Scrum, by Jeff Sutherland — Book report and highlights

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland is part memoir and part introductory practical guide to the Scrum method for software development, which the author invented in the early 2010s and which is hugely popular and influential in business and management more generally.

I gave the book five stars on Goodreads/Amazon and wrote the following review:

An absolutely essential read for managers, leaders or anyone who wants to get more done in a team

Concise, compelling and practical. Basically those are the three criteria for a business book for me and Scrum scores five stars in each category.

Visionary without getting too preachy — I ‘d say this is an essential management read. I’d imagine whether you are new to Scrum/Agile or a past master it is a very useful book.

This year at Brilliant Noise we have been using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) for our business challenges. In the quarterly cycle just about to finish, we have experimented with company-wide OKR projects with teams comprising everyone in the business. This has given everyone  the chance to work with the Scrum method, soem for the first time (myself included). I mention this because Scrum is a method which is interesting conceptually, but is definitely something you need to be doing in order to properly understand. In the context of the Brilliant Noise OKR projects, this book was incredibly useful for getting a deeper understanding of Scrum. 

The following are the main things I took away from my first reading of the book. 

Scrum requires a high level of honesty and discipline in a team

As my colleague Rachael Rainbow put it “A lot of people think agile methods are relaxed, free and easy, but they aren’t — they are incredibly disciplined.” You have to be clear about the direction, clear about what is valuable, and communicate frequently, openly and candidly to achieve progress. These are all things we all want all the time, regardless of whether we are in an agile project or not, but Scrum — with its frequent deadlines, team check-ins, and constant prioritising on what the next most important thing

The importance of prioritising by value

The Scrum method’s use of a backlog is a hugely important element in the method and one which helps make progress more likely by acknowledging that not everything you want to do will be done.

Sutherland says:

The idea behind the Backlog is that it should have everything that could possibly be included in the product. You’re never going to actually build it all, but you want a list of everything that could be included in that product vision.

You cannot do everything you want to do. Even within a focused strategy there will be more actions that you want to complete than you can. In Scrum, there is a backlog where you store every task that you could take on, but you try to pick the ones that will give the most value.

This principle is liberating and lowers stress levels. I’ve reflected it into every aspect of my personal time and energy management.

Scrum is not exclusively useful for software development

I’d understood agile and Scrum as coming from the software world and that they might not be suitable for a services company like Brilliant Noise. I could already see that this wasn’t true by the profound breakthroughs and progress we’d been achieving by using the Scrum method for our OKR projects.

What the book did was show me why, both by highlighting use studies of various types of team using Scrum — news teams in media organisations was one of the most relevant — but also that the roots of Scrum were in the Toyota lean manufacturing method, which in turn was based on post-War management techniques promoted by the occupation government of General McArthur in Japan.

There is a lot of room to make Scrum your own

Some of my encounters with Scrum practitioners in the past had felt intimidating and left me thinking that there was almost an introverted, cult-like introversion about the approach. Having a felt sense of what a Scrum project is like, and reading the book meant that I was a lot clearer that the practices of Scrum invite innovation and improvisation — you need to make Scrum your own when you start using the method and doubtless keep refining it to fit your challenges and culture. 

Scrum is not the only way to organise a project

Some projects lend themselves more to waterfall project management — things where the ways of doing things are clear and have hard deadlines for instance, like organising a small conference that you’ve run before.

Scrum excels with challenges where we don’t know what the answer is (and are honest enough to admit it). Things where something is going to need to be invented, designed for the first time lend themselves well to the Scrum method.

As Sutherland puts it:

Scrum embraces uncertainty and creativity. It places a structure around the learning process, enabling teams to assess both what they’ve created and, just as important, how they created it. The Scrum framework harnesses how teams actually work and gives them the tools to self-organize and rapidly improve both speed and quality of work.

Useful quotes

I highlighted a lot of Scrum as I read it, but these are some quotes that I will keep with me for reference.

Scrum, like aikido, or, heck, like the tango, is something that you can only really learn by doing. Your body and your mind and your spirit become aligned through constant practice and improvement.

