The delay of products and the waste of labor are among the major grievances of both managers and customers. To this end, it may be safe to assert that the history of organizing human endeavor in the workplace is marked by a ceaseless quest to find the perfect organizational scheme to get the best from workers, both blue and white colors, and to get it on time. This inquiry on the side of management escalated and became all the more urgent especially after the revolutionary impact of modernism in all aspects of human life. The much-cherished dawn of human enlightenment saw the rationalization of economies, political and legal systems, and anything that concerns us. Yet, the modern age also brought horrors never seen before.
For all the eye-catching advances of science, the scientific approach to the management of economy at macro/micro level, and the deployment of reason in every layer of social life, a flawless and smoothly-running scheme to organize business management had eluded generations of companies and thinkers. According to Jeff Sutherland, the author of Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, most of the best companies in the U.S. were still committed to the Waterfall methodology, a framework that dominated the working environments in most of the global companies until the late 1990s.
What animates Sutherland’s book is the million-dollar question: Why do so many companies fail to deliver their products on time? Why do brilliant engineers and managers fail behind the schedule, miss deadlines? What is the core reason behind the colossal amount of waste in terms of both money and time? What can be done to bring order to the prevalent chaos that irrevocably chips away at the resources of many promising companies? Is there a solution to stop the bleeding of human resources, depletion of financial sources? Is there a way to end the otherwise preventable labor waste?
Scrum comes as Sutherland’s positive answer to most of those questions after a lifelong quest to find out the root cause of inefficiency that was the defining feature of the working environment in most companies across the U.S. The central themes that constitute the main body of the book recur around time management, reorganization of human endeavor, restructuring of working teams, and how to stop the waste and deadline misses. It can even boil down to a single line of argument: it is about the reorganization of human work in a revolutionary way to get all the other expected results and goals.
Scrum is now a household concept known by every manager, developer, and worker in modern economies. It came to represent a new way of organization in relation to the working structure of teams in the workplace. In a historical analogy, if Waterfall methodology refers to modernism, Scrum could be regarded as postmodernism. After the rapid digitalization of economies, the old mindset that ruled management boards began to fail to catch up with new market demands amid cut-throat competition among rival firms.
“Change or die” is one of the governing principles laid out in the book as Sutherland chronicles how once-promising companies stumble in market anarchy due to their reactionary approach to persistent demands for rejuvenation and transformation. Even the best engineers, Sutherland contends, may fall behind if they refuse to reinvent themselves by creating new organizational schemes. In one vivid example, he tells readers about the tragic fate of a software company based in Boston.
As a former Vietnam veteran, Sutherland’s invention of Scrum was driven by a longstanding motivation first to understand the chief cause behind the endless delays in product deliveries by companies and then how to fix it. This quest led him to closely observe and inspect the way how companies are organized, the way how teams operate, and the way how the product is developed. The findings he found are revealing. In contrary to conventional wisdom, the majority of the companies or even government departments did not work smoothly and rationally as expected. Their products were late, their working structure sloppy and their decision-making mechanism riddled by cumbersome procedures. The protracted meetings created more problems than they solved.
It is no wonder then why Sutherland starts his book with the account of a decade-long delay of a software product to be used by F.B.I. After hundreds of millions of dollars extra-spending and deployment of additional teams, the contractor firm was nowhere close to delivering the product when a congressional report was commissioned in 2010. The mood was somber and expectations for getting the product after another contract renewal were all-time low. Then, Sutherland tells us, Scrum came to the rescue. As a supervisor, Sutherland began to advise F.B.I. officials to clear the mess and deliver the product without further delay, with a far limited budget, and with fewer developers on the project. Nobody believed that could be pulled off. Sutherland-led new team promised the delivery of Sentinel, the software communication tool designed to get rid of the archaic paper documentation inside F.B.I., no later than 2011. And they did.
Scrum did not only save F.B.I., the backbone of U.S. law enforcement in the domestic realm. It also helped hundreds of companies revolutionize their working schemes to become less costly and more efficient. From media outlets to governments, from software developing companies to medical firms, Scrum is now universally accepted as the major methodology to avoid waste of time and money.
It is all about management
As readers delve into the chapters of the book, one cannot fail to observe Sutherland’s fascination with the Japanese work mindset and ethics. He borrows Scrum’s basic model from the Japanese managers whose approach to production and manufacturing is best embodied by the Toyota Production System. Inspired by how teams organized in the Rugby game, the Japanese managers offered the first glimpses of a working scheme that later evolved into today’s Scrum methodology and agile. For Sutherland, the most fundamental component of Scrum is time management and the formation of teams to eliminate cumbersome and error-prone procedures.
