TL; DR: Elements of Empiricism

In its theory section, the Scrum Guide refers to the three elements of empiricism: transparency, inspection, and adaptation. However, a fourth element, foundational to enable empiricism, is hidden in a sentence on Scrum Values. Read on and learn more about the complete picture of Scrum’s empiricism.

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Let’s start with what the Scrum Guide says about empiricism:

“Scrum is founded on empiricism and lean thinking. Empiricism asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is observed. Lean thinking reduces waste and focuses on the essentials.”

“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.”

SourceScrum Guide 2020.

In other words, every Scrum event is an opportunity to inspect and adapt something:

Sprint Planning: Inspects the Product Backlog and the Product Goal and adapts the Sprint Backlog and the Sprint Goal.
Daily Scrum: Inspects the progress towards the Sprint Goal and adapts the Sprint Backlog. 
Sprint Review: Inspects the Sprint, the Increment, the Product Backlog, and the progress towards the Product Goal.
Retrospective: Inspects the Sprint at the team level, the Definition of Done, and creates improvements.

Let us delve into the practice of applying empiricism’s three pillars:


“The emergent process and work must be visible to those performing the work as well as those receiving the work. With Scrum, important decisions are based on the perceived state of its three formal artifacts. Artifacts that have low transparency can lead to decisions that diminish value and increase risk.”

“Transparency enables inspection. Inspection without transparency is misleading and wasteful.”

SourceScrum Guide 2020.

A proven approach to creating transparency as a team is avoiding becoming a black box to stakeholders:

Generously explain how Scrum works; maybe, even offer to train your stakeholder to best work with you.
Create a system that allows all stakeholders to understand why the Scrum team picked some requirements over others. (Learn more: 14 Product Backlog Refinement Principles.)
Include stakeholders in principle work, for example, by organizing joint user story mapping sessions.
Convince your stakeholders of their importance in making Scrum work for you, for example, by attending Sprint Review sessions.
Provide access to artifacts from your Product Backlog to the Definition of Done.
Tailor your communication to the needs of the stakeholders. (Learn more: 11 Proven Stakeholder Communication Tactics.)

Apart from external transparency, also pay attention to internal transparency. For example, do not expect team members subordinate to another team member to be fully transparent in Retrospectives. In my experience, many internal transparency issues are rooted in organizational processes or practices or particular individuals.

Some food for thought: Is transparency binary or a gradient?


“The Scrum artifacts and the progress toward agreed goals must be inspected frequently and diligently to detect potentially undesirable variances or problems. To help with inspection, Scrum provides cadence in the form of its five events.”

“Inspection enables adaptation. Inspection without adaptation is considered pointless. Scrum events are designed to provoke change.”

SourceScrum Guide 2020.

As mentioned before, every Scrum event is an opportunity to inspect and adapt something, provided transparency is not an issue.

This principle is also why you cannot skip any events from Sprint Planning to the Retrospective without undermining empiricism’s effectiveness. (Postponing them can have a similar effect.)

I also recommend avoiding extending sprint length in a futile effort to save on “meeting overhead” to prevent decoupling from the market. Running in the wrong direction due to a lack of feedback from customers and users can be significantly more expensive.


“If any aspects of a process deviate outside acceptable limits or if the resulting product is unacceptable, the process being applied or the materials being produced must be adjusted. The adjustment must be made as soon as possible to minimize further deviation.”

“Adaptation becomes more difficult when the people involved are not empowered or self-managing. A Scrum Team is expected to adapt the moment it learns anything new through inspection.”

SourceScrum Guide 2020.

Adaption becomes significantly easier when neither the Scrum team nor the organization considers a course correction a failure but a regular means of operation. However, in the end, creating valuable Increments in a complex environment is still about adapting to change over following a plan. 

Decoupling any adaptation from ego or reputation is helpful too. A necessary change shall not reflect poorly on any individual. “Failure is not an option” does not fly in a complex environment, particularly given the idea that we base all adaptations on evidence and observation.

Also, a Scrum team must have the agency to initiate any necessary adaptation. Any approval process delays the inevitable, probably causing additional costs or increasing the risk level.

The Fourth Element of Empiricism: Trust

While our primary Scrum source dedicates significant space to detailing the three basic elements of empiricism, it is remarkably brief on the foundation of those—trust:

“When these [Scrum] values are embodied by the Scrum Team and the people they work with, the empirical Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life building trust.”

SourceScrum Guide 2020.

How do you build trust beyond the simple reference to “everyone needs to live Scrum values?” The answer to that question is feeding a whole industry; think servant leadership, radical candor, or psychological safety, to name a few.

At a personal level, I believe that saying what you mean and meaning what you say is effective; ambiguity does not help build rapport. Moreover, never expect other people to do what you’re not willing to do yourself. Also, if something goes wrong, own it and be the first to ask: how may I have contributed to this undesired outcome?

At the team level, most important is one thing where the Scrum team exercises decisive influence: the regular delivery of valuable Increments within the given constraints while contributing to the organization’s sustainability. Everyone trusts a successful team. 

You are not mistaken if that sounds like a chicken and egg problem. Building trust requires weeks, months, or years of continuously contributing to the greater good, individually and as a team. In contrast, destroying trust merely takes seconds.


I hate referring to an old marketing slogan of a banking institute

However, trust is indeed the beginning of all. Without trust, there is no transparency. Without transparency or partial transparency at best, inspection will be impeded. Such an inspection will result in flawed analysis, likely leading the subsequent adaptation in the wrong direction. Consequently, instead of mitigating risks, we may achieve the opposite only to be discovered when the Increment is available, failing to deliver the impact we sought in the beginning.

How are you dealing with the complex requirements of Scrum’s core principle of empiricism? Please share your insights with us in the comments.

📖 Elements of Empiricism — Related Posts

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