Empiricism explained with the help of Making Pancakes

You most likely have heard about “Empiricism” since more and more teams and companies embrace Agile, Scrum & Kanban. In this post I will explain what Empiricism is, why it is important to understand, while using a simple example of making pancakes. Credits for inspiration on the pancake story go to my colleague Dirk, a fellow Scrum Master at Nike.

Enjoy reading if you like it give it a thumbs up! πŸ‘¨πŸ»β€πŸ’»πŸ‘

What is Empiricism?

Empiricism, in philosophy, the view that all concepts originate in experience, that all concepts are about or applicable to things that can be experienced, or that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience. This broad definitions accords with the derivation of the term empiricism from the Ancient Greek word emporia, “experience.”

To make it a bit more easier. Empiricism is a theory that states knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. This theory emphasized the role of the five senses in obtaining knowledge (Sight, Hearing, Taste, Touch, Smell) Empiricism rejects innate concepts or inborn knowledge. John Locke, one of the most famous empiricist stated that mind is a blank slate (tabula rasa) when we enter the world. According to this theory, it is only later, though the acquisition of experience that we gain knowledge and information.

However, if knowledge comes only through experience, it is impossible for us to talk about something that we have not experienced. This claims the questions the validity of religious and ethical concepts; since these concepts cannot be observed or experienced, they were considered to be meaningless. Nevertheless, moderate empiricists accept that there are some phenomenon that cannot be explained through senses.

Let’s eat… eh.. “talk” Pancakes!! πŸ§‘πŸ»β€πŸ³πŸ€€

Who doesn’t enjoy pancakes on a Saturday afternoon?! You might be a Mom or Dad, making pancakes for your kids or just love pancakes yourself. Most likely the majority of people you know, once made a pancake or at least tried.

Let’s go back to the first experience when you made a pancake. Was it a perfect looking and delicious pancake on the first go? Probably not..

Making a pancake is easy: start with the ingredients like eggs, sugar, flour and milk as these are the main ingredients and after following the recipe a couple of times, you’ll get the hang of what the texture of the pancake mixture should look like: not too fluid, not too solid. To be honest, messing up the pancake mixture is quite difficult to do.

The difficulty when making a pancake is that some elements need to be in a good shape. The pan needs to be at a certain temperature, adding the butter and wait for the right moment to put a portion of mixture in the pan. Not too much, not too little. Another difficult step is when to flip the pancake.. wait too long it will be a brown, dark or even worse burned pancake. Wait too little it will be a sticky mess.

I can say before I mastered making a perfect looking and delicious pancake this happened to me as well. Most of us experienced this, especially the first few times.

Mike this is great! It makes me really hungry, but what has this to do with Empiricism?!..

Let me explain, creating the perfect, delicious pancake at the first time might be a fairy tale story. To nail this the first time you need some craftsmanship, experience in the kitchen, experience how to make a perfect pancake. In the development process of a pancake, we have all ingredients, we know how to mix this and to cook a successful first pancake. There are some elements that need to be in a good shape for example; what is the right temperature of the pan before putting in the mixture, the mixture consistency, the amount of butter we use, and probably some more elements. In order for us to become a Masterchef in making pancakes, we need to learn from the first time and keep improving.

While learning and doing it, you’ll most likely use your five senses like sight on how does the pancake really look like, hearing the sizzling butter in the pan, smell because the whole house will smell great and your neighbors might knock on your door, taste because we all want a delicious pancake to eat on a Saturday afternoon, and touch to see if it is firm and not falling apart. We experiment to observe what works and what doesn’t to get closer to the most perfect and delicious pancake we can make. We call this the Inspection & Adaption that we continuously do during the development of making pancakes. The most important element to make Inspection & Adaption really powerful, is that we need to be Transparent on what see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.

Basically you need to experience while developing the pancake, appropriate transparency, so that we can inspect, we learn from it and adapt to be able to grow your craftsmanship, learn from experience in the kitchen and become better at making the perfect looking and delicious pancake. Because you are doing this frequently at some moment you will get to a point that you have reached the craftsmanship creating the perfect, delicious pancake for your kids or for yourself.πŸ§‘πŸ»β€πŸ³β€οΈ

Empiricism and link to Scrum

Actually you can find this back in the official Scrum Guide 2020, “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.” If you are a Scrum practitioner I highly recommend to keep reading the Scrum Guide from time to time, as you will almost every time find refreshing elements, while experiencing Scrum on the job.

Transparency: This means presenting the facts as is. All people involved-the customer, the CEO, individual contributors-are transparent in their day-to-day dealing with others. They all trust each other, and they have the courage to keep each other abreast of good news as well as bad news. Everyone strives and collectively collaborates for the common organizationals objective, and no one has any hidden agenda. 

Inspection: Inspection in this context is not an inspection by an inspector or an auditor but an inspection by every- one on the Scrum Team. The inspection can be done for the product, processes, people aspects, practices, and continuous improvements. For example, the team openly and transparently shows the product at the end of each Sprint to the customer in order to gather valuable feedback. If the customer changes the requirements during inspection, the team does not complain but rather adapts by using this as an opportunity to collaborate with the customer to clarify the requirements and test out the new hypothesis.

Adaption: Adaptation in this context is about continuous improvement, the ability to adapt based on the results of the inspection. Everyone in the organization must ask the question regularly: Are we better off than yesterday? For profit-based organizations, the value I represented in terms of profit. The adaptation should eventually relay back to one of the reasons for adapting Agile-for example, faster time to market, increased return on investment through value-based delivery, reduced total cost of ownership through enhanced software quality, and improved customer and employee satisfaction. 

Without appropriate Transparency, we might Inspect & Adapt the “wrong” things.

Inspired by Gunther Verheyen – The house of Scrum

Just like we learned (all knowledge we obtained) to become better at making a perfect, delicious pancake while experimenting. With the guidance of the Scrum Framework we actually do the same, only creating other type of products. We aim to make the most valuable product for our customer, to make it the best product we need to be Transparent from all people involved, to be able to Inspect and Adapt our plan, with all knowledge we obtained while being in the process. Doing this consistently will have a big impact on creating the most valuable product for our customer.

The Three Pillars of Empiricism (Scrum) are really critical to understand to make it really Powerful. Scrum doesn’t work because it has three roles, five events, and three artifacts but because it adheres to the underlying Agile principles of iterative, value-based incremental delivery by frequently gathering customer feedback and embracing change. This results in faster time to market, better delivery predictability, increased customer responsiveness, ability to change direction by managing changing priorities, enhanced software quality, and improved risk management.

Lucky for us these three pillars are build into the Scrum Framework, I am going to cover this more in-depth in other blog posts. I’ll keep you posted..πŸ‘¨πŸ»β€πŸ’»

Credits: Dirk Depre – Pancake story, Gunther Verheyen – House of Scrum.

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