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Howard Sublett on Current and Future State of the Scrum Alliance


In this podcast recorded at Agile 2019, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Howard Sublett about the current and future state of the Scrum Alliance.

Key Takeaways

  •  When organisations and teams adopt Scrum effectively the difference in atmosphere and attitude to work is palpable
  • There is still a lot of faux-agile/scrum where practices are adopted without the mindset shift
  • The Scrum Alliance have appointed Howard as the Chief Product Owner, responsible for defining the what and the why of the organisation, and Melissa Bloggs as the Chief Scrum Master responsible for the how of implementation
  • The Scrum Alliance has moved to a self-selected, cross-functional team model based around customer segments
  • With7 billion people working in the world today, even with 1.2 million people certified in Scrum, there’s still a huge amount of work to be done to improve the world of work for the majority of people

Show Notes

  • 00:00 Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. I'm at Agile 2019 in Washington DC, and I'm sitting down with Howard Sublett. Howard is now the Chief Product Owner of the Scrum Alliance, which used to be CEO. Howard, welcome.
  • 00:23 Howard: Thanks Shane.  I don't think we've actually gotten a chance to sit down and do a podcast, even though we've talked for years.
  • 00:28 Shane: Yeah.
  • 00:28 Howard: This is actually our first time with a microphone in front of us, so yeah, thanks for having me today.
  • 00:33 Shane: It's great. So how long have you been in that Scrum Alliance role? It's a year and a half now.
  • 00:38 Howard: Well, it feels more like 10 years, but technically it just started in September, so it hasn't even been a year
  • 00:43 Shane: Hasn't even been a year,
  • 00:44 Howard: But the number of airline miles and just lack of sleep and stuff for the energy of what's happening, it feels much longer than that.
  • 00:51 So I started 1st of September.
  • 00:54 Shane: 00:54 Let's take it a little step back and ask you to tell us a bit about your background and how did you get to Chief Product Owner?
  • 01:04 Howard: My path is like a meandering river that didn't intend to get where it was going to go, but I ended up arriving there, I think. So actually my introduction into the agile space was actually from the Scrum Alliance well over 10 years ago when a buddy of mine in my small hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas, believe it or not. Wanted to know would I have coffee with him and he said, "I'm working at this place called Scrum Alliance. I think you can help us". And I'd never heard of scrum. And I thought at first he was trying to introduce me to some multilevel marketing of some kind because the name was weird and I didn't understand it.
  • 01:35 So I told him I wasn't interested. So he said, no, it's different than that. Let me take you someplace and show you something. So we went up to another city and actually talk to some development teams that are actually working in a scrum rhythm, and they had product owners and scrum masters. And then I talked to the leaders in those organizations.
  • 01:50 They started talking about how it was kind of palatable, the happiness that people felt in a different way to work than the way that they used to work. And all sides from the ownership, from the bosses, from the team members, seemed to feel empowered and happy.
  • 02:05 And I thought, I don't know what this thing is, it's magic. Why wouldn't I want to help that? You know, if it makes the world a better place. So I started there helping out at Scrum Alliance, back in about 2006 or seven I became operations manager there. 
  • 02:17 As scrum Alliance is known for, we had some leadership changes. I know that's a shock to those that may be listening, but we had leadership changes and I decided it was time to take a departure and do something else.
  • 02:26 Went overseas for about three months and coached in Eastern Europe for awhile at some clients cause I wanted to actually see what the role of a coach was like. I had helped with the certification proces of coaching when that was created in 2008 but I'd never actually done it before. So I became a junior coach and, and rolled up my sleeves and spent time in Eastern Europe working at a client and then came back and joined the leadership team at a company called Big Visible Solutions out of Boston and grew that exponentially about seven fold in about three years.
  • 02:59 Then we sold that company to SolutionsIQ over in Seattle and helped that grow. When we acquired Davisbase Consulting and others, and then it sold to Accenture. So then I joined those teams and then the opportunity came up for this role was available again, and people kept asking me to put my hat in the ring. 
  • 03:16 Peer pressure won out, Shane and I put my hat in the ring for, at that time it was the role of the CEO.
