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Q&A and Book Review of Scrum For The Rest of Us

Posted by Ben Linders on Jun 20, 2014 |

 

Can you use Scrum outside software development? Brian Rabon wrote the book Scrum for the rest of us, a distilled guide that describes the essence of Scrum.

This book explains Scrum without using information technology jargon which makes it suitable for all kinds of teams that want to use the Scrum method for managing their projects.

You can download a preview edition of Scrum for the rest of us here.

InfoQ interviewed Brian about managing projects outside software development with Scrum, preventing fall back from agile and dealing with challenges when implementing Scrum in organizations.

InfoQ: The book is title "Scrum for the rest of us". Who do you mean with "the rest of us", which audience do you want to reach with this book?

Brian: “The rest of us”, is anyone wanting to get stuff done in a fun and profitable way. Scrum has its roots in software development and that market is very mature. However, Scrum is a project management framework not a software development life cycle and that makes it ideal for any type of project with a large number of variables or high level of uncertainty. The growth in Scrum today is outside of software development. Organizations are looking for better ways to accomplish their work and they are turning to methods like Scrum to do so. Scrum For The Rest Of Us was written for those organizations and groups looking to utilize Scrum in virtually any project based environment.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write a book on Scrum for beginning and intermediate level? What makes this book different from other books?

Brian: Client feedback! Our clients were searching for a reference to better understand Scrum. They needed a guide that distilled Scrum to its essence and that they could read quickly.

What sets Scrum For The Rest Of Us apart from other books on the market is two-fold. First, people are looking to apply Scrum in non-traditional ways and they need to be able to understand it without learning a whole new language. The book is written without references to software development, meaning no information technology jargon or technobabble.

And second, our clients are always coming to us with burning questions about Scrum. They need answers and we are not always available to give them, we have to sleep sometimes right? We wanted to make sure that we could hand them a guide that they could quickly find answers to their problems right away. This was accomplished by including question and answers as well as smells (when things go wrong) and solutions throughout the book.

InfoQ: Can you give examples of organizations that are using Scrum for non-software development? What did they use before they adopted Scrum?

Brian: At Braintrust we work with a number of organizations using Scrum outside of software development. Here are a few highlights:

1. A prominent southeast university medical center is using Scrum to reduce patient re-admission rates

2. We have numerous marketing agency clients who use Scrum to deliver their client campaigns

3. A financial services company uses Scrum to implement their product at customer sites

4. A major Agile tool vendor uses Scrum to run every department in their organization including; human resources, marketing, and sales

5. A university client is using it to develop their on-line courseware

It seems like every week we are getting a call from someone at an organization wanting to try Scrum outside of software development. It’s a really exciting time to be helping organizations apply Scrum in non-traditional ways!

To answer the second part of your question… Prior to implementing Scrum most of these organizations utilized home-grown methods of getting work done. To-do and checklists were common as was just winging it. For many of these organizations Scrum was their first introduction to any sort of project management process.

InfoQ: Which benefits does Scrum gives to these organizations?

Brian: The top three benefits that we see with these organizations are:

1. Improved communication – With the added meetings and information radiators, like the task board, what is really going on in the team is much more transparent. For many departments, who have been operating in the dark for years, this new level of openness is refreshing and helps build trust.

2. Reduced risk and higher output – One of my mentors once told me, “To solve any complicated problem solve the simplest problem first and then layer on more complexity.” That is the exact approach that we take in Scrum and it leads to frequent deliveries of useful products. In a sense Scrum can break a logjam and allow you to get more done over time.

3. Continuous improvement – By the very nature of the Scrum process we are looking at how to get better daily. By making micro-adjustments, frequently, we are able to drive continuous improvement and over time accomplish tremendous gains in efficiency.

Ok, I lied about only listing three benefits. The forth and my personal favorite is the energy that Scrum brings to an organization. People love Scrum and they get excited about doing it. This excitement is contagious and creates a buzz within organizations. Orgs doing Scrum just seem more alive and vibrant.

InfoQ: Sometimes software development organizations fall back after using Agile and go back to using waterfall methods. Have you seen the same with non-software development organizations?

Brian: Like it or not, Agile/Scrum takes discipline to succeed and it also causes people and organizations to change. Most of us realize that change is hard and that it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s easy for people to get fired up about Scrum right after training. They rush back to the office to apply what they learned, only to find that their organizational policy, procedure, and culture are opposed to making it work. They also tend to stop doing Scrum when the pressure of a deadline starts to cause stress.

I recently worked with a marketing department at a large financial services company. My company performed an Agile assessment for them. At the time they had a few teams dabbling with Scrum. The assessment got the entire department fired up and itching to do more Scrum. Unfortunately, as time went on they lost momentum. The executives were not fully committed to making the change and the company’s conservative culture prevented them from taking the necessary risks to make the change.

So, fall back can occur, but we have also seen a number of organizations successfully implement Scrum and flourish because of it. Also, even doing the basics of Scrum can be better than many default ways of working.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to reduce the risk of falling back?

