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InfoQ Homepage News Using Agile Principles with Scrum Studio to Increase Organizational Responsiveness

Using Agile Principles with Scrum Studio to Increase Organizational Responsiveness

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Using a change approach based on agile principles with Scrum Studio helped a Dutch pension and investment management company to become more responsive at structurally lower costs. The change team practiced what they preached by applying transparent and iterative change with similar characteristics as the intended end result in the organization. They established a culture where people and teams work transparently and iteratively and are taking responsibility and showing entrepreneurship.

Sabine Scheepstra, strategic change program manager, and Ellen Aalbers, Scrum master, spoke about how they applied agile and Scrum Studio in a creative business environment at the 2017 conference of the Agile Consortium Netherlands. InfoQ is covering this conference with write-ups, interviews, and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Scheepstra and Aalbers about their expectations when they started with agile, how they used the Scrum Studio concept to apply agile practices, measuring team maturity, and how the culture has changed during their agile journey.

InfoQ: What was needed at PGGM and what were the expectations when you started with agile?

Sabine Scheepstra: At PGGM, a Dutch pension administration and investment management company, we started an ambitious, corporate change program in 2014; Daadkrachtig Vernieuwen. The goal of this three-year program was to renew the PGGM organization in order to become more responsive at structurally lower costs, a reduction of 50 million Euro’s yearly. These changes were important for PGGM to remain relevant in an increasingly fast changing world; with the way of working that we were used to we were too expensive and not flexible enough and change was necessary!

We started using agile and lean a few years before Daadkrachtig Vernieuwen, so we had quite some experience that we could use when we started scaling responsiveness company-wide. In order to practice what we preached we chose a change approach with the same characteristics as the intended end result in the organization: a transparent and iterative change approach, based on pull and not on push, measuring outcome and not output and activating internal networks and building on the intrinsic motivation of people involved. For example we measured all of our progress and every quarter we did a retrospective and reviewed the results of our program. Based on that reflection and on our data we determined what interventions to do next and how to alter our change approach.

During the three-year program we completed over 45 change initiatives that resulted in many big and small changes in all parts of the company; new departments or teams, a different way of working and new processes, more transparency and autonomy; thus resulting in lowering the costs and higher responsiveness!

InfoQ: What is Scrum Studio?

Ellen Aalbers: According to, Scrum Studio is "a (new) initiative that can be used for innovating and creating, and recreating new possibilities and products. Scrum Studio builds on professionalism, best practices and the best of what our profession has to offer" (source: Scrum Studio - A Transition to Enterprise Agility by Dave West).

Scheepstra: A few of the Professional Scrum Studio requirements are:

  • The Scrum Studio must be separate from the rest of the organization
  • It must have its own budget, management, and personnel
  • People must be vetted before entering and using the Studio

Essentially a Scrum studio is an independent part of an organization that has end-to-end responsibility for delivering business value to customers. But with real independence and real end responsibility!

InfoQ: How do agile practices look in a creative business environment?

Aalbers: PGGM has the ambition by the year 2020 to have 1 million online "PGGM ambassadors", out of the 2,6 million people in the healthcare sector that we serve. The purpose of our Scrum Studio is to realize this ambition by activating and connecting healthcare workers in communities and help them become PGGM ambassadors. Our Studio currently has three teams, consisting of product managers, online marketers, content creators, online editors, community managers, digital architects and technical specialists. Each team is responsible to set their own targets, but also link them to the targets of the other teams and the studio as a whole. One of the teams for example is responsible for online activation and ambassadorship; they measure how many people are active online, how often people log onto the communities, how often they contribute to discussions etcetera, and set their targets on these indicators. This together with the fact that these targets can be linked directly to the overall PGGM strategy (ambition 2020), adds to the relevance of the team assignments.

We use Scrum, with the roles of scrum master and product owner, but the product owner responsibility is partly delegated to team members based on expertise. And we iteratively develop, deploy and test MVP’s, like a new hypothecary product or our new app, and gather all kinds of feedback and measurable data to support further decisions.

InfoQ: How did you measure team maturity and how did that help you to increase agility?

Scheepstra: At PGGM we developed a "PGGM-way-of–working" and a PGGM maturity model to support team growth and development. This model is based on lean and agile ideas and on the basics of continuous improvement but for example also on Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, Lencioni and on Good to Great by Jim Collins. The maturity model can be used by teams to self-assess their maturity and to determine in which area’s they would like to develop as a team.

Aalbers: We periodically, every few months, assess ourselves and our leaders based on the PGGM maturity model. This assessment helps us to have the right conversation about our development and areas that we want to improve on as a team, and helps our leaders to give the teams the right guidance and support. And it is not about the exact maturity score, but about continuously challenging ourselves to show visible improvement and growth!

InfoQ: You mentioned that you reconsidered several practices. Can you give an example?

Aalbers: We reconsidered a few Scrum practice,: for example fixed teams; we changed the formation of the teams quite a few times during the last year, because creativity and combining the right people to deliver the needed business value was considered more important than predictability. And because our Scrum Studio has about 20 people, people know each other and changing teams does not pose a big problem. Also working remotely and having skype-stand-ups instead of making everybody come to the office everyday works out very good for us!

Scheepstra: We also delivered value far more than velocity and getting all planned work in a sprint done. So only one of the teams recently started using story points to support their planning process. The other teams do not use planning poker and primarily focus on continuously maximizing their outcomes by delivering as much business value as possible (as defined in their targets), e.g. as many online conversations as possible, as many clicks, as many positive responses on topics, as many thriving communities etc.

InfoQ: How has the culture changed during your agile journey? What enabled this change?

Scheepstra: Responsiveness has really become part of everyday work and language of many PGGM colleagues. People and teams work transparently and iteratively and are taking responsibility and showing entrepreneurship. We introduced a ’commitment letter’ in our performance cycle last year that enables people at PGGM to take responsibility for their own development and performance.

We are doing all kinds of experiments to test our ideas instead of immediately planning projects with big budgets. Experimenting is a way of working; it is not so much about the content of the experiments. For example, we are, experimenting with new (management) roles, new value chains, blockchain, data intelligence, new ways of budgeting, a new performance cycle, etc. Although the experiments may look small, they are having significant impact in the organization.

Over-all at PGGM we realize that change is here to stay, and that we need to keep developing to be responsive and keep our relevance in a changing world. And our change approach, based on responsive and agile principles, together with tools like our maturity model really enabled this change.

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