The Power of Scrum Revealed

Tags: scrum, agile, jeff sutherland, kindle

About a week or so ago, after reading a tweet from Jeff Sutherland, I finally picked up a copy of his new novella, The Power of Scrum, for my Kindle (a steal at $6). Jeff released this in paperback last November and on January 31, 2012 it was released in Kindle format.  It has been on my "must-read" list since hearing about it last fall, and having just completed it this weekend, I thought I'd share my thoughts on it.


For the impatient:  It's a well-written short story about applying Scrum on a really risky project.  Get a copy for yourself and your manager. Now.


What is it About?


The Power of Scrum is a gripping business fable in the same genre as those by Patrick Lencioni, Eli Goldratt and Stephen Denning written by the co-creator of Scrum, Jeff Sutherland.  Over the course of ten short chapters it tells the story of Mark Resting, the beleaguered CTO for a software company on the brink of disaster after six months of repeated delays in delivering a promised solution to their largest customer, Logistrux. Failure to deliver now would mean mass layoffs and legal ramifications that would likely take down the entire company.  In a Hail Mary pass he travels to Logistrux's London head offices to make a final plea for three more months to deliver a solution - without knowing how he would make good on that commitment beyond driving his team into the ground.


After getting drenched in the infamous rainy London weather and missing his last flight home, Mark makes a chance meeting at the airport hotel pub with Jerry, a San Francisco-based Scrum consultant on layover after delivering a paper at a conference in The Netherlands.  With the question, "What does rugby have to do with developing software?", Mark engages Jerry in a dialogue about what Scrum is, how it works and why it works that spans the entire book.


As with many who are new to Scrum, Mark is initially quite skeptical of the things that Jerry describes and pushes back several times during their initial meetings.  How can teams really manage themselves? How can a project be successfully delivered when the customer is allowed to make changes along the way?  How can we deliver a solution without a big, up-front plan?  How can software be released every 2-4 weeks?


Jerry patiently explains the answers to these questions and many more as he introduces the structure and rules of Scrum and how they are applied to help align the team with the customer and their wishes.  Reluctantly, Mark agrees to see if his team will adopt Scrum to turn his firm's fortunes around and begin releasing software within two weeks.  From this point onward, the story of their successes and setbacks unfold as they race against time to deliver a solution that will meet Logistrux's needs.


Why is it Compelling?

Well, it's a great story that teaches how to deliver ROI under extreme conditions for a start.  However, this story has a greater impact in my opinion.


We live in what I've come to see as the Second Age of Scrum.  In the First Age (1993-2003) Scrum was born and by sheer dint of perseverance came to be one of the most popular agile delivery practices due to its simplicity and effectiveness in providing real ROI where other practices failed.  However, this success came at a price, with sustained attacks on adhering to Scrum's simple rules as being "dogmatic" and not "pragmatic", ironically leading to an "anything goes" ethos and an acceptance of "Scrum-But" implementations (eg. "we do Scrum, but we don't do x, y or z").  Net effect?  A confusion in the market about what Scrum is and if it can really be as effective as advocates  claim.


By using a powerful narrative/dialogue approach to describe how to apply Scrum, The Power of Scrum turns this tide back (here's to hoping it ushers in a Third Age of Scrum Enlightenment) by making the subject matter easily understood by anyone.  Instead of being a staid how-to guide, the material is presented within a believable, real-world encounter that brings the human dimension of collaborative, incremental software delivery to life.  The interplay and emotions between the main characters as they struggle to let go of past behaviours while bridging toward new ones is palpable and quite close to what one can expect to see in the field.  While some situations do feel "manufactured" for a certain outcome, it's understandable from the perspective of advancing the story and not becoming a John Le Carre novel.


Combined, this makes for a really good read that educates while it entertains.


