Guest Post by Elinor Slomba: Scrum for Startups – Part 1
As a company that practices Agile for both product development and project management, Independent Software understands the methodology’s value when addressing dynamic problems. At The Whiteboard, we’re interested in exploring how other local companies and entrepreneurs can apply Agile in a startup context. Today and tomorrow, we’re featuring a two-part essay by the Agile expert Elinor Slomba, exploring a particular framework within Agile, called Scrum, and specifically the role of the Scrum Master.
Elinor is a Certified Scrum Master who works with East Coast artists, arts organizations, and creative companies. She’s been an official blogger for the Scrum Alliance at the World Scrum Gathering in Barcelona. Upcoming workshops at The Grove include “Juicy Planning and Meetings that Don’t Suck,” on August 30th, and “Creative Collaboration: Intro to Agile,” on September 9th.
What if every team attempting to achieve something complex could rely on the dedication of an individual well versed in the team’s culture, whose sole purpose was to keep its members happy and productive?
Such is the role of the Scrum Master.
The Scrum Master serves as the fulcrum of Scrum, the most popular Agile development framework in use in business contexts today. The entrepreneurial community in Connecticut is starting to recognize how important an Agile mindset can be in dealing with fast-paced change, and how a Scrum Master specifically can help. Here I’d like to further that awareness.
I’ll start today by discussing the basics of Agile and Scrum and why they are important for startups. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss essential principles of the Scrum Master’s role within a team and organization.
Agile is a business mindset, not a methodology. There are many different Agile approaches and frameworks; they all start from the assumption that at the start of a project, you can never really know everything you will need to know to complete it. Many factors essential to meeting market demand will depend on a team’s ability to integrate the learning that takes place while the work is in process. Agile-oriented development takes this fact as its basis, and favors short, iterative work cycles over projects loaded with big, up-front requirements.
Scrum is a particular Agile framework guided by a structured set of interactions that constitute the “rules” of what many view as a work-related game. According to these rules, work cycles are known as “sprints” and are time-boxed to just two to four weeks. The group discusses in a transparent way how they’re going to interact and what they’ll commit to before starting each project, checks in frequently with each other, and holds candid dialogue about what is working well and what could be improved.
Each sprint ends with a “retrospective,” which is a chance for the cross-functional team, usually five to nine members, to inspect its performance and adjust its approach.
As a distinct body of knowledge, Scrum has been around since the mid 1990s when it was introduced jointly by Ken Schwaber, a software developer, and Jeff Sutherland, a former fighter pilot. The name is borrowed from rugby, referencing the moment in a game when team members have their shoulders locked tightly together.
The intent of Scrum as a framework for getting complex things done at work is to establish this kind of united front based on close-knit relationships among people who want the same positive outcomes, who trust each other, and who choose to align with each other for success.
Scrum for Small Companies
Although born out of a software development context, Scrum can be applied in any business setting or field of human endeavor where creative people are collaborating to solve complex problems. It’s about getting people to opt into a goal-oriented project and stay engaged in the same conversation long enough to get something Done with a capital “D.” Since clear communication can be difficult in the workplace when there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, Scrum sets up a pattern to follow – not in order to make every project the same, cookie-cutter style, but in the sense of choreography to make work flow more smoothly among a group of vibrant people with a lot of ideas. The rules of Scrum, when embraced as a group with support from leadership, enable the flow to be orderly yet lively, so that learning can be harvested between concept and release to improve bottom-line results.
Doug Kirkpatrick of the Morning Star Self-Management Institute told me in a private interview that highly creative workers value relations based on a shared sense of purpose and tend to reject climates of coercion. Workplaces where people are invited to opt in to projects trigger loyalty in the form of higher retention rates, fewer personnel problems, and hyper-productivity among teams. According to Daniel Pink, social scientists concur that the opportunity to solve complex problems rates consistently higher than money as a motivating factor for attracting top-level talent.
Agile Methodology in general, and the Scrum framework in particular, are obviously applicable to the management of many startups, where small teams are expected to function fluidly at an accelerated pace. However, Scrum can also be utilized by larger, more conventional organizations as well, even in industries with firmly entrenched habits.
In preparing for an upcoming collaboration, Devin Hedge, founder of Resultlinq, an organizational management consulting firm launched just this week, has expanded my understanding of why adopting Scrum more widely might be a good idea for Connecticut companies. The way he tells it, regulatory compliance often gets touted as a reason why stiff, heavy processes must remain in place. However, in heavily regulated industries like insurance and health care, government legislation gets implemented and suddenly everything has to change on a dime. Then the courts rule on a new interpretation the following year, and it has to change again. The more agile companies can adapt more quickly and are thus exposed to less legal risk.
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll discuss the role of the Scrum Master within the Scrum framework, and the principles of the Scrum Master’s approach to optimizing team performance.