Inspect & Adapt – 2 Pillars of Scrum

The Scrum Framework bundles two of the three pillars of Scrum into one nice and tidy event called the Sprint Retrospective.   While not the only time the team inspects and adapts, it’s the one team level discussion that focuses entirely on just that topic.   What are we doing well, and where could we do better.

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. 

Agile Manifesto

Change simply for the sake of change is annoying to everyone.  People are generally not averse to change, they are averse to being changed. Change brought about by inspection, by the entire team, of what is working and what could be improved, can lead to those “breakthrough” changes which enable far higher levels of value creation. It also promotes a high level of inclusion and sense of autonomy. A sense of autonomy is one of the 3 factors required for intrinsic motivation, according to Daniel Pink in his book Drive.

Deeper Issues

In my experience and witnessing & discussing this with other Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches, the Retrospective is typically the first event which is jettisoned by Scrum Teams.  Excuses typically range from “we don’t have time” to “we’re already good, there’s nothing left to change”.  Both are potentially examples of deeper issues such as:

  • “We don’t have time” could be a manifestation of situations such as:
    1. The team has too high work-in-progress (WIP). High WIP is a delivery killer because of the costs of context switching when attempting to work on too many items at once. You can pay up to a 20% “tax” (time lost) when switching between tasks.
    2. Deadlines are being set by others outside the team and the team is being held to those dates
  • “There’s nothing left to change”:
    1. The Retrospectives the team has had to date aren’t resulting in any real change or improvement.   Retrospect the Retrospectives – are they resulting in meaningful change initiatives or is the team just going through the motions?
    2. The team is not empowered to fully own their results and processes.  This is a symptom of micro-management which will demotivate teams.
    3. The team has experimented with change but any failure was held against them.  This is a very unhealthy situation in which the stigma of failure is held over the team rather than allowing the team to “fail fast to learn fast”.  So rather than “trying something” they would prefer to do nothing.

If you’re not seeing results you might expect, or seeing any changes at all, look deeper at what is really taking place.   Is the team engaged?   Are they bringing forth new change ideas or have the retrospectives stagnated where the same old topic(s) resurface?  Is the team empowered to initiate change?   Are they afraid to experiment?  

Trusted teams are empowered to become self-managing in that they review and adjust their methods of work in ways which complement them and their context.   Good teams retrospect often, at least once every few weeks. Great teams may adopt an “Andon Cord” mindset where, as issues are encountered, they will halt activities and correct the problem immediately. They don’t put off until later a problem that is occurring now.

If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes

It has been said before that Scrum will not fix your problems. I agree with this completely.  It can, however, expose issues within the team, the processes and the organization.   But if nothing is ever done (adapt) about the situations and issues exposed then an organization cannot expect to reap the benefits of Scrum or any other agile or lean practices.



Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the status quo good enough for our company to thrive?
  • Are we delivering value consistently and often?
  • Are our customers continually engaged in crafting our product(s)?
  • Are our team members happy, engaged and motivated?

If any of these raise any doubts or concerns, double down on inspect & adapt opportunities. Remove issues or impediments that are holding your teams, and company, back.

Resources for Improvement

Here are some links and book recommendations to help move your retrospectives from perhaps non-existent or ineffective to promoting positive change through experimentation. Remember though, the teams and Programs need a safe environment within which to experiment with change.

My favorite, I always use this for the first retrospective I have with a group: The Sailboat Retrospective

Literally millions of ideas here,, based on the 5 Step Retrospective format from Ester Derby & Diana Larsen.

Wrapping Up

Change can be disruptive and difficult, no doubt about it.  But not changing should not be an option. If your goals include increasing the agility of your organization and to improve the value delivery to your customers, continuous improvement is table stakes. Because if you don’t embrace change and leverage it for your competitive advantage, your customers will.

As W. Edwards Deming wrote: “Survival is not compulsory. Improvement is not compulsory. But improvement is necessary for survival.”

Until next time!

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