  • 03:22 Shane: So why did it change to Chief Product Owner? And what does that actually mean?
  • 03:28 Howard: Yeah, so there were five or six hundred that had applied for the role of the CEO that they finally told no to, and they said yes to me, which was a little bit unnerving because I'd never done this before.
  • 03:40 I had never done these kinds of roles before, but somehow I became the one that they selected.  But that's kind of when it got interesting because we talked about as a truly agile organization or an organization that we really believe should be an agile organization, do you really need a CEO?
  • 03:56 Should we think about leadership in some other way? And so the conversation around the board table was, well, shouldn't it be a product owner role? If it's really about leadership, then shouldn't we be talking about it in that way? So the role went from CEO to product owner, and then they felt like it should be called Chief Product Owner because I had the whole organization.
  • 04:15 So magically the word chief got added to it. I don't really know why, but that's how I got at it.
  • 04:21 Shane: And what does it mean to be the Chief Product Owner at the Scrum Alliance?
  • 04:25 Howard: So if you think about two roles in a scrum team, product owners responsible for the strategy of where we're going and why, and what's the next thing that we should be doing?
  • 04:33 So I'm responsible on an external basis for organization. So the what, and the why, where now we have Melissa Boggs that joined the team in January as our Chief Scrum Master.  So her job really is to focus on the how we're going to implement those things. So internal staff organization and how we organize our work in order to get that strategy done.
  • 04:54 So strategy direction is kind of in my thing. Implementation is in hers.
  • 04:58 Shane: Okay. So the scrum Alliance running Scrum,
  • 05:02 Howard: It's a shock, right?
  • 05:03 Shane: What a wierd thought! So what does it mean to run an organization with scrum?
  • 05:08 Howard: I know there are other organizations that have done this before, but from what I've been told from everybody in the industry, we are a unique case.
  • 05:14 Like everybody thinks that they're unique, but I think we may be. So what we've done recently is we had some very siloed roles of, you know, functional roles of education. We had a department of marketing, we had a department of IT. We had department heads for those things.
  • 05:27 We no longer have those. We actually did this wonderful week long thing where every member of staff, we have about 50 in the Denver area, and they all got to self select into cross-departmental teams.
  • 05:41 So we went through three or four rounds of:  people would select, the whole staff would back up and we'd look at, is it balanced? Do we all feel like we have equal representation?
  • 05:50 So each team has like two IT people, two marketing people, two people from education, kind of education background, customer support, and so we wanted to make sure that the teams then were wholly complete to deliver a product to a customer base without waiting on a dependency for another department to get something done. So this was Melissa's design and doing, I actually just got to be the great observer of this thing.
  • 06:16 So they self selected into teams. So now there is a team that is focused where they kind of named themselves a Foundations team that people that have never heard of the scrum Alliance to people that are just beginning their journey with us are kind of their persona. So they're not organized around a product, they're organized around a customer.
  • 06:33 So my challenge to them is that we want to be as radically focused on the customer as we possibly can.
  • 06:39 We are a 501-C6 trade organization. We're a nonprofit trade organization, which means we're there in service to our members and that's why we should be there. We're not there in service to a product that we want to build, we're in service to what their needs are, so whether they're part of our domain or not, or they could be, that's their target.
  • 06:59 The same for a group that's around people that are two to five years within their kind of learning journey. There's a group there.
  • 07:05 There's a group that's focused on the leader persona in organizations of decision makers or influencers in the world, whether they're part of our domain or outside, and each one of these teams, by the way, has their own customer advisory team that they're getting real customer feedback on their product backlog and what's happening.
  • 07:23 Then we have the team that's focused exclusively on the guide persona, which is our trainers and coaches who have a unique value proposition with us as an organization.
  • 07:32 Interestingly enough, we went from an organizational chart that looked very traditional, it looked very corporate America-ish,  to now we have these five cross departmental teams.
  • 07:42 Then below that we have this oblong team that is set below those, and that's where Melissa and I live. That's where legal lives, that's where HR live. So we see ourselves as a servant to the teams themselves. We're there to provide them with the tools they need, the direction that they need in order to deliver value to their customers. That's what scrum looks like in our organization.
