Scrum: A book review by Bob Morris

ScrumScrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time
Jeff Sutherland
Crown Business (2014)

Here is a “radical change from the prescriptive, top-down project methodologies of the past”

To what does the title of this book refer? Jeff Sutherland thinks that the way the world works, how business is conducted, “is broken.” How so? One of the answers is to be found when examining the deficiencies of Gantt Charts, introduced by Henry Grant about a century ago. The “Waterfall Method” involves the creation of intricate charts. Every step in the given project is laid out in detail. “The charts truly are impressive to behold. The only problem with them is that they are always, always wrong.”

Twenty years ago, Sutherland created a new approach called “Scrum.” He thoroughly explains it in this book. Basically, Scrum is a process by which, after launching a project, you “check in, see if what you’re doing is headed in the right direction, and if it is actually what people want.” There are three essential components: Initiate, Inspect, and Adapt. Periodically, stop your work and determine if it’s still what you should be doing and how you might do it better. “It’d a simple idea, but executing it requires thought, introspection, honesty, and discipline.”

As I began to work my way through Sutherland’s lively and eloquent narrative, I was again reminded of what Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn have to say about this approach in their book, Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner, when affirming that it offers a much better approach to innovation: designing smart mistakes, learn from them, and thereby achieve greater success and do so sooner.

Peter Sims has much of value to say about this strategy in Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. As he explains, “At the core of this experimental approach, little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Sutherland’s coverage:

o A New Way of Thinking (Pages 7-10)
o Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls (31-34)
o Inspect and Adapt (34-36)
o Scrum in the Time of [Employee] Revolt (48-51)
o Scrum at War (54-58)
o The Scrum Master (61-62)
o The Sprint (72-76)
0 Time and Time Again (81-83)
o Do One Thing at a Time (88-94)
o Do It Right the First Time 97-100)
o Size Does Matter But Only Relatively (121-124)
o The Oracle of Delphi (125-129)
o There Are No Tasks, there Are Only Stories, and, Write Short Stories (132-136)
o Know Your Velocity (139-143)
o Quantifying Happiness (148-152)
o Delivering Happiness (157-=160)
o The Product Owner (176-180)
o Risk [Management] (197-199)
o How We’ll All Work One Day (222-229)

On occasion, during a project guided and informed by Scrum principles, courage will also be required, especially when it becomes obvious that the given project must be abandoned, placed on hold, or totally reconstituted. It is important to keep the ultimate design goal clearly in mind: to enable individuals and especially teams to increase their efficiency and productivity by eliminating waste of resources.

Whether or not any team or individual can do twice the given work in half the time depends on factors beyond Sutherland’s control. Self-motivation, for example, and the environment within which the effort is made. That said, he offers a mindset and a process worthy of careful consideration. Among the many benefits of what he recommends is that almost anyone can easily understand the three stages of Scrum: initiate, inspect/evaluate, and then adapt before proceeding.

In this context, I am again reminded of an observation made by Peter Drucker in an HBR article in 1993: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” It makes no sense whatsoever to master the art of doing twice the work in half the time if the given work is not worth doing or significantly less important than other initiatives.

I agree with Jeff Sutherland that almost any organizational objective is achievable. I also agree with Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Scrum can be the bridge between a compelling vision and its fulfillment. I urge you to check it out.

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