When did you know that Scrum was an effective answer to complexity?

When did you know that Scrum was an effective answer to complexity?

Let’s start by describing the difference between complicated and complex environments. It’s so important to know the difference between the two that I always start an Agile consulting or Agile coaching engagement by asking my clients whether they know what complexity means.

Complicated versus Complex.


If you know more than 70% of the answer upfront and need a team of experts or deeply experienced professionals to figure out the remaining 30% of the solution, you’re in a complicated environment.

This is the domain of professions like accounting, civil engineering, or marketing.

Sure, it’s hard but you have a really good idea of what to do and how to achieve the outcomes you are looking for.


If you know 10% of the answer upfront and despite having a team of experts working on the problem or opportunity, you still don’t know if you will succeed moving forward, you’re in a complex environment.

In other words, the problem has never been solved before, nor has a solution ever been created and so there is no formula to follow. There is no predetermined path to success.

You must discover the answer through trial and error, and you are best served using Empiricism aka Empirical Process Control to achieve that.

  1. Transparency: Make the work, hypotheses, and systems transparent.
  2. Inspect: Inspect the work that you are doing as well as the data that you gather.
  3. Adapt: Use the data and feedback to adapt what you are doing and respond appropriately.

It is incredibly important that my clients understand what complexity means because it provides them with insight into the implications of complexity and why we need to adopt a completely different approach and mindset to traditional project management if we are to succeed.

I highly recommend an article on Harvard Business Review titled ‘A leaders framework for decision making’, by David Snowden and Mary Boone, to understand the difficulties associated with navigating complexity effectively.

Complexity in Product Development.

In complex problem-solving or solution development, we have what is referred to as unknown unknowns. Things we couldn’t possibly know upfront but are almost certain to encounter as we move through the ideation and development of a solution.

As we encounter the variable, we stop to assess what has happened, what it means, how it impacts our hypothesis, and what would be the next best step we could take to make progress.

Because we don’t know all the answers or variables upfront, we need enabling constraints – guardrails or boundaries that prevent us from going over a cliff edge – to ensure that we navigate complexity effectively.

Scrum Framework

Scrum has these enabling constraints embedded in the framework to ensure that we continuously make problems and challenges visible, frequently inspect the work we are doing as well as the data and evidence that we gather, and regularly adapt or respond based on the knowledge, skills, and capabilities we have in that moment.

  • This is what we have learned.
  • This is what we know now.
  • This is what we think will happen if we do X,
  • and this is how we will measure the success or failure of that experiment.

Simple. Effective. Empowering.

We don’t need to be right up front; we need to figure out what the right answer is at each step of our product development or product discovery journey.

Sprint Reviews.

I like to think of this as the freedom for the Scrum team to work autonomously, but every month they need to show us what they have built or what problems they have solved. So, although Scrum advocates autonomy, it comes with the responsibility of accountability.

Definition of Done

The definition of done (DoD) is another enabling constraint in Scrum.

How the team go about solving the problem or building the work is up to them, and as a product stakeholder or customer, you wouldn’t want to get caught up in those technical conversations. That said, you do get to specify what the acceptance criteria or definition of complete looks like before the team tackle the problem.

  • Quality requirements.
  • Legal requirements.
  • Compliance requirements.
  • Testing requirements.
  • Integration requirements.

And so forth.

Scrum enables the customer, product stakeholders, and product owner to determine what a great result or outcome looks like BEFORE the team bring the work into a sprint backlog.

Scrum as a great answer to complexity.

As soon as I began to work with Scrum, I immediately witnessed how powerful the framework is in giving teams a great starting point, regardless of how difficult or complex the problem is, and provides them with a framework to guide them through complexity effectively.

I love this quote from Dave Snowden, it really brings the challenges of complexity into perspective beautifully, and I often take a moment to let these powerful words soak deep into my mind.

“In complexity we manage the emergence of beneficial coherence within boundaries and that allows temporary, locally valid solutions to emerge.” – Dave Snowden

These are words to be savoured. To be considered. To reflect upon.

It provides a glimpse of how we might manage to navigate complex environments, and with the help of Scrum, even thrive in complex environments.

About Effective Agile

Ralph Jocham is a Change Agent in Scrum // Agile // Coaching // Evidence Based Management and also a Professional Scrum Trainer based in Europe.

As one of the first Professional Scrum Trainers in the world, Ralph has worked directly with cocreator of #Scrum, Ken Schwaber, and has played an integral part in the course development of the #PSPO (Professional Scrum Product Owner) as well as the delivery of all #Scrum.org certified courses.

If you’re looking to invest in training that transforms and empowers teams to successfully adopt #Scrum or #Agile, and create high-performance #productdevelopment environments leveraging the Agile values and principles, visit https://effectiveAgile.com/Agile-Scrum-trainings/

If you would like to work with Ralph and company as an #Agilecoach, #Agileconsultant, or powerful change agent to get your team back on track and on the road to high-performance #Agile #productdevelopment, visit https://effectiveAgile.com/Agile-transformation/

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