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. 

Big data in a historical context

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Excellent stuff from Alan Patrick on his Broadstuff blog, talking about the 70s, 80s and 90s versions of big data – or “data”, they were calling it back then…

And you know what – you just cannot simulate the minute operation laden details of a shop floor or logistics network reliably. No matter how big your dataset, or your computers, or your machine tool onboard intelligence, there is just too much variability. Which is why the Just In Time/Lean movement came about as the better approach – the aim was to simplify the problem, rather than hit it with huge algorithm models and simulations so complex no one fully understood what they were doing anymore (just ask the banks what happens going down that route) – the aim of JiT/Lean was to actually reduce the problem variability, to get back to Small Data if you like.

Alan discusses the way that despite fascination with new technology and algorithms, the drumbeat that industry marches to is that of economics – in this case the pendulum swing of offshoring and onshoring, powered by the temporary advantage of emerging economies’ lower labour costs.

[….] It’s back to the future….I suspect they are now using bigger and bigger number crunching to eke the last 20% of improvements from the various kaizen projects ongoing, trying to keep the factories in situ as the Big Economics shift yet again

The rate of change today often feels bewildering at ground level, but keeping one eye on the forces of history and economics, we see ourselves in the context of slower moving, but more significant trends. In The Second Machine Age – which I’ve been fixated with over the last week (I even look dangerously close to finishing it) – the authors point out that

  • productivity gains from electric motors took about 30 years to emerge in manufacturing.
  • steam engines unlocked 100 years of productivity gains (and an exponential growth in human population).
  • microprocessors and the IT revolution unlocked meagre productivity gains until the late 1990s

What drove productivity in these instances was innovation that used the technology better – innovation in products, processes, organisation and management. When we’re looking at new technologies in our lives and workplaces like social computing, big data etc. it could be decades before their actual potential is felt by all bar the early adopters that are able to see their potential and change their mindsets and ways of working fastest.

Ada Lovelace Day: Shona Brown

Image: Ada Lovelace

Image: Ada Lovelace

Suw Charman has asked people to join her today on Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of the first computer programmer, in writing about women in technology that they admire.

Now, I’m a cultural rather than a tehcnical geek, so the woman who leapt to mind that I admire most in the tech industry is Shona Brown, SVP of Business Operations at Google.

Shona Brown took on responsibilities for Google’s business operations in 2003, following almost a decade consulting with technology clients in Toronto and Los Angeles for McKinsey & Company.

Image: Shona Brown, Google's SVP of Business Operations
Image: Shona Brown, Google’s SVP of Business Operations (image source: Google)

I first heard about Shona Brown in this 2006 profile of her in Fortune called Chaos by Design. She took on one of the most interesting cultural and business challenges in the world when she stepped into  Sergey and Larry invited her to come and take all of this on after reading Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos:

Brown has made a career of arguing that anarchy isn’t such a bad thing — which is why Page, co-founder Sergey Brin, and CEO Eric Schmidt hired her in 2003. A business theoretician in a company dominated by engineers, she considers Google the “ultimate petri dish” for her research, though her job is anything but theoretical. In addition to overseeing human resources (called “people operations”), Brown runs a SWAT team of 25 strategic consultants who are loaned out internally on ten or so projects at a time — restructuring a regional sales force here, guesstimating a market size there.

This isn’t about just management. It’s about how you manage companies and people in the age of networks, when hierarchical approaches are inadequate and an embrace of chaos.

The company’s goal, says Brown, is to determine precisely the amount of management it needs — and then use a little bit less. It’s an almost laughably Goldilocksian approach that Brown also advocates in her book, co-written with a Stanford business professor. The way to succeed in “fast-paced, ambiguous situations,” she tells me, is to avoid creating too much structure, but not to add too little either. In other words, just make it not too hot and not too cold, and you’re done.

Early on in my iCrossing experience I had left a lot of the certainties and structure of the PR agency world and embraced a start up mentality, drawing heavily on Guy Kawasaki’s thoughts in Art of the Start. when I read her interview Fortune magazine, I felt reassured and inspired simultaneously when I read her quote: “If I ever come into the office and I feel comfortable, if I don’t feel a little nervous about some crazy stuff going on, then we’ve taken it too far.”

It still inspires and informs the way that I think about the way that organisations need to adapt to be successful in networks, in an age defined by the complexity and pace of the web revolution.

Via Euan Semple.

Comrade Excel and the Glorious Five Year Plan

Image: Tragically, Zepplin trips were outside of Lenin's core value proposition

Image: Tragically, Zepplin trips were outside of Lenin's core value proposition

Spreadsheets aren’t strategy, as Umair Haque is fond of saying.

Turns out they can actually be quite dangerous, for the temptation they bring to reduce a business (a complex, human enterprise) to a set of numbers on a page. Even more dangerous when they trick us into thinking we can predict the future and call the extended line of equations based on assumptions facts. And then, once the “facts” are there, start getting upset when behaviours in your lovely bundle of corporate human potential don’t follow the script.

I loved this post yesterday by Mark Earls about how central planning was utterly discredited at a macroeconomic level (i.e. communism was a disaster) but at a micro-economic level (in our businesses) we persist with command and control approaches.

Mark  muses on an excellent article by Simon Caulkin in Sunday’s Observer called Inside Every Chief Exec There’s a Soviet Planner:

Does your CEO tell the shareholders (and the other stakeholders of the business) stuff like, “we’re not sure what’s going to happen….”? Probably not – certainty in what will happen and the plan to meet it are essential fictions of today’s CEO.

All of which leads to the bloating of the managerial classes in any large organisation

“Central planning imposes a huge co-ordination burden – which is why there is just so much management.”

Curious then, as Caulkin observes, that when coupled with a fervent commitment by the same folk to laisser faire macroeconomics, we get oh….a total mess.

I think I totally failed to post a comment yesterday, so here’s what I was going to say:

It seems such an obvious contradiction now, but we’ve indulged the spreadsheet fantasy of control and predictability in our companies. In fact, to be outside it is to be a heretic.
“What are your projections for Q-whatever, FY-blah?” are questions that seem to demand a suspension of disbelief by all involved.

I recommend standing to attention, staring straight ahead and appending the word “comrade” to the end of any response to such questions from now on. It’s the only sane response…

Large organisations need to plan, but plan in a more agile way. One Truth is a lie. A spread, a loose plotting of your possible courses, and some ideas about how you would react to different scenarios…

There are three things this all boils down to for me:

  1. Organisations aren’t machines.They are far more human and complicated than that. If you treat them like machines they will break.
  2. Don’t be trapped by your plan.  Spreadsheets, business plans – as with all innovations, tech, methods – should serve us, support human potential, not make servants of those gathered round them.
  3. Management is a burden. It needs to be kept light or it destroys value.

Otherwise you end up, Like Hugo Chavez and his cohorts here in this public examining of the accounts trying to work out how you went off-plan…

how-many-beans

And when the answer doesn’t match the spreadsheet…

it-cannot-be

Questions need to be asked. The spreadsheet can’t be wrong, so who is…

there-is-no-excuse

Oops.

Anyway, thanks to Mark for summing it up nicely like that. He and the ever-wonderful Johnnie Moore have put together a podcast yesterday on the same subject which I shall be listening to with great interest later…