The Chemistry of Scrum

Scrum and Chemistry. I bet those two topics aren’t something you’d immediately tie together, right? However, one thing I find incredibly powerful as a trainer and as a teacher is that when you can create a ‘hook’ for a piece of knowledge to hang on, your student is much more likely to remember it. It’s a concept called sticky teaching and you’re receptive to it even if you don’t realise it. You see, the hooks can be anything. Sometimes it’s a catchy tune helping you to remember the lyrics to a song, sometimes it’s a colourful picture that teaches you a concept, and sometimes, it’s just a story that you remember. So here I go, let’s create a hook and talk about observing Scrum Teams.

Whenever you start with a new team as a Scrum Master, the first thing I’d always encourage you to do is silently observe. You are taking this time to look for areas where you can help the team improve so that when the time comes to act, your work is impactful and targeted. The problem though is that teams can be very good at masking their inefficiencies and hiding their failures behind excuses. Unless you’re very experienced, a great Scrum Team and a poor Scrum Team can ostensibly look very similar from an observer’s point of view. Their values can be muddled, the accountabilities could be undefined, and the value they deliver could be questionable.

There is a topic in advanced chemistry called chirality. To oversimplify, it’s where two mirror images are distinguishable from one another. Now, you may be thinking, ‘well that’s not a mirror image then’, and you’d be…wrong. Place your hands together in ‘prayer’. Those two hands are mirror images of one another and yet, no matter how you twist them, you cannot make your right-hand look like your left-hand. This is chirality in action*.

If you happen to be amongst the tiny percentage of readers who are interested in a chemical example, then thalidomide is a brutal but very true story of chirality. Two mirror-image molecules, one (the right-hand) can help with morning sickness but the other (the left-hand) causes birth defects. Sadly, in 1957, thalidomide was given to many pregnant mothers with devastating effects — all because the molecules looked the same, but generated very different outcomes.

How does this relate to Scrum? Well, let’s go back to the example of observing a new Scrum Team. How can you tell, based purely on observation, whether you’ve got a good or a poor team in front of you? It’s simple actually, like with chirality, you observe the impacts and outcomes of the Scrum Team, rather than just how they look on the outside. Take a look at their release frequency, the stakeholder feedback, the morale of the team…I could go on. It’s the outcome that matters. So, during your observation of a new team don’t just watch how they act, but gather data on how they perform.

You’ll have noticed by now that there isn’t much to this blog post. But, I want you to take away two simple things:

- don’t judge a Scrum Team by their actions but by the outcomes they produce

- consciously creating hooks for people to remember things is powerful and worthwhile

  • Chemistry buffs, I know I’m conflating chirality, stereoisomerism and enantiomers. Please forgive me.

Originally published at on January 4, 2022.



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Ryan is a Professional Scrum Trainer (PST) for He is an active consultant for a large corporate organisation. He also holds Qualified Teacher Status.