Brian: Here are a number of suggestions that organizations can use to prevent the risk of falling back when implementing Scrum:

1. Too many organizations seek Scrum training only for their management. They forget to educate the team and the stakeholder community. Conduct frequent and all-encompassing training sessions, like lunch-n-learns and town-hall style meetings and conduct them often.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate… Scrum promotes openness and transparency, make sure that everyone knows how the team is doing and celebrate the team’s victories often.

3. Create a tight-knit small team of Agile champions in your organization. This group should be diverse and responsible for helping steer your adoption.

4. Don’t be afraid to fail and make mistakes, be sure management is on board with creating a culture where a failure is seen as a learning/growth opportunity.

5. Hire an outside firm for training and most importantly coaching. You threw me a softball, I had to hit it out of the park.

InfoQ: If you want to use Scrum outside software development, do you need to adapt it? How can you do that?

Brian: The beauty of Scrum is in its simplicity; there are only a handful of roles, meetings, and artifacts. That means that most organizations can adopt the basics of the Scrum process as explained in the book.

Now, Scrum is empirical in nature; meaning we learn as we go and make changes in response to our findings. Because of this, no two implementations ever look exactly alike. For example… When a fourth grade classroom, in Scottsdale, AZ, implemented Scrum they modified the “Definition of Done” (Definition of done is how we know something is complete) to mean that every student must understand the topic being covered prior to the class moving on to the next subject.

At the end of every brief working period, Scrum teams take time to inspect and adapt their process. These changes carry over into the next working period and lead to improvements to the way that the team is working together. It’s through these meetings, called retrospectives, that teams are able to tweak Scrum to better meet their needs; much like the fourth graders did in their classroom.

InfoQ: Why did you pick Scrum as the main method of the book? What about other agile methods, could they also be used outside software development?

Brian: There certainly are other Agile methods, such as Kanban, that can have great results outside of software development. Again we decided to listen to our clients. Scrum continues to be the most sought after approach. I personally like Scrum for several reasons; I love the partnership that it builds with the team of people doing the work and the people they are building the product for, it is great for elevating the status of the team by trusting them and letting them innovate, and finally the focus on building the right thing and delivering it incrementally is a great way to solve complex problems.

In the future we will most likely produce other field guides about other Agile methods, but first we wanted to fulfill the needs of the majority of our clients.

InfoQ: Implementing Scrum it can be challenging. Can you describe some of the challenges that organizations often face?

Brian: Yes, learning Scrum is the easy part, actually doing it well can be a struggle. Here are the top 3 challenges that we see organizations struggle with in our consulting practice:

1. It’s easy for most teams to go through the motions of Scrum. They meet every day for the Daily Scrum and they even have a Product Backlog, however they really aren’t doing Scrum. What do I mean by that? They are just going through the motions; the Daily Scrum is simply a status meeting and the Product Backlog is their requirements document. Even though they have this meeting and artifact they don’t really get it. Scrum can be about so much more; creating innovative products, fostering self-organization, building a partnership with stakeholders and so much more.

2. Some organizations have a default management style of command and control. Managers run around telling everyone what to do, asking them not to think, and constantly following up on their progress. In these organizations they appoint a command and control manager to be the ScrumMaster and that individual becomes the team’s taskmaster. This quickly becomes frustrating for the team as they feel that they are being micro-managed.

3. Unfortunately for too many organizations they are isolated from their customers. The thought of asking one of their stakeholders to be the Product Owner is unimaginable and daunting. Rather than build this bridge they simply appoint someone on the team to play the role. Without having a real Product Owner from the stakeholder community they quickly run into issues with; knowing what to build, prioritization, and later adoption of what the team is producing.

InfoQ: How do non-software development organizations typically address these challenges?

Brian: In order to address these challenges it’s necessary to create an environment where Scrum and the Agile culture can not only survive, but thrive. That means taking the time to educate everyone on what Agile/Scrum is. Demonstrating the value of the approach through actually producing high quality product. Finally, in our consulting practice we have found it helpful to launch an Agile marketing campaign. Find ways to create big visible displays of progress, constantly sell the value of the approach, and remember to communicate, communicate, communicate.

One of our clients, H&R Block, actually added Agile as one of their core values last year. When the CEO is asking the organization how it can be Agile, the culture can’t help but shift to be more supportive.

InfoQ: If a non-software development organizations is interested in using agile and Scrum, can you give them some references where they can find information from others who are doing it?

Brian: Sure thing, check out these references:

About the Author

Brian M. Rabon, CST, PMP is passionate about helping both companies and individuals grow, today he does this through teaching Agile methods as a Certified Scrum Trainer®. Brian has an extensive background as a practitioner of Agile methods he has gained valuable insights that he uses to explain key concepts. As a professional member of the National Speakers Association and a regular presenter at every major Agile conference, he has helped thousands understand the fundamentals of Agile.

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