Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Scrum Way (Training with the master)

I recently took on a new business challenge, which, until I learned the error of my ways, I described to myself in shorthand as 'moving from using scrum to coaching scrum by helping others to use it'. Although mistaken (I will return to the nature of my error before I sign off), this idea was valuable in that it made it clear to me that making a start on getting my certification was worthwhile on several levels. When it turned out that the father of scrum, Jeff Sutherland, regularly came to my home town of Amsterdam to run the Scrum Allianace's Certified Scrum Master course, a prospect practical and prudent became positively pleasurable.

A few short weeks after making initial inquiries, just after 9 am on a Monday morning, I was among the few dozen students listening eagerly as Jeff settled everyone in at the start of the two-day training with the tale of his recent trip to Japan. While there he met Ikujiro Nonaka, who, along with Hirotaka Takeuchi, had written the 1986 Harvard Business Review paper, “New New Product Development Game”, that had directly inspired scrum. On the same trip, some Japanese scrum masters taught Sutherland to see scrum in a new light; it was not a development (or project management) framework, it was a way of doing and a way of being, in short, a way of life!

As you might expect after an introduction like that, Jeff (ably assisted by Nicole Belilos of Xebia) ran the training like a scrum; they started with a modified planning session and maintained a course backlog throughout the training, sessions were time-boxed and topics estimated, feedback gathered actively along the way was immediately actioned in the form of updated priorities in the course backlog, velocity was measured and they were also toying with a metric based on 'aha erlebnissen'.

One of the first topics handled was Shu Ha Ri:

This seems to be a hot topic at the moment in the scrum community, where much of the discussion centres on what the different phases constitute and how to translate the concept into action. I suspect that this might be missing the point somewhat. At any rate, at least as important in the idea of shuhari is the (implied) quality of the master or sensei, simply observing the master at work can be informative and instructive and a true master will inspire by their very way of doing things.

“Scrum the scrum!” Sutherland repeatedly regaled us throughout the course, “where did this idea come from that scrum only works for software development?”.

My most important eureka moment came as a delayed reaction, a few days after I had completed the course: I needed to live the scrum way! Getting back to my faulty shorthand; I needed always to keep in mind that the best way to teach scrum is to do scrum, and do it well. Up to that point, in putting flesh on the bones of the aforementioned business opportunity, my colleague and I had navigated a sort of envisioning phase using a malformed Kanban board and somewhat flexible time-boxing (oxymoron?). Although we had produced some value along the way, including a mission statement and a set of objectives, we had ultimately failed in generating a product backlog, and were unsure of next steps. Applying my newest insight I realised that if the context of a scrum is foreign enough it might be useful to consider initially adopting the shu stance by default and installing the entire scrum structure unquestioningly.

It worked a treat, assuming the shu stance delivered much needed focus. For instance; the product backlog is an essential artefact of scrum, one way or another, we had to produce one. This turned out to be a great starting point. To produce a product backlog we needed to assume that it was possible to break the services that we had envisioned into small enough chunks such that we could 'build' complete increments of them within a single sprint. To realise value and feedback as early as possible we also needed to aim for a viable 'release' within 2 or 3 sprints. With this mind-set adopted, a beautifully timed and wonderfully insightful suggestion from my girlfriend tipped whatever point it was and things really began to fall into place. We now have a product backlog and are approx. halfway though our first strictly time-boxed 5 day sprint. We are, so to speak, well on our way, with humble thanks to the master.


  1. Strange, morphic resonance? :-) See Jeff Sutherland's blog post of less than an hour ago @:

  2. A smallish campaign with a homemade list would not be likely to yield much of a result. To achieve anything worthwhile, a much more aggressive effort is needed. Then, the age-old value analysis applies: projected earnings = margin on total projected sales - cost of campaign.