede each other ".

4 - The principle of verification " And the last, to make everywhere such complete enumerations and reviews so general, that I was sure not to omit anything ".

[xliv] VERHEYEN, Gunther. 2013. Scrum a Pocket Guide, a smart travel companion. Van Haren Publishing.