Scrum First Principles
Promoted by Elon Musk, utilizing first principles thinking to solve issues in an innovative, creative, and less biased manner has proven popular in the technical community. Given that its sibling pragmatism is an integral part of Scrum as a framework, using Scrum first principles thinking is also a helpful exercise.
First Principles Thinking Background
In spite of Elon Musk’s popularization of first principles thinking, the concept has been around for thousands of years. First-principles thinking together with pragmatism formed an important part of ancient Greek philosophy, namely Aristotle‘s.
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First-principles thinking and empiricism go hand-in-hand: If all knowledge is achieved through experience and can be described by categories and sub-categories, the smallest sub-categories in any domain — its fundamentals — can be referred to as first principles. Hence by going back and forth between experience and reason, we can break down problems into the smallest bits and reassemble them, thus building a structured body of knowledge that can unleash creative approaches to solving problems at hands.
The cognitive trap in applying first principles thinking is that moving incrementally forward does not necessarily mean that we are challenging traditional ways of thinking at the same time. We tend to imitate instead of innovating. The first advertising on websites looked very familiar — like ads in a newspaper. This traditional way of thinking, the inherited manner led to an increment list approach, confining creativity instead of exciting it. It took a few years before applying the information-printed-on-paper paradigm to the Internet was abandoned in favor of a new paradigm, for example, by placing sponsored links alongside search results.
While progress and innovation always rely on trial and error and continuous improvement, the benefit of first principles thinking is to overcome the imitation phase (faster) thus enabling us to address a problem from a different angle, freeing our mind to come up with better solutions and decisions.
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Scrum First Principles
How can we use first principles thinking to Scrum? Concerning Scrum or the Scrum Guide, several aspirants for Scrum first principles come to mind:
- Empiricism — and its pillars clearness, inspection, and adaptation — to deal with difficulty
- Constant improvement
- Scrum Values
- Continuous delivery of valuable Product Increments
- Adherence to quality.
Top pick for the Scrum first principles are:
- Transparency: It is the allowing principle to create trust among Scrum Team members, the stakeholders, and the company in general. Without trust, no one is able to handle the complexity of product development.
- Self-organization: Problems are best solved by those closest to it; it is key to autonomy and thus accountability and overcoming the industrial paradigm.
- Scrum Values: Without courage, openness, and respect, there is no transparency.
- Quality: Nothing great has ever originated from substandard, mediocre work, and craftsmanship. (I consider “done” an attribute of quality.)
Whenever I run into a new challenging situation, I go back to my Scrum first principles to figure out a way to address the issue:
- Does the recommendation of the stakeholder enhance transparency, thus helping the Scrum Team to address complexity in a better way?
- Does the instruction of the line manager support the self-organization of the Scrum Team?
- Is a behavior violating our Scrum Values?
- Shall we cut corners to help the CEO save face?
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A useful companion in this regard is the Scrum Guide Reordered which is based on about ninety percent of the text of the 2017 Scrum Guide, extending its unique structure by adding additional categories. For instance, you find all quotes that can be attributed to the role of the Scrum Master in one place. While the Scrum Guide is concentrated on the three roles, five events, and three artifacts, I aggregated quotes on specific topics as well, for example, on self-organization, finance or technical debt.
If nothing helps, read the Scrum Guide, and apply its first principles to the problem at hand. This may sound like reinventing the wheel regularly but has proven to be more effective than googling the universe for an answer. Utilizing Scrum not a set of practices and rules, but as a model based on first principles thinking is the only way to deliver the return on investment, every organization looks for when deciding to go with Scrum.