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InfoQ Homepage News Q&A with Jeff Sutherland on Agile Leadership

Q&A with Jeff Sutherland on Agile Leadership

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Jeff Sutherland talked about Agile Leadership at the GOTO Amsterdam 2015 conference. InfoQ interviewed him about the problems that larger organizations have when adopting Scrum, how they can increase their capability for handling impediments, improving agile leadership, what Scrum masters can do to help teams to become agile, and his advice to managers when their organization is implementing Scrum.

InfoQ: Which kinds of problems do you see in larger organizations when they are adopting Scrum?

Sutherland: Their problems are huge but boil down to one problem. The leadership needs to become Agile. They need to support the teams, remove impediments, and coach the organizations to be agile. There are so few managers trained and good as this today that many companies will be driven out of business by their agile competitors.

InfoQ: You stated that "scaling frameworks are often used to provide scaffolding for the legacy organization until they can evolve". Can you elaborate what you mean with this?

Sutherland: Read Prof. Kotter’s work at Harvard. He sees success when companies understand they are implementing two different operating systems with different rules, different management, different ways of working. The old management hierarchy cannot be changed all at once. This is like Windows. They need agile ways of working for new products to compete. This is like the Mac.

Companies want to run their current management hierarchy (Windows) on top of a new agile operating system (the Mac). In order to make Windows procedure calls to the Mac, they introduce a translation layer (SAFe) which slows things down and makes it look weird but gets them through the night until the management can figure out how to get some real agile leadership.

This is not the best way to do it. As Ken and I had said in our book Software in 30 Days, companies should implement real Scrum in a center of excellence with real agile leadership and none of the old waterfall nonsense. This will get them the most traction.

InfoQ: Now that more and more larger organizations are using Scrum, the need for scaling increases. Can you give some suggestions how organizations can scale Scrum?

Sutherland: Scrum is designed to grow like a biological system. To create a baby, you need one good cell that replicates. If this cell is bad you have a lot of problems. So the challenge is to first get a single team successful to use as a model for other teams, then replicate it. As you grow, Scrum as large follows the same basic principles as Scrum in the small. If it doesn’t you have introduced waste into the system. You will build out organ systems, just as in the human body that have some specialization and need some training on how to handle cross team coordination, elevating impediments all the way to senior management, avoiding the introduction of unnecessary teams that can compromise performance, and scrumming the entire organization.

We have published several papers showing that a properly scaled Scrum can provide linear increases in global velocity, something never seen before in software development. However, you need to do Scrum really well to make this happen.

InfoQ: You mentioned that organizations need to handle impediments from teams and make sure that they are raised to the organizational level where they can be solved. Can you give examples how organizations can increase their capability for handling impediments?

Sutherland: Organizations need an Executive Action Team (EAT) with senior leadership on it. At John Deere, for example, the EAT requires every Scrum Master to surface at least one impediment to the highest level every three sprints or the Scrum Master is replaced. This gives them 800% improvement in productivity in building agricultural equipment.

InfoQ: You mentioned that agile leadership plays an important role when doing large scale Scrum. Can you explain why, and what organizations can do to improve leadership?

Sutherland: Leaders need to become Agile coaches. Most of them are so far from this it is mind boggling. And most of them are not doing anything about it until it is to late and their company is dead like Nokia.

InfoQ: In your opinion what can Scrum masters do to help teams to become agile?

Sutherland: Implement aggressive Scrum. This is real Scrum that delivers real results, not half baked Scrum which most companies implement. Any Scrum without working product at the end of a sprint is a failed Scrum. 80% of the scaled Scrum in Silicon Valley is in this category. They are "Agile in Name Only."

InfoQ: Which advice do you want to give to managers when their organization is implementing Scrum?

Sutherland: Get proper training, do team launches with expert coaches and start building internal coaching excellence. Do this in a center of excellence with agile leadership, independent of the old waterfall rules and regulations. Second, develop metrics to measure the state of the implementation on a regular cadence. The two most important metrics for coaches are time to fix a bug (should be less than 24 hours) and process efficiency of a story (actual work time/calendar time should be over 50%). Either of these metrics will guarantee a doubling in team velocity. Together they improve velocity 400% for every team. You can download papers we have published in the IEEE library for free at for detailed metrics.

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