  • 08:05 Shane: You make my heart warm, value streams, customer focus. What took us so long?
  • 08:14 Howard: That's a great question. You know, even though the Scrum Alliance was started in 2001, it became a nonprofit in 2006 until about -  I may be wrong on that date - but maybe 2010 there really wasn't any full time staff, so it's not like there's been full time staff back from 2001 most of them were contractors when I was there before we were contracted, we were all remote, and so there became a very small operational staff that was doing the work.
  • 08:39 And I think there was only five or six that were there. It wasn't many maybe. I think they got to as many as 20 they did some elements of Scrum and they did some really interesting things, but over the last few years it had felt like we had taken a, what's the story of the cucumber that gets pickled, whatever that is.
  • 08:55 I don't know that they knew that they were getting that far out of the norm because it was just the way that they were working and they were adding different layers of management to new employees so that they could learn different skills, actually in ways that they thought that they were being helpful.
  • 09:09 So leadership that was there during that time wasn't trying to do something wrong. They were trying to help, but as the organization got larger - I think that happens in lots of companies - you just get to a state and until somebody new comes in and kind of holds a mirror up and says "does this really feel right for us"?
  • 09:25 And that's what Melissa and I have helped do. And so now we've shifted into things that feel like what we should be doing. Now we're on sprint three now, I guess, or sprint four cause we just made those shifts in April. May. We're trading out before with the departments there was deep dependencies from one department to the next.
  • 09:43 And now we're having to really work on alignment. So like for instance, our IT department, you can't just have two people working in one team because it affects the whole system. So what Melissa has done in a pretty interesting way for me is like every Wednesday there's a two hour block where the former IT team or the IT people from all teams gets together for two hours and they talk about what's happening in their teams, where they're heading, and where the code is going to bump into each other and how should they make sure it comes.
  • 10:12 Same thing for marketing. Same thing for the education people.
  • 10:15 Shane: So community of practice,
  • 10:17 Howard:7 Kind of like the common Chapters, but it's very much like that because they have to align. You can't just have one team of six that is sending out global marketing emails to 1.3 million people in our database without some awareness of the other teams, cause it may bump into each other.
  • 10:32 So we are one company. We're not six companies. But the beauty is, is that team can do it. They don't have to have the other team's help. They can do it, but now they have to align instead of wait for a dependency. So they're not ever blocked, which is a beautiful thing for us to be able to do.
  • 10:49 Shane: Being good corporate citizens responsible to each other.  What a weird thought isn't?
  • 10:54 Howard: It is amazing. We're at that crunchy bit now where everybody was really excited to finally get to work this way, and the staff has just been absolutely amazing. They're just so energetic and so amazing, and you know, now you're hitting that very first moment like any young team coming together in any environment.
  • 11:12 They're on sprint three I think. And now some of the realities of personal autonomy and making decisions and visibility of work and things are starting to get real. And so I think Mike Dwyer back in, Oh gosh, 2005 or so wrote an article about Scrum it's not a silver bullet,  it's a silver mirror.
  • 11:31 And so this has done a really good job of kind of shining a mirror on the individuals in the teams and how are we working together? So we kind of hit this, Melissa called it a crunchy bit. We're hitting these crunchy bits now where the teams are still going through that Tuckman model of forming and storming.
  • 11:45 But I'm so hopeful.  We're delivering more things than I think we've done in years.
  • 11:51 Shane: So that's looking inwards. Looking outwards, what is the state of scrum and what is the Scrum Alliance doing?
  • 11:57 Howard:7 We did a state of scrum report, but that's not what you're asking about. So our growth curves in scrum are still astronomically awesome.
  • 12:04 I mean, the number of new people, the number of new certificands is growing exponentially year over year over year. In the overall marketplace, there are lots of fast follower companies for us. I mean, there's a lot more competition in that market now than we've kind of ever faced before. There's a new company just last week announced a new scrum certification.
  • 12:24 I'm kind of amazed at this state and the game they want to offer one, but that’s fine, there's more of them.  And it actually doesn't bother me. You know, we were the first in the space and companies, they're reaching targets and market that we probably wouldn't be able to reach before. So as long as they're teaching good things, good practices, and helping to inspire individuals to change the way that they work, more power to them.
