Can Scrum Help You?

Organizations that have diligently applied Scrum are experiencing a different reality.

These organizations are repeatedly delighting their customers by giving them what they really want, not just the features they might have specified on the first day when they knew the least about their true needs. They are also seeing an improved return on investment by delivering smaller, more frequent releases. And, by relentlessly exposing organizational dysfunction and waste, these organizations are able to reduce costs.

Scrum’s focus on delivering working, integrated, tested, business-valuable features each iteration leads to results being delivered fast. Scrum is also well suited to help organizations succeed in a complex world where they must quickly adapt based on the interconnected actions of competitors, customers, users, regulatory bodies, and other stakeholders. And Scrum provides more joy for all participants. Not only are customers delighted, but also the people doing the work actually enjoy it! They enjoy frequent and meaningful collaboration, leading to improved interpersonal relationships and greater mutual trust among team members.

Though Scrum is an excellent solution for many situations, it is not the proper solution in all circumstances. The Cynefin framework is a sense-making framework that helps us understand the situation in which we have to operate and decide on a situation-appropriate approach. It defines and compares the characteristics of five different domains: simple, complicated, chaotic, complex, and a fifth domain, disorder, which occurs when you don’t know which other domain you are in. We can take help from the Cynefin framework to discuss situations in which Scrum is and is not a good fit.


Simple Domain

When dealing with simple problems, everyone can see cause and effect. Often the right answer is obvious and undisputed. This is the domain of legitimate best practices. There are known solutions. Once we assess the facts of our situation, we can determine the proper predefined solution to use. Scrum can be used for simple problems, but it may not be the most efficient tool for this type of problem. Using a process with a well-defined, repeatable set of steps that are known to solve the problem would be a better fit. For example, if we want to reproduce the same product over and over again, a well-defined assembly-line process would be a better fit than Scrum. Or deploying the same commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) product into the 100th customer environment might best be completed by repeating a well-defined and proven set of steps for installing and configuring the product.

Complicated Domain

Complicated problems are the domain of good practices dominated by experts. There might be multiple right answers, but expert diagnosis is required to figure them out. Although Scrum can certainly work with these problems, it might not be the best solution. For example, a performance optimization effort that calls for adjusting parameters to find the best overall system performance would be better served by assembling experts and letting them assess the situation, investigate several options, and base their response on good practice. Much of day-to-day software maintenance (dealing with a flow of product support or defect issues) falls into this category. This is also where many of the tactical, quantitative approaches like Six Sigma are particularly well suited, although these tactical approaches can also apply with simple domains.

Complex Domain

When dealing with complex problems, things are more unpredictable than they are predictable. If there is a right answer, we will know it only with hindsight. This is the domain of emergence. We need to explore to learn about the problem, then inspect and adapt based on our learning. Working in complex domains requires creative and innovative approaches. Routine, cookie-cutter solutions simply don’t apply. We need to create a safe-fail environment for experimentation so that we can discover important information. In this environment high levels of interaction and communication are essential. Innovative new-product development falls into this category as does enhancing existing products with innovative new features. Scrum is particularly well suited for operating in a complex domain. In such situations our ability to probe (explore), sense (inspect), and respond (adapt) is critical.

Chaotic Domain

Chaotic problems require a rapid response. We are in a crisis and need to act immediately to prevent further harm and re-establish at least some order. For example, suppose a university published an article stating that our product has a flawed algorithm that is producing erroneous results. Our customers have made substantial business investments based on the results from our product, and they are filing lawsuits against us for large damages. Our lead algorithm designer is on holiday in the jungles of Borneo and can’t be reached for two more weeks. Scrum is not the best solution here. We are not interested in  prioritizing a backlog of work and determining what work to perform in the next iteration. We need the ability to act immediately and decisively to stem the bleeding. With chaotic problems, someone needs to take charge of the situation and act.

A useful map for navigating your way into the concepts and field of complexity is “The Stacey Matrix“. It can help to guide you by offering a method to select the appropriate management actions in a complex adaptive system based on the degree of certainty and level of agreement on the problem in question.



You are in the disorder domain when you don’t know which of the other domains you are in. This is a dangerous place to be because you don’t know how to make sense of your situation. In such cases, people tend to interpret and act according to their personal preference for action. In software development, many people are familiar with and therefore have a personal preference for phase-based, sequential approaches that work well in simple domains. Unfortunately, these tend to be a rather poor fit for much of software development. When you are in the disorder domain, the way out is to break down the situation into constituent parts and assign each to one of the other four domains. You are not trying to apply Scrum in the disorder domain; you are trying to get out of this domain.

Interrupt-Driven Work

Scrum is not well suited to highly interrupt-driven work. Say you run a customer support organization and you want to use Scrum to organize and manage your support activities. Your Product Backlog is populated on a continuous basis as you receive support requests via phone or email. At no point in time do you have a product backlog that extends very far into the future, and the content and order of your backlog could change frequently (perhaps hourly or every few minutes).

In this situation, you will not be able to reliably plan iterations of a week or more because you won’t know what the work will be that far into the future. And, even if you think you know the work, there is a very good likelihood that a high-priority support request will arrive and preempt any such forward-looking plans.

In interrupt-driven environments you would be better off considering an alternative Agile approach called Kanban. Kanban is not a stand-alone process solution, but instead an approach that is overlaid on an existing process. In particular, Kanban advocates that you:

  • Visualize how the work flows through the system (for example, the steps that the support organization takes to resolve a support request)
  • Limit the work in process (WIP) at each step to ensure that you are not doing more work than you have the capacity to do
  • Measure and optimize the flow of the work through the system to make continuous improvements

The sweet spots for Kanban are the software maintenance and support areas. Some Kanban practitioners point out that Kanban’s  focus on eliminating overburden (by aligning WIP with capacity) and reducing variability in flow while encouraging an evolutionary approach to change makes it appropriate to use in complex domains as well.

Scrum and Kanban are both Agile approaches to development, and each has strengths and weaknesses that should be considered once you make sense of the domain in which you are operating. In some organizations both Scrum and Kanban can be used to address the different system needs that coexist. For example, Scrum can be used for new-product development and Kanban for interrupt-driven support and maintenance.

Scrum is not a silver bullet or a magic cure. Scrum can, however, enable you to embrace the changes that accompany all complex product development efforts. Although the Scrum framework is simple, it would be a mistake to assume that Scrum is easy and painless to apply. Scrum doesn’t prescriptively answer your process questions; instead, it empowers teams to ask and answer their own great questions. Scrum doesn’t give individuals a cookbook solution to all of their organizational maladies; instead, Scrum makes visible the dysfunctions and waste that prevent organizations from reaching their true potential.

2 thoughts on “Can Scrum Help You?

  1. Stacey’s matrix is universally misinterpreted by virtually everyone that claims to be an expert in agile. Stacey has abandoned the idea of the matrix in his later works and has openly stated how it led to general misconception of his ideas relating to complexity. Given that the author urges against use of the matrix, I find it frustrating that it is still used (incorrectly) in management and scrum so much. I strongly advise reading Stacey’s book (it is very interesting) and removing the matrix from your otherwise interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

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