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When over 50% of Scrum implementations fail to deliver on time, on budget, with happy customers according to Standish Group data, we need to find tools and techniques to help us improve the odds against this. Essence is the key to driving success!

The Challenge

Scrum is by far the most widely used agile framework in the world, but we’ve also found that 58% of Scrum implementations fail. Scrum itself is not the issue but it’s in how it is adopted and put into practice. Further investigation reveals that of the 21 components of Scrum, the average team implements 1/3 of them well, 1/3 of them poorly and 1/3 of them not at all. With that level and quality of implementation it is not surprising that we are not always seeing the full potential that Scrum offers.

How can we help teams get better at understanding, adopting, using and improving Scrum?

Essence the key to success

Essence is an industry standard for describing practices, which means there is no change to the actual Scrum content but an enhanced way for presenting it to teams. One of the main things you notice with Essence is the use of cards to represent the main concepts of any practice. There are a few simple types of card representing principles, roles, activities and the things produced. Here’s the 21 cards that describe Scrum.

These cards give an instant tactile way to manipulate the ideas, particularly when used with a team to play some serious games. We’ve described some of these games in an article at ACM Queue entitled “Scrum Essentials Cards”. The example games there illustrate using them for:

  • Learning new practices and enhancing training events
  • Improving a team’s way of working in Retrospectives
  • Coordinating the team around activities
  • Agreeing Responsibilities within the team and other stakeholders
  • Tracking Progress of the key items under development
  • Determining the current status of the endeavor

When you get the cards in your hand you will no doubt develop your own games and can use them whenever discussions happen around how you work.

The cards are used to drive the discussions within the team and always have a few sentences summing up each concept. Putting this information at the fingertips of the team means there are useful brief reminders and avoids things being forgotten or misremembered. It moves the team away from perhaps incorrect opinions and gives them a common point of truth around the Scrum framework.

The Essence cards keeps the process alive and visible in the regular work and can make team discussions around process fun and focussed!

In our own Scrum training we play a game called Build Your Own Scrum where teams place the cards on flipcharts and join them up with lines and labels to describe Scrum. One attendee said they learnt more in that 1 hour exercise with the cards than they had in the last 6 years working in a Scrum team!

Using Essence to mix and match with other Practices

One of the reasons Scrum is so successful, long-lived and widely adopted is because it keeps the focus on how a team effectively comes together to get work done. It is a true framework so doesn’t prescribe how other things are done such as requirements, design, coding, testing, etc. These other things can be adopted as appropriate for each team to suit them and their circumstances and can change over time while the Scrum framework stays the same. This gives flexibility and allows Scrum to be used in many ways, even for teams that have nothing to do with building software systems!

The Essence standard has this same philosophy and doesn’t prescribe how to work. It enables practices from different sources to be compared and composed with each other. So for requirements work you could adopt a Feature-driven practice, a User Story Practice, a Use Case Practice, any other Requirements Practice or maybe a combination of them that you can customize yourself.

Scaling up by adding and adopting additional practices is far better than starting with a large prescriptive ‘framework’ and deciding what to leave out. You often end up adopting more than you need, with techniques you don’t want but they come with the larger frameworks. Teams without experience find It difficult to make these choices and often end up following too much process blindly without really understanding why they are doing things. With Essence you adopt one practice at a time with each focussed on solving one problem well.

See the Big Picture with Essence

A powerful new idea that the Essence standard brings is formally describing the lifecycle of states that key items go through with simple checklists. These things we care about tracking are called Alphas, with examples like your Scrum Product Backlog Items or Improvements.

You are probably used to managing hundreds of these small Alphas, such as your individual backlog items, but many teams struggle to see the bigger picture in play. Essence helps here by describing a set of top-level Alphas called the Essence Kernel. They are applicable to all teams allowing you to see where you are in the big picture and plan what you need to achieve next. It covers the lifecycles of Stakeholders, the Opportunity, Requirements, Software System, Team, Work and the Way of Working. Once again this is described in a way that is completely independent of the practices you use. So, it is non-prescriptive yet gives a structure for the other practices you choose to fill in the details while still being able to see the higher-level view.

Using the Essence Kernel will make your Scrum better by helping you to consider the wider, holistic view necessary to ensure success and identifying where you need new practices to supplement the Scrum framework.

Try Essence with your Scrum team now

Why not try Essence out now and see how you can make your own Scrum implementation better. A good place to start would be to get hold of the Scrum Essence cards and use them in a Retrospective to assess how you’re doing and to identify your own improvement actions.


The Scrum Cards                        Essence Games paper