The Gentle Art of Scrum Management

Scrum is a de facto practice, usually grouped under the category of “Agile methodology.” New projects are broken into smaller parts that can be completed by small teams in discrete blocks of time. Each burst of work is called a “sprint.”

With Scrum, everyone is focused on producing code that can ship. How they achieve that goal is not carved in stone; the path can twist to accommodate change. But that flexibility puts a lot of pressure on the Scrum master, who guides the team, as well as the project owner who brings the task and seeks a satisfactory outcome.

Seen from the outside, Scrum looks like running a marathon in 100-yard dashes. It is a process that can be infinite in possibility and limited in scope. Under certain circumstances, it is also a cure for bad management.

Scrum is increasingly how the software industry “gets things done.” According to the latest Stack Overflow developer survey, Scrum came in second among favored methodologies, slightly trailing Agile and ahead of Pair, Kanban, and Waterfall.

At companies that are tired of seeing projects screwed up by inertia, complexity, and confusion, Scrum could be just the thing to get workflow back on track.

The Gospel According to Scrum

The concept of Scrum is one of small, iterative projects that leverage feedback to create continuous improvement. Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka used the term “Scrum” when they outlined their concept of “organizational knowledge creation” in a jointly authored article for the Harvard Business Review.

The Agile Manifesto likewise provided the foundation for Scrum as a project-management philosophy.

A typical Scrum process works like this: a “product owner” will bring a project to the group, which will block out the work into “sprints” that usually span two to four weeks. There are daily meetings to develop an approach or fix mistakes. A Scrum Master keeps the project on track. The emphasis is on getting things done.

In theory, smaller project increments plus feedback makes for smaller failures and quicker fixes, thus cutting risks. If a project begins with a less-than-certain endpoint, then Scrum is flexible and forgiving.

But to make Scrum work, teams must be small—three to nine people. Previous studies have shown that the more people you add to a project, the less work each member does. Another problem is that large groups don’t efficiently use all members, explained Dave Prior, Certified Scrum Trainer (CST): “People start getting left out. Communication becomes a problem.”

Before Scrum, the dominant project methodology was Waterfall, which bore a vague resemblance to Soviet-era central planning. The project was framed out in advance, and the work followed that plan until finished; only then would testing occur. “You put a lot of effort into figuring it out, there was no opportunity for feedback,” Prior said. “Failure is at the end.”

Every Paper Chase has a Purpose

While the basic Scrum principles have remained pretty much intact for decades, certification related to the methodology has expanded into an alphabet soup: CSPO, CSM, CSD, CSP, CST, CEC, CTC—with more to come.

“People seek certifications for intrinsic reasons. Employers and recruiters know they have the knowledge,” said Shannon Carter, VP for Education at the Scrum Alliance.

Scrum is ideally taught in a classroom, face-to-face, as personal communication is fundamental to its success. “A big part is getting the students to participate,” Prior said. In order to better engage the class, students can tell stories about their previous workplace experiences and how Scrum may have helped.

Training for a Scrum certification is typically narrow, and may not mesh with Agile, contended Daniel Markham, an Agile management coach who will mix and match Scrum with other methods: “Agile is like a jazz band… The band has to coalesce and produce music people like.”

(How do you train people in Agile? Start with problem-solving exercises that have nothing to do with coding, then bring the group into a technical environment. Go to light DevOps, then solve some technical problems. Do this for several weeks, then let the group loose in a business environment, Markham explained.)

Taxing Taxonomy, Specific Semantics

With Scrum, what is being taught is a management skill, not a technical one. And it’s important to understand not only what Scrum is, but also what it is not.

Scrum is “by far the most popular Agile framework, but many people use Scrum and Agile as synonyms, when actually, Agile is all about the principles and mindset and Scrum is a very specific set of guidelines with defined roles, events, and artifacts,” explained Yvette Francino, Certified Scrum Master.

“I’ve seen new Agile techniques being used with Scrum.” Francino added. “So, for example, as more large groups are using Scrum, scalable frameworks such as LeSS (Large-Scale Scrum) and SAFe have been developed. These build onto Scrum to accommodate larger groups. I’ve also seen groups add other techniques, such as DevOps techniques, that aren’t described as part of Scrum, but are considered Agile.”

Scrum fails when it has to scale, noted Andy Lientz, senior vice president for engineering at Smartsheet, a firm specializing in collaborative software for project management: “A lot of work at the micro-level does not contribute to the corporate objective.”

Scrum groups may be too small to do big things, Lientz continued. Teams may drop features as a trade-off to make a deadline, at ultimate cost to the product. Amazon’s Fire Phone suffered this fate, as promised features fell by the wayside in order to complete the device on time. But there is a better way: establish a firm estimate as early in the process as possible, then add staff and resources to accomodate.

“People realize that Scrum can be modified,” Lientz added. “Pure Scrum fails if it is not modified for the project.” Smartsheet is a collaborative app that can be used for any project involving a timeline; the user can mix different management methods inside the app to suit customized needs.

As with any other methodology, there’s also the danger of excessive hype. “Agile is a huge marketing term for what the cool kids are doing to develop software today.” Markham said, adding: “People can get fervent about Scrum.” That fervor is irritating and can make some managers hard to reason with.

Management Can Be Hard to Manage

Indeed, while a management method may be logical at its core, managers can be illogical, mean or downright nasty. Although bad managers are more common than anyone would like, one goal of Scrum is to make them a rare phenomenon.

“Much of the ‘mindset’ that Agile/Scrum methodologies recommend is consistent with leadership practices that have been around and are used outside of software development.” Francino said. “Scrum recommends a servant-leadership style of leadership, self-managing, cross-functional teams.”

This structure promotes autonomy and empowerment, he added: “Strategies that have proven to be effective in improving morale, productivity, and general happiness on teams. Wanting high-performing teams that are happy is common for any type of management and is just one aspect of Scrum, but this style of management has proven to be effective even outside of Scrum.”

“Scrum is designed to get [expletives] out of the system.” Markham said. “Get along with people or you are useless.”

Good teams might offer auditions to see how well an applicant can work with the others. There is no perfect metric; diversity is ultimately what a team needs to be effective, Markham pointed out: “The more diverse team that can function together is better than homogenous.” It just takes one person who thinks differently to spot that one factor that makes or breaks a project.

“Accountability in Scrum is required,” Lientz said. “Without accountability, everything fails.” Accountability implies responsibility—the manager must answer for the work. Scrum is about fixing problems, not blame. “If there is a blame culture, you’re in the wrong company.”

“Everyone who has gone to kindergarten can work on a tech team,” Markham said—just share the toys and don’t hit each other.

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