  • 12:47 Right. So in a weird way, if I was to take the people that they're reaching in aggregate to ours, it's an unbelievable J curve of growth that we're still having as well.
  • 12:57 I've been really happy that we kind of set those bars. If you think about the agile industry, I'm kind of convinced because businesses needed some credentialing in a way, so the scrum Alliance may be one of the biggest engines that's helped move agile to where it is today.
  • 13:14 One of the largest ones. There's lots of other great companies that have come along since then, but we kind of started that and we set a bar for what it means for, you know, world-class trainers and what a two day experiential kind of course would be plus credentialing. And that's good. And it's helped, but I feel like it's not sufficient.
  • 13:33 You know, we've done a fairly good job of educating a lot of the world. And I told my board the other day, they were really happy at the numbers and how we had had, and I wrote down the number 7 billion, 7 billion is the number of people in the world of work. And at 1.2 million, we're nowhere close to that number of actually reaching a goal of changing the world of work.
  • 13:52 So we still got a lot to do, but it feels like education alone isn't enough. So I'm really trying to push us as an organization to start thinking about how to help equip sustainable agility because there's so many agile transformations that get started and stopped, started and stopped.
  • 14:07 And we were actually the very first in the world to offer a coaching certification back in 2008 and somehow it's been kind of this underleveraged kind of a thing and most of those people have all had five to seven years in the coaching world before they ever started become credentialed with us.
  • 14:23 I mean the bar is really high and I've been looking at kind of the adoption paths and the success rates of companies when they've got really high caliber coaches versus just somebody that wrote agile coach on their card.
  • 14:37 You and I've met people at conferences just like this, that hand you their card and they say they're an organizational agile transformation coach, and you go, really? Where'd that come from?
  • 14:49 Shane: 14:49 Yeah, I did a Scrum Master class last week.
  • 14:51 Howard: 14:51 Absolutely. You know, taking the Scrum Master class just means you took a two day class with an introduction to the role of a Scrum Master and you passed a reasonably simple exam. That's all that that means. And it's good and it's transformational, and it's one of those courses that can shake up your mind, but that doesn't mean you're an agile coach in any way, shape, or form.
  • 15:12 So I've been pouring lots of revenue, lots of direction into our certified agile coach program, our CTCs and our CECs, and they're really starting to change. We're not lowering the bar on how to become one, so the bar is still ridiculously high. What we're doing is making the path to get there easier to navigate. Instead of a one lane dirt road to reach your goal, it's going to become a 10 lane super highway to reach the same goal.
  • 15:39 So we've been building a lot of things internally to try to help that. There's an online path to coaching program that's available on our website. I think it's under and there's 80 or 90 online e-learning videos on what it takes to be a coach that's absolutely free for people to go watch.
  • 15:58 If they think that they're a coach, these are things that cover everything in the world from professional coaching, change management. Things, ORSC modeling many, many other things to give people some snippets of what it takes to really be these things.  To help them on that path to get there.  I think they've got a phase two and a phase three, but we're just at the very beginning of those kinds of things because somehow I feel like we owe it to the world somehow.
  • 16:22 We kind of educated them in the beginning, kind of started some of it. I feel like we have some responsibility to help carry this to the end. 
  • 16:30 More than just making more certifications, making more Scrum Masters, you know what I mean? So I feel like we have some social responsibility to get there.
  • 16:39 Shane: What do you say to the person who says, scrum's, old hat, we've done this. We don't need two weeks cycles. We have a releasing every 13.4 seconds. Why would I wait for your scrum?
  • 16:53 Howard: So if they're releasing every 13.4 seconds, I would tell them there's no need to do that. That there's no need to wait for scrum. I'm very happy with that. To me, scrum is a framework. Scrum is a framework that helps people that have never worked in a way of cross functional ways of working to solve complex problems.  Right?
  • 17:11 But also I've seen some of the most high performing what they called scrum teams, that had stopped doing retros because at any one moment in the time somebody raised their hand, so we got to stop. This was a problem and they would retro and the moment they stopped having the role of the scrum master.
