December 18, 2014
In “Silicon Valley,” there’s a scene where Jared, the uptight business adviser, attempts to extoll the virtues of scrum methodology to his pack of misfit programmers. The two engineers stare blankly at Jared as he manically shows them his carefully aligned wall of Post-it note tasks.
It’s a funny scene, but it also accurately depicts how real tech businesses tackle the job of getting software out on a tight deadline. Pieces of the scrum method have been used since the early ’50s, when engineers worked together in the same room, and it’s still a popular framework for product development throughout the Valley today.
But scrum’s usefulness extends beyond the tech industry. Recently, I took a certification class in New York City to learn the ins and outs of this methodology. My classmates came from finance, healthcare, manufacturing, consulting, tech, and government, each with various problems and questions that scrum could help them solve.
So What’s the Buzz About Scrum?
Although it’s useful for solving problems in a variety of industries, the original purpose of scrum was as an agile framework for managing every task in a software development project. By taking an incremental approach, the scrum methodology breaks a bigger project down into smaller deliverables.
The framework requires employees to manage themselves to meet each deliverable. Projects are broken down into two- to four-week “sprints,” and at the end of each sprint, it’s very clear who is contributing and who is not.
This methodology hinges on three basic principles, which are all designed to keep everyone productive and busy throughout the project.
- Transparency: Everything in the scrum framework should be out in the open and free to discuss. If there’s a problem, team members are encouraged to speak up and ask for help. By encouraging open collaboration and problem-solving, scrum increases efficiency.
- Inspection: Each team member participates in short daily meetings to discuss each deliverable. At the end of each sprint, there is a review meeting in which engineers have to provide a demo of their work. By consistently checking the quality of the work, teams can catch problems and address them quickly.
- Adaptation: In addition to keeping employees more engaged, the focus on sprints also allows team members to adapt more easily to changing specifications. The constant process of feedback and inspection during each sprint allows for incremental change when needed.
Spreading the Gospel of Scrum
Scrum isn’t a perfect framework, but my company has made it a part of the agile methods we’ve used for the past 10 years. It’s allowed us to keep management overhead low and push out new product features to our customers several times a year.
Our story isn’t unique, either. The purpose of the scrum methodology is to provide deliverable software that’s considered “done” at the end of each sprint, rather than just at the final stages of product development. This benefits customers and motivates employees by allowing them to see the results of their work on a shorter timeline.
You don’t have to adopt scrum wholesale to benefit from learning it. During the class I took, a couple of government project managers complained that scrum wouldn’t work for them, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Aspects of scrum are useful in virtually any industry.
Here are a few principles any organization can apply:
1. Use continuous inspection. Hold a 15-minute meeting at the beginning of the day to identify and solve potential problems before they snowball.
2. Work in short sprints. The scrum framework makes it very difficult for unproductive team members to hide. Working toward a goal in short sprints helps motivate employees and foster teamwork.
3. Encourage managers to be servant-leaders. The scrum framework reinforces the notion that any manager or leader is a servant, meaning his or her job is to do whatever is necessary to facilitate the group’s productivity.
Scrum is more than just a framework for product development, though — it’s an entirely different perspective. It can promote greater personal responsibility in both employees and management and ultimately lead to better customer experiences.
Scrum has caught on in many different industries, and its expansion is just getting started.
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