On how Scrum can provide temporary relief from silos, but bad habits will often remerge:

I’ve seen this happen at one large financial institution in Boston repeatedly. They’ll call me up in a panic when they have a mission-critical project that is in trouble. They’ll have me train dozens of their people in Scrum, have me start up teams that are capable of addressing their emergency. They direct people from across the organization into cross-functional teams to address the issue. And then they solve it. Once the crisis is past, they disband the teams to their respective silos and managerial fiefdoms.

On daily stand-ups as habit:

…it didn’t matter what time of day the meeting took place, as long as it was at the same time every day. The point was to give the team a regular heartbeat.

On waste:

Ohno talked about three different types of waste. He used the Japanese words: Muri, waste through unreasonableness; Mura, waste through inconsistency; and Muda, waste through outcomes.

On over-planning:

As I’ve said previously, the very act of planning is so seductive, so alluring, that planning itself becomes more important than the actual plan. And the plan becomes more important than reality. Never forget: the map is not the terrain.

On avoiding prioritising:

One bad habit a company can fall into, because of constantly shifting market needs and because managers don’t know exactly where the most value lies, is prioritizing everything. Everything is top priority. The adage to keep in mind comes from Frederick II of Prussia, later to be called “the Great”: “He who will defend everything defends nothing.” By not concentrating both your resources and your mental energies, you thin them out to irrelevancy.

Scrum scales well:

An important thing to say about Scrum is that it rarely remains a one-off for long—it’s built to scale.

On bad behaviour and blame:

it’s pointless to look for evil people; look instead for evil systems. Let’s ask a question that has a chance to actually change things: “What is the set of incentives that drives bad behavior?”

On levels of mastery:

Earlier in this book I discussed the martial arts concept of Shu Ha Ri. People in the Shu state follow the rules exactly, so they learn the ideas behind them. People in the Ha state begin to create their own style within the rules, adapting them to their needs. People in the Ri state exist beyond the rules; they embody the ideals. Watching a true master in the Ri state is like looking at a moving work of art. His or her actions seem impossible, but that’s because the master has become a philosophy in flesh, an idea made real.

Scrum is for pragmatists:

Scrum is the code of the anti-cynic. Scrum is not wishing for a better world, or surrendering to the one that exists.

: : Hat tip to David Lockie for the book recommendation. 

Alternate Realities exhibition at Lighthouse

Belongings, an immersive artwork on show at Lighthouse, Brighton this week.

The Alternate Realities exhibition from Sheffield Doc Fest is on tour and at Lighthouse in Brighton this week (22 – 30 October) as part of Brighton Digital Festival

I took a look at some of the work on Friday and highly recommend a visit to it in Brighton’s North Laine. Entry is free, but you will want to book a place for the Terminal 3 installation. 

As soon as you enter Lighthouse you will see the amazing Belongings taking up most of the long right-hand wall in the gallery. It’s an interactive work the like of which I’d not come across before. 

Life-sized greyed out images of people sitting on stools are projected on to the wall. Connecting to the “Belongings” Wifi you press and hold a button and a circle appears — multiple visitors can do this at once, you quickly work out which is yours — and you select a figure and who then gets up off their stool and is rendered in colour. 

Through your headphones, you can hear them as they tell the story of the object they are holding. It turns out that each a refugee and the object they carry is one of the few things they brought with them. 

I found the work fascinating on so many levels. Coming from Sheffield Doc Fest it is, of course, a documentary. The technology is fascinating but the stories are even more compelling and beautifully told — the photography, the staging and sound are all amazing. Immersive experiences — VR, AR, etc — can often feel a little like watching someone at an arcade playing a game, or like watching a film — but this artwork became part of a crowded room, where people were interacting with it, talking about it, being around it. It fitted right in with a human social space, not demanding to be used, not taking over the conversation, but a complement, a part and sometimes the focus of conversations. It’s a wonderful thing in so many ways. 

There’s more about Belongings here

Alternate Realities is on at Lighthouse in Brighton until September 30. Take a look at other Brighton Digital Festival events here including content strategy conference Curio and pop-up sensation Tiny Disco, both of which colleagues of mine from Brilliant Noise have had a hand in making happen. Full disclosure: I’m very proud to serve as Chair at Lighthouse.

HBR exec summaries

I love this executive summaries section at the end of the paper version of the Harvard Business Review. I don’t know if it has been running for years or just started, but it’s very useful in helping decide — do I want to give these X,000 words my attention?

They should put it up front really, to make it even more useful.