  • 17:26 Shane: Now the other end. So you've got the teams who really have figured it out and for whom scrum almost doesn't really matter anymore because they've embedded the mindset. What about the new teams, and particularly if we think of the age of business agility, we're now getting into other areas of the business, I'm HR. Why would I scrum?
  • 17:49 Howard: Do you have another plan to get started to work as a team? I mean, if you're going to start, what are you going to start with? So scrum is a lightweight framework, there are no Scrum Police out there. There's no one that's gonna come in and say you're doing it wrong.
  • 18:01 But there are certain walls of that framing. I think of a framework like the framing of a house. So you have to put lots of other things in it. And there are certain internal walls in the house that you can move and flex. But there are certain walls that you probably shouldn't.  Because scrum is really good at helping to, kind of like we were talking about earlier, help hold that mirror up and help us kind of go through some of those Tuckman models  of forming, storming, norming.
  • 18:24 You may not need scrum at all to be able to do that, because I've seen teams move to continuous flow and stuff. That being said, I've seen very few, I mean if you walk around this conference and talk to great Agileists and ask them to count for you, how many truly high performing teams  that are delivering in increments of value rapidly every single day.
  • 18:47 They'll know in their 10 years, maybe one, maybe two, not very many. Organizations still haven't figured out about how to have teams long lived, so they will change team members, they will change systems, that will change this... New VP's come in and stuff.
  • 19:03 Scrum still is a great framework. It's a great template for them to get started, to help them go through those cycles.
  • 19:10 But if you're already at those places, don't go backwards. Don't do it.
  • 19:14 You know, every organizational scaling framework on the planet is based on scrum. We're doing something right. You know, we're doing something right and with 7 billion people in the world of work, there's still a lot of new people that need to know how to even get started into this thing.
  • 19:29 Shane: Makes sense. What's next? Where is the scrum framework going?
  • 19:33 Howard: You know, actually, I just got an email from Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber that they're doing an update to the scrum framework. The scrum guide is owned by Jeff and Ken, not by the Scrum Alliance, and there's some minor tweaks that they're going to do.
  • 19:45 They're telling us that there's not any major changes, but there's something coming, and if you kind of look at the framework itself, to me, there hasn't been any fundamental major changes that have happened in quite some time, and it's not because they haven't tried, and there hasn't been lots of experiments.
  • 20:01 I just don't know that they found something dramatically better yet. So there's little tiny increments of change. So I don't know that there'll be any major changes to expect for their scrum as a framework going forward. I would be shocked.
  • 20:15 I would be shocked that somebody would come in and say, we've decided that working in a cross functional team is a bad idea. And working in short, iterative cycles is a bad idea. And releasing value early and often is a bad idea. 
  • 20:29 As a framework, those are kind of tenants that we all believe to be true. I don't know anybody that doesn't believe. 
  • 20:36 There are people that say we don't really need a role of a scrum master. It could be true if you're really a good group of Agileists that are high-performing and understand how to work together, I get it.
  • 20:46 Okay. But the rest of the pieces of it you're going to need.
  • 20:49 Shane: And what's next for the Scrum Alliance?
  • 20:50 Howard: We are still a community based organization. We're still a nonprofit, and we're rapidly going to invest even more into regions of the world that can't bring people together. So one of the things we really love to do is convening people.
  • 21:06 Not about scrum, but about just this movement of agile. So we fund communities to get together all over the world. So we've doubled actually what our budget is for the coming year to ensure that we can reach even more. I mean, good God, next week I'm in Beijing. I mean, we've got stuff in Pakistan and Nepal and Peru and Mexico city and name a country.
  • 21:27 We've probably got something coming in the next year where we're actually providing funding for people. The biggest thing strategically, really is going to be that push towards. the role of a coach and the models of what sustainable agility in an organization would be.
  • 21:42 Shane: Howard, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. It's really good to catch up.
  • 21:45 Howard: It's always good. I just wish I had your awesome accent.  It makes it so much better, but you're making me jealous.
  • 21:51 Shane: If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?
  • 21:54 Howard: Easiest is via email at or I'm a Twitter fanatic @howardsublett.  Easy enough to find me.
  • 22:06 Shane: Indeed. Thanks so much.
  • 22:07 Howard: Anytime.


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