What Is Empirical Process Control in Scrum?

And how it relates to transparency, inspection, and adaptation
An infographic defining inspection, adaptation, and transparency in scrum

Reviewed by Ben Floyd and Clinton Keith

Empirical process control is a way of managing work that is based on observation and experimentation. It is a core principle of scrum, and it is what allows scrum teams to be flexible and adaptive in the face of change.

In common terms, empirical process control means learning by doing and making adjustments as needed. It is like driving a car: you constantly need to monitor the road conditions and adjust your speed and steering accordingly. You can't plan out every detail of your journey in advance, because there will always be unexpected things that happen.

What Is Empiricism in Scrum?

Originating in the 17th century, empiricism is the theory that all knowledge is gained by experience and observations.

Empirical process control—the "how" of creating something—in scrum is different from defined process control. In the latter, work is clearly understood before it begins and completed in a series of predictable steps.

Imagine baking a triple chocolate cake as the flagship product of your baking company. Through word of mouth, your triple chocolate cake has become wildly famous. In this situation, defined process control will help replicate the same famous cake flavor, crumb, texture, and appearance time after time. Put in the same inputs (ingredients, measurements, baking temperature, and time), and you should get the same, repeatable output.

On the other hand, empirical process control works well in environments that:

  • Are unpredictable
  • The work is complex
  • Inputs may fluctuate

A complex work environment is one that is characterized by a high degree of uncertainty, change, and interconnectedness. It is an environment where it is difficult to predict what will happen next, and where there is a lot of interdependence between different teams and individuals.

Here is a simple analogy:

Imagine you are trying to build a house in a forest. The terrain is uneven, the trees are in the way, and there are wild animals roaming around. This is a complex environment, and it will require a lot of planning and adaptation to build the house successfully.

Agile teams working in IT, marketing, human resources, banking, software development, and many other domains are well-positioned to use empirical process control to manage their work.

The Three Empirical Pillars of Scrum 

The three empirical pillars in scrum are transparency, inspection, and adaptation. These three behaviors are what allow your scrum team and stakeholders to gain knowledge about what you're creating based on their ability to observe and provide feedback, and your ability to quickly pivot when needed. 

Empirical process control—a way of managing work based on experience and observation—provides the opportunity to examine "how" a product is created, which is just as important as "what" is being made.

Here's a closer look at the three empirical pillars that support empirical process control:

  • Transparency means that the process and work must be visible to your scrum team and stakeholders. Everyone must be able to see the artifacts (product backlog, sprint backlog, and increments) in order to inspect them.
  • Inspection means that team members and stakeholders examine the scrum artifacts and other outcomes. Successful inspection depends on transparency—if you can't observe, access, and experience all the essential artifacts, practices, working agreements, and more, then you can’t inspect them.
  • Adaptation means making adjustments to the work, artifacts, or your plan based on the results of your inspection and the feedback you received. Inspection may reveal an opportunity to improve interactions and collaboration. It may reveal a needed change for the product backlog or the product goal. To adapt immediately, scrum teams need to be empowered and self-managing. 

Examples of the Empirical Process in Action

All of the scrum events are opportunities for empiricism. With empiricism, we learn by doing to make better decisions. The scrum events provide opportunities to discuss what we've learned and to make those better decisions. Here are some ways empiricism appears in the scrum events:

Sprint review. The sprint review is a great example of transparency and inspection in action. In the sprint review, the scrum team shares their sprint outcomes for inspection by stakeholders and anyone else who has been invited to the review. 

While every team may run their review differently, there is the objective standard of the definition of done that can be brought into the review discussion.

Depending on the feedback gathered during the review, the team may adapt the product backlog or their plans for upcoming work. 

Sprint retrospective. In the sprint retrospective, the scrum team may discuss their collaboration, interactions, communication, processes, tools, and their definition of done. The goal is to identify problems and opportunities, wins and challenges, and then develop and choose action items to carry forward in their work. 

Daily scrum. Daily scrums are 15-minute daily events in which the developers embody transparency by discussing progress, work planned, and work stalled with the purpose of synchronizing their collaboration and efforts. All developers inspect progress and impediments and consider adaptations that might help the team achieve its sprint goal

Sprint planning. In the sprint planning event, the product owner can embody transparency by sharing their proposal for a goal for the sprint (the sprint goal is a stepping stone on the path to the product goal). The entire scrum team inspects this goal and the product backlog items in order to develop and adapt a backlog for the sprint.

Scrum's Empiricism Drives Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation

Scrum is based on empiricism, which involves observing events and artifacts in the world to make forward-looking decisions. This approach benefits both employees and organizations through the opportunity to be more predictable, faster to market, to innovate, to delight customers, and to pivot in response to change.

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