The Scrum process is more commonly known as a software development approach that is designed to be agile, and enable response to changes in customer requirements. In the past 4 years of coaching 320 professionals, managers and leaders, we have seen Scrum techniques used outside software development. Our learners have been part of their organisations’ digital transformation initiatives and were often required to re-define products or processes. The biggest difference between high performance teams and the rest is how they adapted what we recognise as the Scrum process (often without prior knowledge of Scrum) for their own journeys. Key among the better practices are:
Being open to the end of the process changing and being open to responding – Scrum recognises that customer requirements may well change during the development process, as more information emerges, and that challenges cannot be predicted. It enables teams to manage this unpredictability by operating in a series of short ‘sprints’ with defined outcomes. This was particularly evident in digital marketing, to respond to customer messages, and to take advantage of emerging technology and other opportunities.
A series of ‘sprints’ is more effective than a marathon – A big task or project can be daunting. But breaking it down into small steps, and looking at what was needed to reach the next step, and it became much more manageable. Scrum’s ‘sprints’, each of which lasts between one week and one month, enabled the teams to focus on what needs to be done now and next, and not in a year’s time.
“One volunteer is worth ten pressed men” – Scrum does not recognise a role of ‘project leader’ or ‘project manager’. Instead, teams are largely self-organising, and each person takes on the work that they feel that they can deliver. The role of the ‘scrum master’ is to facilitate the process. This shift from ‘command and control’ is based on the idea that people are more likely to deliver if they have volunteered.
Listening to stakeholders is vital – In scrum, one of three defined team roles is ‘product owner’. This person represents the stakeholders to the development team. The digital journey posed some tricky questions about who exactly the stakeholders were. Once they were defined, working with them to visualise ‘success’ was critical.
Agile processes allow for ‘fast failure’ and taking advantage of opportunities – We no longer have the luxury of spending years or even months introducing new systems or marketing campaigns, only to find that they don’t work. It’s vital to identify what doesn’t work quickly, and also be able to take advantage of new opportunities before the competition. Scrum’s iterative, fast-moving process allows for ‘fast failure’ and trying again, in a way that learns from mistakes.
Clearly-defined team roles reduce the potential for politicking and problems – There’s always going to be a bit of resistance and internal politicking, but having very defined team roles, and a system of self-organisation, means that there is limited potential for playing people off against one another. The scrum master’s role in facilitating and generally keeping trouble away from the development team means team members have more space to get on with work.
Recruit with necessary skills and experience in mind – Scrum teams are not fixed from project to project: they draw in the expertise needed for the project in hand, in a cross-functional way. The development team contains all the necessary skills and expertise, all focused on the current project.
A respected list of requirements is essential for delivery in a self-organising system – The product owner maintains a list of the ‘product backlog’, or all the requirements for the product. This means that team members can see what needs doing. Requirements can be added to sprints in an organised way, based on what the team feels it can deliver. Without this system, it is impossible for the team to self-organise, and it will default to ‘command and control’.
Immediate accountability is crucial – During a sprint, a scrum team will hold a ‘daily scrum’, in which each team member will say what they did yesterday that helped achieve the sprint goals, what they will do today towards them, and what are the obstacles in their way. This means that team members are held accountable for progress, and also that obstacles can be resolved quickly.
Regular reviews help to improve processes – Project wash-ups are an essential part of scrum, with both a review and a retrospective at the end of each sprint. The review focuses on the outcomes and product deliverables. The retrospective focuses on process, and how it could be improved.
Make no mistake, mastery of scrum alone will not ensure organisational agility; we’ll discuss the latter at a later date. But the momentum of scrum can breakthrough persistent roadblocks.