“In comparison to Waterfall, it refers to producing fast and quality products with less amount of time and with few people than the previous methodology that dominated the corporate work environment,” Sutherland writes.
He reminds the reader that traditional management was fixated on control and predictability. Yet, the writer duly admits, the real-life cannot be made fit into the world of theory and cognitive thinking. The unexpected things, the random nature of the real world would render over-planned management schemes irrelevant. Scrum’s myth-busting approach to management takes its starting point from here. What follows is a document called Agile Manifesto released in 2001.
In contrast to Waterfall and other old-fashioned models, Agile gives precedence to “people over processes; products that actually work over documenting about what the product is supposed to do; collaborating with customers over negotiating with them; responding to change over following a plan…”
The punchline that demonstrates the gist of the argument about Scrum comes right after:
“There is no methodology.”
Scrum refuses to be a method written on stone, something never changeable; but it prefers to be conducive to change and adaptation to ever-shifting market demands and working conditions. Its ultimate strength relies on its flexibility, on giving a lot of room and autonomy to teams for self-organization and self-decision. This approach sharply reduces the long communication process between the managerial board and teams, who are responsible for creating the actual product. It allows team members to decide and act after a proper assessment of a given context and conditions. Sutherland whose son served in Egypt as NPR producer during the tumultuous days of Arab Spring in 2011 tells the story of how NPR’s team on the ground took matters into their hands after missing several headline-grabbing big news because of waiting for a green light from their headquarters in the U.S. before actually making the story. The decision to cover which news stories was then made by team members using Scrum on the ground, skipping the daily contact or approval process from the board based in Washington, D.C.
Having said that, to treat Scrum as a new holy doctrine is to risk turning Scrum into what it is unflinchingly against: a fixed scheme indifferent to time-space differences and shifting socio-cultural currents. Even today, mega-companies like Apple and Amazon are prone to huge mistakes. After releasing its new iOS in 2011, Apple was rattled by a scandal when its GPS map on the iPhone found to be dysfunctional and misleading. To contain damage to its reputation, the tech giant fired its software engineer who designed the map. Amazon, which provides cloud service to the CIA and Pentagon, and dominates the cloud computing market, is also mired in scandals when malign users ceaselessly exploit its online commerce, flouting its rules and flooding it with fake products or never-delivered goods. After warranting close media attention, the company now acts more aggressively to shut down suspicious accounts and targets scams on its website.
These companies are the leaders of the tech world and they use Scrum as well. This indicates that Scrum, no matter how revolutionary and efficient it may be, would not be a solution to all shortcomings that derail some companies.
Scrum During Pandemic
While Sutherland wrote his book long before the Covid-19 global pandemic, the philosophy of Scrum resonates well with companies and workers who collectively have to wrestle with the challenges of remote work. The future of office, as Economist investigates, is now under question as capitalism shifts beyond the traditional work format during the pandemic. The champions of Scrum scrambled to preach about the premises and prospects of its working schemes as almost all IT companies sent their employees home for an indefinite period of time. A scrum master even went on to claim that Scrum is pandemic-proof.
It is no secret, many companies were caught off guard when teams were forced to organize remotely to streamline their work during the initial days of the pandemic. Zoom, which went through a cycle of boom, bust, and again boom after the world’s rush for its video conference platform, displayed both the promises and perils of online schooling and remote work. As time went by, both schools and firms correspondingly adjusted to the demands of the digital organization during the pandemic.
Scrum’s self-organization principle and its assertion on the improvised decision-making due to rapidly shifting circumstances well suited with the spirits and demands of today’s world. But it also demonstrated the limits of its organizational scheme due to the undeniable need for human contact, physical gathering, and collective acting to resolve the toughest issues that bedevil companies.
We the teammates and co-workers still crave immediate contact in the same place to immediately deal with emerging problems at hand. No digital platform makes up for what we’ve lost during the remote work.
In conclusion, Scrum has both upsides and downsides in terms of labor organization and management before and after the pandemic. Lending a sacred meaning to Scrum risks turning it into another Waterfall after so many companies and managers began to treat Scrum as something of holy doctrine impervious to change and improvisation.
To put it succinctly, Scrum, for the reason articulated above, particularly rejects any form of unquestioning subscription to a specific methodology independent of time and context: there is no methodology, after all, Sutherland’s book notes.