Scrum is a major management discovery

Steve Denning wrote an article titled “Scrum is a major management discovery.”

A useful statement.  I recommend you read the article.

It is clear and unfulfilled.  That is, we have by no means fulfilled all the promise implied by that statement.  Have many people forgotten that promise?  Or it is something we never think about?  —  We focus on ourselves or just helping our Team get a bit better, maybe.  But forget the bigger aspirations we should have.

In any case, I think it is important to say, both today and in the future:
Scrum is a major management discovery. Steve Denning is a good and smart man. A man on a mission, and I think a good mission.  Here is his article.

And below are my comments on a couple of key, related issues.

Why is Management important?

So, let’s look at this hypothesis (a major management discovery) from a certain point of view.  What is important? Or where is the power?

If one believes that managers are responsible for the mess we are in or, in any case, only managers have the power to change things, then the fact that Scrum is a major management discovery is quite essential.

A contrary hypothesis is that, despite what some people may think, the real power is with each individual, and stronger in each person to such degree as that person is persuasive and connected to the truth (some combination of those two).  In other words, any one of us can have great affect on our colleagues if one speaks well and if one proposes actions that are connected to the truth.


Aside: What I have suggested is that the power ‘vested’ in managers is actually largely a facade of power with little substance, except that other people happen to believe it sometimes.

Real power only comes from a person’s real leadership, eg, their ability to persuade and to speak the truth.  And anyone, with or without a manager’s official title, may have and use this leadership. How many Arab springs, or 1989s, or American Revolutions will it take until people see that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…”??

Be he right or wrong, in whatever dimension you wish to speak of, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt thought he was pretty darn powerful only a few months ago.

And this power re-balancing we see in world affairs and politics is similar to the power re-balancing we need in our work-day organizations.  At least to a large degree.    And that means we all are closer to equal, ultimately, in power.  Even power.  Yes, I know it seems to many of us very impractical of me to say so.


Now this second hypothesis does not imply that we leave official ‘managers’ out.  It just means that anyone can pick up the torch or the flag.  Anyone can be an emergent leader.  Anyone can start the change, or take it to a new level.  You don’t have to wait for the managers to be convinced, to start.


Scrum changes everything

Scrum changes everything.  We agree.  Yes, a bit of an over-statement, but basically true.

As soon as one introduces Scrum into an organization, the people start to see the impediments and they start to realize that almost everything must be changed, at least some.  Not completely, but at least some. (Yes, a large amount in some areas.)

We agree, based on experience, with the view that Scrum can have a greater positive impact (on people, on the firm, on more customers) if the managers and ‘everyone’ in the organization ‘get it’.  And support it.

But Scrum can still make a serious impact on some people’s lives before ‘managers’ know much about it.  Or agree much with it.  Or do much about it.  We can definitely start Scrum before managers fully ‘get it.’

Also worth repeating: Scrum itself is not a silver bullet.  Scrum does many things (and one might say that the spirit of Scrum does yet many more things), but one of the chief of them is to set up an inspect and adapt system. With enough transparency, this system shows where the biggest problems or impediments are.

But it is up to the people to take action on that new knowledge.  Scrum will not magically, by itself, fix things.  The people must do that. And often that means that the managers must (or should) support the fixes (permit the change, allocate people’s time to fix, get money approved, etc).


Some additional key ideas

In his article, Steve mentions 10 salient ideas about Scrum.  I strongly recommend that you read his article and consider them.  Steve himself does not think his list is perfect or exhaustive, but it is useful to review and consider and put into action more.

To him, some of the ideas I will mention below were said or implied in what he already said. But I want to make them more explicit.  And perhaps I add one or two new things.

My idea is that these underlying principles of Scrum also apply to management work and to the work that managers do with teams.  So, managers, you might be directly interested here:

1. How do we know when thinking (knowledge work) is productive?  Scrum’s idea is that we let ’em think for a while, but they have to show some ‘working product’ at the end of the Sprint!  (Say, every 2 weeks.)  So the right people can decide if it was useful or productive thinking, if we have made real progress.

2. “Six blind men and an elephant.”  No one understands ‘everything’ anymore. To figure out anything, we need to get a small team together, have them fight about it and create knowledge together, and then we can make some progress that the customers would really care about.

3. “The bad news does not get better with age.” Yes, some say Scrum and Agile have ‘extra’ overhead (from their point of view).  But the benefits of that extra overhead are so great in discovering ‘bad thinking’ (simple example: bugs in the code) that it is obvious we must accept the ‘overheads’.

4. We always start with seriously incomplete knowledge. Therefore we must enhance learning. We must accept small failures as the best way to learn fast. (Well, we must accept small failures in any case. But we use them to learn fast also.)  And we must organize things in such a way as to take advantage of that learning as fast and as much as possible.

5. “People are remarkably good at doing what they want to do.”  Knowledge work is (or should be) very creative.  (Again, a lot of the creativity happens as a team of 7 or so.)  And the work, if you remove the de-motivators, is inherently interesting (to those who will do it well).  So, we must treat the workers more as humans with intrinsic motivation and much much less as things or cattle that must be prodded.  Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” gets into how motivation works with knowledge workers.

You may disagree, but to me the importance of motivation in Knowledge Workers is similar to the Golden Rule:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  That is, if you were a knowledge worker, wouldn’t you want work that was motivating, and had some higher purpose?   So, if you want that for yourself, then you should make it so also for the workers in your Team.

6. “You have to go slow to go fast.”  Lean-agile-scrum has shown that there are many counter-intuitive principles that must be followed if a team is to achieve real success.  The principles are counter-intuitive to us, who have been trained so long in the other ways of thinking about these things.  So, multitasking, stretch goals, giving teams multiple projects at the same time, being sure everyone is 100% occupied, large queues of work — all these are almost always stupid ideas, even though they seem good from a certain point of view.

For example: if fast delivery to the customer was important…   Then you need slack in the system (team), to enable faster delivery to the customer.  One of our favorite counter-intuitive sayings is “you have to go slow to go fast”.  Meaning, as indicated earlier: Yes, early and frequent testing is an ‘extra’ overhead, but the benefits in keeping the bad news from getting worse with age are so great that, it quickly pays off and “in the short run” you are soon actually going faster (than the alternative).


In closing

Denning mentions dynamic linking. From that phrase (which I am interpreting a different way than Denning did) I want to lastly emphasize that the values, principles, and practices of Scrum are themselves dynamically linked.

Scrum, if played well, is like a good ice hockey team.  Every player on a great team is inter-linked, and every pass or shot is inter-linked. So that a single pass can be both a great defensive move as well as set up an offensive break-away that leads to success (puck in net) seconds later.  So, similarly, all these things about Scrum are inter-linked, fluidly. And some of the linkage is a dynamic tension. Simple example: In general in agile we want less documentation but we want more and better communication.  Which might mean more documentation of just the right sort (I’ll call this an enabling specification), although overall there is less documentation.


We have so many more benefits to get out of Scrum.  For so many more people.



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