Significant Highlights:


The Power of Scrum is, for me, chock-full of Scrum goodness:  I really liked how common misconceptions and errors are discussed at just the right moments in the story through emphasized, bold-faced dialogues between Mark and Jerry (so much so I've highlighted them all in my Kindle for future reference). I also liked how "the essentials" of each chapter were captured and summarized in bullet points to help reinforce the concepts that were introduced.  Additionally, I found several parts of The Power of Scrum interesting from the perspective of Scrum adoption and execution that make it a stand-out effort:


  • First, and perhaps most significantly, Mark decides to use Scrum on an active project in distress and not a clean-cut, greenfield opportunity or low-risk pilot project.  It's a messy situation with the threat of layoffs and lawsuits in the balance that harkens back to Scrum's early implementations on similarly risky, in-flight projects with high stakes.


  • Second, Mark decides against imposing Scrum on his teams, choosing to let them decide if it should be used to solve their delivery problems after an interactive meeting with Jerry.  This sets the tone for one of my favourite Scrum truisms:  Treating professionals as rational adults and not infantilized lumps of clay that need to be told what to do every waking minute of their working lives.


  • Third, the project is started without delay:  The team decides its goal (ie. remove everything that doesn't work) for a first release in two weeks and plans their Sprint without a lot of overhead.  It takes the better part of a day to sort it out, which is about right for a new team.


  • Fourth, Jerry shares the Scrum Master role with a young, up-and-coming test lead, George, to help show him the ropes.  Mark selects George over some of the more senior staff because he showed an aptitude in the initial meetings about introducing Scrum for being fair and open-minded, and this comes with the real consequence of a senior developer, Vince, harbouring resentment.


  • Fifth, the current Project Manager, Rick, is cajoled into the role of a Product Owner Proxy instead of getting one from their customer.  This is often the necessity for some teams who have customers that cannot or will not provide an individual responsible for the product vision and direction.


  • Sixth, the description of estimation, task breakdown and the use of a Scrum Board to track progress are covered.  While not "strictly Scrum", they are well-established, time-tested practices that make the entire system work.


  • Seventh, the Sprint Retrospective is emphasized as a critical part of team continuous improvement.
  • Eighth: A latop gets thrown across a room and wedged into a meeting room wall.  While not at all related to Scrum, we've all wanted to do that at one time or another... ;-)


The Cheesy Bits

Of course, there's always a risk with writing a business fable about how to resolve wicked problems using a lightweight framework:  You need to provide a backstory that gives depth to your characters.  The Power of Scrum suffers only slightly from this with the exploration of Mark Resting's personal relationship with his wife and its loose mirroring in how he approached projects, ie. waiting for everything to be perfect and known before making decisions.  While a useful allegory, I didn’t find this to add significantly to the main thread of the story and I could easily see it being the bits that would be edited out for a movie adaptation.


Another weak spot was the ready acceptance of personal fault by the project manager, Rick, for past delays and not being open to fully embracing the role of Product Owner.  In real life it is rare to find this level of maturity - it is quite more likely to encounter varying degrees of indifference and subterfuge that accumulate to threaten the project.


Who Should Read It?  Why?


Anyone interested in knowing more about Scrum and how it can be applied to turning around projects in distress should read this book, from developers to testers to managers and executives.  It is written in a very approachable way that makes understanding the material entertaining and effortless and can begin to open the dialogue about Scrum adoption in practical terms.


Bottom Line?


Despite a few weak spots, The Power of Scrum is a well-written short story about implementing Scrum on a risk-laden project that offers useful lessons in how to apply it in a real-world scenario.  While well-versed in Scrum, I found myself totally engrossed in the narrative and how the characters mount an effort to take back control of their project's destiny through incremental delivery and continuous improvement.  The challenges, setbacks and wins are all very believable and similar to what I've witnessed as a Scrum Master and coach over many years. 


This book needs to be on your bookshelf or Kindle and that of your managers and business owners. Pronto!


The Power of Scrum (Paperback)

The Power of Scrum (Kindle)

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