Scrum: A new way of managing

18 December 2015 -


It’s not rocket science, but Jeff Sutherland’s Scrum has created a new way of approaching management: the latest in a series leading up to the announcement of the 2016 Management Book of the Year

By 2016 CMI Management Book of the Year shortlisted author Jeff Sutherland

Two decades ago I was desperate. I needed a new way of think¬ing about work. And through tons of research and experimentation and looking over past data I realised we all needed a new way of organising human endeavour.

None of it is rocket science; it’s all been talked about before. There are studies going back to World War II that lay out some of the better ways that people work. But for some reason people never really put together all the pieces.

Over the past two decades I’ve tried to do just that, and now this methodology has become ubiquitous in the first field I applied it to, software development. At giants such as Google, Amazon, and, and at small start-ups you haven’t heard of yet, this framework has radically shifted how people get things done.

The reason this framework works is simple. I looked at how people actually work, rather than how they say they work. I looked at research done over decades and at best practices in companies all over the world, and I looked deeply at the best teams within those companies. What made them superior? What made them different? Why do some teams achieve greatness and others mediocrity?


For reasons I’ll get into further in future chapters, I called this framework for team performance “Scrum.” The term comes from the game of rugby, and it refers to the way a team works together to move the ball down the field. Careful alignment, unity of purpose, and clarity of goal come together. It’s the perfect metaphor for what I want teams to do.

Traditionally, management wants two things on any project: control and predictability. This leads to vast numbers of documents and graphs and charts, just like at Lockheed (see Chapter One). Months of effort go into planning every detail, so there will be no mistakes, no cost overruns, and things will be delivered on schedule.

The problem is that the rosy scenario never actually unfolds.

All that effort poured into planning, trying to restrict change, try¬ing to know the unknowable is wasted. Every project involves dis¬covery of problems and bursts of inspiration. Trying to restrict a human endeavour of any scope to color-coded charts and graphs is foolish and doomed to failure.

It’s not how people work, and it’s not how projects progress. It’s not how ideas reach fruition or how great things are made.

Instead, it leads to frustrated people not getting what they want. Projects are delayed, come in over budget, and, in too many cases, end in abject failure. This is especially true for teams in¬volved in the creative work of crafting something new.

Most of the time, management won’t learn of the glide path toward failure until millions of dollars and thousands of hours have been invested for naught.

Scrum asks why it takes so long and so much effort to do stuff, and why we’re so bad at figuring out how long and how much effort things will take. The cathedral at Chartres took fifty-seven years to build. It’s a safe bet that at the beginning of the project the stone¬masons looked at the bishop and said, “Twenty years, max. Prob¬ably be done in fifteen.”

Scrum embraces uncertainty and creativity. It places a struc¬ture 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.

At its root, Scrum is based on a simple idea: whenever you start a project, why not regularly check in, see if what you’re doing is heading in the right direction, and if it’s actually what people want? And question whether there are any ways to improve how you’re doing what you’re doing, any ways of doing it better and faster, and what might be keeping you from doing that.

That’s what’s called an “Inspect and Adapt” cycle.

Every little while, stop doing what you’re doing, review what you’ve done, and see if it’s still what you should be doing and how you might do it better. It’s a simple idea, but executing it requires thought, intro¬spection, honesty, and discipline.

I’m writing this book to show you how to do it. And not just in software companies.

I’ve seen Scrum used successfully to build cars, run a laundry, teach students in a classroom, make rocket ships, plan a wedding—even, as my wife has used it, to make sure that the “honey do” list gets done every weekend.

The end results of Scrum — the design goal, if you will — are teams that dramatically improve their productivity. Over the past twenty years I’ve built these teams over and over and over again. I’ve been the CEO, CTO, or head of engineering of a dozen com¬panies, from small start-ups with a few people in one room to large enterprises with offices spread across the planet. I’ve consulted and coached hundreds more.

The results can be so dramatic that leading research and analysis firms such as Gartner, Forrester Research, and the Standish Group now say that the old style of work is obsolete.

Companies that still cling to tried-but-not-true ideas of command and control and that attempt to impose rigid predictability are simply doomed to fail if their competitors use Scrum. The difference is too great.

Venture capital firms like OpenView Venture Partners in Boston, where I’m an adviser, say that Scrum offers too big a competitive advantage not to use it. These are not warm and fuzzy people; these are gimlet-eyed moneymen, and they simply say: “The results are indisputable. Companies have two choices: change or die.”

Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in half the time by Jeff Sutherland is shortlisted in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship category of the 2016 CMI Management Book of the Year, in association with the British Library and sponsored by Henley Business School

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