Empiricism for Dummies

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Philosophy is sadly not my forté. A quick glance at the Wikipedia page on empiricism makes me instantly confuzzled. And yet it is quite important (at least for me as a Scrum Master) to have knowledge of this philosophical movement. The Scrum pillars of empiricism (transparency, inspection and adaptation) form the basis of the Scrum framework. So it might come handy to be able to explain in simple words what empiricism actually is. From a true philosophy noob, here’s my attempt at empiricism for dummies.

All knowledge comes from experience

Various philosophical movements have debated on various topics since classical antiquity. One of the most discussed topics are the fundamentals of human knowledge. Where does human knowledge ultimately come from?

Empiricists are interested in explaining the origin of knowledge, with an emphasis on how the human mind acquires knowledge. The word ‘empirical’ derives from the Greek word ‘empeiria’ (ἐμπειρία), which translates to the Latin ‘experientia’, from which words as ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’ are derived. According to empiricism, all knowledge comes from experience. The human mind is seen as a blank slate (aka a ‘tabula rasa’), and is filled with ideas as it experiences the world through the five senses, or ‘sensory experience’. So, contrary to what the counterparts of empiricists (rationalists) say, humans are not born with imprinted ideas, knowledge and principles.

John Locke, a leading 17th century British philosopher and empiricist, stated that there is a relationship between the subject (the knower) and the object (the thing known). The subject perceives the object through the five senses. According to Locke, this makes the human mind form simple ideas such as ‘a chair’ or ‘a book’. The human mind, according to Locke, forms more complex ideas by putting simpler ideas together (the process of reflection).

Empiricism for Dummies
Source: https://isgeschiedenis.nl/nieuws/29-augustus-jarig-john-locke

A central concept in science is that conclusions should be empirically based on the evidence of the senses. Both natural sciences and social sciences use hypotheses that are testable through observation and experiment.

Empiricism and Scrum

So empiricism asserts that knowledge comes from sensory experience – and decision-making is based on that knowledge. Scrum is founded on empiricism and implements three empirical pillars in all its Scrum Events: transparency, inspection, and adaptation. These three pillars are vital (and I repeat: vital) in Scrum. All the choices made (and all the interactions and interventions of the Scrum Master), are rooted on (and promote) these three pillars. You should always uphold a fact-based, evidence-based and experienced-based environment. I could very well write up an explanation of the three Scrum pillars, but the Scrum Guide does it best.

The Scrum Guide does not however, provide a way to uphold an empirical mindset. Here are a few conceptions that are rooted in empiricism that might be helpful with an empirical mindset.

Conception 1: Progress is based on observations of reality (not cooked-up plans)

There is a great temptation to work out the final solution in detail beforehand. Besides the fact that it may be a ‘toplofty’ approach in which one would pretend to have all knowledge in advance, experience shows that reality is more unruly. Do not be tempted to work out too much in advance and try to ensure transparency, inspection and adaptation by experts, stakeholders and end users in the process.

Conception 2: Embrace and celebrate the ever-changing scope

Scrum employs empiricism to deal with unpredictability (such as is the case in software development). An empirical process is a much better fit for unpredictable work than a traditional (and predictive) approach. During development, there are many different factors that have an influence on what should be done and how. Requirements change continuously, technology changes continuously and people (i.e. users, stakeholders) are unpredictable – and therefore complex. This means that during Sprints, based on the continuously changing insights, the scope may change. A solution at one moment may be outdated the next. Progressive insight should be commended by the team as it helps to achieve the Sprint Goal better. Transparency and inspection are needed to gain progressive insight, but adaptation must be embraced to reap the benefits.

Conception 3: Beware of best practices

Scrum is a lightweight and versatile framework and provides good boundaries in which to work. But as with any framework, Scrum also comes with its share of advice and best practices, often given with the best intentions. But remember: what works in one situation may not work in another. Base your actions on reality, on your observations. Always choose the right technology or methodology for the right context in a rational way. As you learn new ways to deal with everyday problems you should always use your best judgment to adapt your best practices, to take advantage of what makes sense in that particular situation. No advice fits all!

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