Scrum is like Jazz — it works best when you play and improvise

Scrum Mar 9, 2020

Prebaked plans and detailed instructions up-front are bound to fail

"Jazz is about being in the moment." — Herbie Hancock

Have you ever seen a jazz band perform? If you ever watched a jazz group play, you probably were astonished by the beautiful and original music conceived right in front of your eyes. Jazz, with all the off-notes and solos overtaking each other, seems chaotic and unstructured. The jazz musicians invent all melodies and music on the spot, by improvising and reacting to each other.

Image by WikiImages

But if you think jazz is random and unorganized, you are wrong. Jazz is highly structured and coordinated. Jazz follows light-weight rules to allow all that improvisation and creativity come together. The structured approach of jazz enables the band to play together without detailed instructions or up-front planning.

As trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said much better:

“Jazz is not just ‘Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.’ It’s a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study.” ― Wynton Marsalis

Scrum has a many similarities with jazz. Like jazz, Scrum is structured and requires rigorous discipline and study. Scrum also works best when the Scrum Team has the freedom to make decisions on the spot. By acting in the moment, you can incorporate the latest and best information in your choices.

Scrum helps you to react to what is unfolding before your eyes, instead of trying to predict — and fail — what exactly is going to happen.

How does Scrum enable improvisation and creativity?

Scrum empowers teams to act in the moment

Reality has a way of throwing dust in your eyes, especially if you try to make predictions based on too little information. When you enter the realm of fortune-telling with your planning and analysis, your team inevitably finds itself on the wrong foot.

Image by Céline Martin

The usual response to lacking information is to spend more time planning, to issue more detailed instructions, or to impose tighter controls on your team. These measures have the opposite effect.

No amount of analysis, planning, instructions, or controls can altogether remove the fog of uncertainty. All that planning, instructions, and controls instead add mist on top of the existing fog. Instead of fighting the fog, you need to work with it:

“The fog is a chest, a magical chest! What wonders are hidden in it, the only way to see them is to dive into the fog!”
― Mehmet Murat ildan

Dive into the fog. Take one step at a time and adjust your steps based on the new reality that reveals itself. To find your way through the fog, you need to be in the present and act based on what you sense and discover.

How can you leverage Scrum to enable improvisation and play?

There’s no point in fighting the tide. It ebbs. It flows. You ride it.  — Karen Marie Moning

To do Scrum well means to forgo exhaustive up-front planning, issuing detailed instructions, and imposing tight controls. You should place your trust in the Scrum Team and their ability to resolve challenges as they present themselves.

Too much planning, instructions, and controls result in a blinding fog that constricts the team from making the best decisions. Following the plans, instructions and controls will become more important than responding the best way to a new reality that reveals itself.

Image by Valentin Schönpos

Do not spend hours in Sprint Planning. It’s the point of time during the Sprint when you have the least information and understanding. Instead, go for a plan that is good enough. Allow the rest of the plan to emerge during the Sprint. The Sprint Goal is there to guide the Scrum Team to make the right decisions and make a better plan as you learn more.

The Daily Scrum is a moment where you can use the latest information to come up with a better plan and implement changes to optimize your probability of meeting the Sprint Goal. At the Daily Scrum your time spent planning gives better bang for your buck than doing it at Sprint Planning. The Daily Scrum allows your team to act based on what is known and make the best decisions based on the latest information.

At the Sprint Review and Retrospective, do not dwell too much on incorrect plans or estimates that are off. You will never get your plans or estimates right, so don’t waste your energy on the illusion that you can. Instead, try to cultivate in your team the ability to respond to changes and making decisions on the fly.

As written in the Scrum guide:

The essence of Scrum is a small team of people. The individual team is highly flexible and adaptive. — Scrum Guide

Building a flexible and adaptive team skilled in dealing with obstacles pays off more than trying to control things that can never be controlled. This is why the essence of Scrum is a small team of people that is highly flexible and adaptive.

Do not waste your time trying to predict circumstances that you can never predict. Practicing to become more adaptable and flexible yields much more success when that inevitable curve ball comes your way and makes all your plans obsolete.