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Scrum: The Art of Changing the Possible

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Key Takeaways

  • The Scrum Fieldbook aims at introducing Scrum within organizations outside of the software industry, in areas such as legal, HR, compliance, etc. Scrum can help leaders of these organizations achieve a culture of high performance and adapt in the face of rapid change.
  • The author shares patterns, practices and step by step actions that leaders can take to incorporate these successfully in their organization and he successfully introduced Scrum patterns in organizations, such as 3M.
  • A disciplined approach to Scrum practices is key, while teams can experiment with products and technology.
  • We live in a rapidly changing world. Organizations that thrive and survive in these extreme conditions are the ones who experiment with small iterations and inspect and adapt based on their findings.
  • The role of leadership and executives is key in enabling a culture of innovation and continuous improvements. The Executive Action Team enables organizations to grow and become competitive.

The book "The Scrum Fieldbook. A Masterclass in Accelerating Performance, Getting Results, and Defining the Future" provides a thorough introduction of Scrum outside of the software industry, where Scrum can help leaders achieve a culture of high performance. The author shares patterns, practices and practical steps that leaders can take to incorporate Scrum successfully in their organization.

InfoQ readers can download an excerpt of The Scrum Fieldbook.

InfoQ interviewed J.J. Sutherland about the Scrum practices and patterns that drive the most value, how to implement these in any organizations and about the central role of leadership in organizations transitioning to Scrum and Agile.

InfoQ: Congratulations J.J. for this new book! The Scrum Fieldbook feels very different from any other Scrum books. It brings a different and refreshing perspective because it’s less about the mechanics and more about Scrum as an organizational capability and enabler for any industry. I think that a lot of people who don’t work in technology will get a lot out of it. How did you come about writing this book? What was the thought process behind it?

J.J. Sutherland: I really wanted to reach people who aren't technical because a lot of the people I am working with these days are not. They've never developed software in their lives, they are HR, they are in marketing, in manufacturing and so on, far beyond the roots of software industry. I wanted to write a book that is accessible to those people and accessible to anyone who never heard of Agile or Scrum.

I wanted to tell their stories and show how Scrum can be successfully applied in any industry. I literally lay out step by step of how Scrum Inc. leads Agile transformations. I got the stories from our consultants and coaches from different companies I worked with, a stealth space company, global beverage companies, machinery manufacturers, and really big banks. I wanted to show the world that Scrum really is a lot bigger than software.
Then, I also wanted this book to be accessible and engaging for executives and leaders interested in understanding Scrum at a more strategic organizational level.

InfoQ: What are the top 2 to 3 takeaways for the readers?

Sutherland: First, I wanted to share patterns that describe the ways of doing things, and we don't have to do these to do Scrum, but I find those so powerful. These are things, such as having stable dedicated teams, limiting work in process in each sprint and so on. We have a chapter dedicated to these patterns, and we explain how they were implemented at 3M and other companies. I find these patterns crucial for delivering value at the end of each sprint.

There is another chapter dedicated to anti-patterns, which describe what not to do. These 2 chapters are critical and would hope that leaders would pick up the book for just those two chapters alone.

Then, I wanted people to feel inspired to take action, because if you take action you can see what happens.  We live in a really complicated and complex world where the pace of technological change is so fast that we can't even evaluate how fast it is. We all work in highly complex and changing environments and the only way to adapt is to embrace this complexity and experiment with small batches and iterations. The Cynefin framework established by Dave Snowden is a really good way of framing this challenge. Complex problems are the ones where the chain of cause and effect is only obvious in retrospect.

At the end of each chapter, there is a Backlog that contains recommendations, questions, suggestions that will help readers take action in their own organization. The key objective was to allow readers to experiment with these practices and take action to see how it works for them in their organizations. I wanted to empower people to drive change within their own organizations on the model we do this at Scrum Inc.

InfoQ: Do you believe that the cornerstone of innovation, defined by something radically new, is in fact trying new things? It means that having environments where teams can safely experiment is paramount.

Sutherland: Absolutely you have to experiment and start with hypothesis. This is why Scrum says you have to have features done at the end of each and every sprint. Scrum recommends showing what’s done to customers, and get feedback every iteration, which allow teams to learn and validate their experiments. For some organizations, it’s really difficult to transition to a culture of experimentation, but to be fast to succeed, we need to be fast to experiment and potentially fail.

That's literally the only way you can get innovation right, it's impossible to get good at what we do any other ways.

"The idea that your identity is continuous is an illusion. The same is true for any organization. Every single day, the organization is created anew." – The Scrum Fieldbook by J.J. Sutherland

InfoQ: How would you educate organizations about becoming comfortable with experimentation?

Sutherland: We live in a rapidly changing world and the pace of change is not going to be stable, it only going to increase. The Agile Manifesto itself fosters responding to change over following a plan. Organizations that thrive and survive in these extreme conditions are the ones who experiment with small iterations, inspect and adapt based on their findings. Companies need to disrupt themselves and their industries before they get disrupted by their competitors. In the financial industry for example, we see many financial startups that are taking little bits and pieces of the banks’ value chain away. If large traditional banks don't adapt and do something, they will become TechFins’ backend because people don’t really care what banks or brand their money is in.

InfoQ: You share a lot of great Scrum patterns in your book. Based on your experience working in various industries, and with a wide range of teams, what are the top practices that are not negotiable because they provide high returns, they enable quick wins?

Sutherland: Probably the most important are the product owners. You have to have strong empowered product owners, and this is where Scrum lives or dies. Product Owners need to be dedicated to their product backlog and team and can’t be distracted being busy with other things. They decide what the company or group is going to work on, they decide what is being built or what service is being provided.

The second is ruthless prioritization. If you do not prioritize effectively, if you have more than one top priority you don't have a product backlog. Product owners need to communicate the priorities for the teams and give them an ordered backlog. I helped a company bring their list of project portfolio from 132 projects down to 10 because nothing was getting done, creating a lot of waste.

Getting work done at the end of each sprint is also critical. The second value of the Agile Manifesto is working product and the only measure of progress is done work. Having a clear understanding of what’s done and aligning across the business and technology can greatly set up teams for high performance.

Then, being able to refocus your company’s priorities on something different is really important. Is your organization rigid, or is it flexible enough to enable the teams to pivot and to shift work to accommodate changing priorities? If you have a bunch of rigid silos, and need the permission from 15 different people, you can’t compete fast enough.

InfoQ: Why is it important to follow these practices as described in Scrum, especially when we set up brand new teams?

Sutherland: I tell people don't experiment with Scrum. Experiment with the products you're making, experiment with the technology that you're using but don't experiment with Scrum because if you don't have the discipline you won't realize how all the different pieces fit together and reinforce each other.

InfoQ: When it comes to Done, isn’t it really important to have clear user stories and acceptance criteria? And here I go back to your first point about the importance of the product owners in Scrum.

Sutherland: Having a definition of what done is enables teams to deliver the things right. I train many Scrum masters and tell them that if there is not a clear definition of done, acceptance criteria, don't bring the story into a sprint. Done also allows teams to focus only on valuable work and prevents them to working on unimportant work. Once they met their definition of done, they can move on to another story.

InfoQ: Your book invites us to look at Scrum from a different angle. It covers organizational culture, leadership, mindset, and the things that needs to happen to set up Scrum for success and to sustain the mindset across the entire organization. You mentioned earlier that you wrote the book for leaders and executives as well. Can you tell us more about how you engage leaders?

Sutherland: When I engage companies, I generally engage at the C-suite level first. Senior leadership don't want to do Scrum just to do Scrum. They want to do Scrum to get results. We tell them "you have to shift from management to leadership because in today's world, management doesn't work well anymore". Things are changing so fast that we have to respond very quickly to changing priorities.  Therefore, we need to move the decision-making power onto individual teams who interact daily with customers. Leaders need to set up the principles, the vision, the priorities, and drive more transparency than they ever had in the past. A CEO of a healthcare company, who adopted Scrum, mentioned that it brought transparency on the backlog and priorities, and that she feels for the first time that she could steer the company, she could get the teams to focus effectively on the right priorities.

The most successful Scrum transformations are the ones where the leadership buys into. It requires some education and retraining. But when we can show them the value of Scrum, it results in producing twice the work in half the time, it lowers risk, increases performance, and drives better results.

InfoQ: As you engage leadership, how easy is it to set up Executive Action Teams (EAT) in organizations?

Sutherland: Setting up EATs as organizations transition to Scrum is really important. The people you want on that EAT are in the best cases people who have power and authority to make decisions fast, change the company without asking for permission, such as a C-level leader. You need people who can write a check, people who have budget they can spend. You need someone who's really excited about Scrum, someone for example from HR because as we introduce Agile and Scrum in organizations, we also need to revisit HR aspects such as the incentive structures. We also want participants from legal, compliance or regulatory to ensure that we follow any critical policies. Once the EAT is put together, they support teams in addressing real time organizational impediments.

"The most effective Scrum implementations are those in which top leadership changes itself. They go all in." – The Scrum Fieldbook by J.J. Sutherland

InfoQ: Is it still challenging to get leadership on board or are we seeing greater interest from them in understanding and adopting Scrum and in supporting their teams?

Sutherland: Scrum has been around in the software industry for 30 years, but it only really spread beyond the technology sector in the past five or ten years. These are really large multinational and traditional organizations such as Schlumberger, JP Morgan, GE, etc. Leaders in these organizations have been trained focus on promotion, bonus, on getting the corner office. So when we come in and say there are better ways of working and of leading people, that can be hard for people to wrap their heads around that change. So to set them up for success, I work with them, and I try to give them a new context they can understand and relate to.

InfoQ: What are your next projects?

Sutherland: This next quarter, I am going to spend time socializing my book. I am also working on a lot of leadership workshops. I engage C-suite people to help them understand Scrum, and how it can help their organizations become high performers. That's really interesting and it’s also really fun to work with C-level people because they wrestle with challenging but interesting problems.

I live in DC, so I'm working with the government and the military. I am trying to put several of these groups working towards the same interests in contact with each other.

About the Book Author

J.J. Sutherland is the CEO of Scrum Inc., a consulting and training firm that uses Scrum to rapidly deliver results in companies across the globe. He is the author of The Scrum Fieldbook: A Master Class on Accelerating Performance, Getting Results, and Defining the Future, and coauthor of Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, written with his father, Jeff Sutherland, the co-creator of Scrum. Previously, he was an award-winning Correspondent, Producer, and Baghdad Bureau Chief for NPR. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, and the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. He has won Dupont, Peabody, Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas awards for his work. In his free time, JJ enjoys cooking complicated recipes, traveling to the four corners of the globe, and gaming. He lives in Washington, DC, with his family.

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