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Let’s SCRUM Things Up: For Project Management and Much More…
09/15/2017 John Grubbs

I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to keeping comfort and harmony in life.  However, there is something remarkable about disrupting our personal comfort zones. And let’s face it; if we have been using the same project management tool for one hundred years, we have not improved.  How can we improve without changing?

The waterfall method for project management has had its place and served us adequately for many years.  It was my “goto” for many successful projects.  As PMs, we love our Gantt charts.  I just did not know what I did not know.  That’s the classic definition of ignorance, right?  Well, the difference between where we are today and where we will be next year, or 5 years from now is the people we meet or the books that we read. 

Several months ago, a friend gave me the book Scrum by Jeff Sutherland.  I was both disrupted and inspired simultaneously.  It rocked my world.  I mean really, can a method really produce twice the work in half the time?  Even though I am optimistic by nature, this sounded too good to be true.  During my first Scrum experience, we estimated a four week project.  It was completed the first week.  A 75% improvement over expectations really captured my attention.  Since then I have been teaching any organization that will listen to the power this tool can provide if utilized properly.  My purpose today is to share highlights in order to spark your interest in something cool and different.  Tighten your seat belt and hold on tight…we are going on a Scrum ride.

Scrum starts with the concept of O.O.D.A.; an acronym for observe, orient, decide, and act.  Instead of guessing times and outcomes too far down the road, Scrum requires constant adjustments based on current outcomes.  Mike Tyson famously said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."  Projects are often riddled with constant changes and unexpected barriers that the waterfall method simply does not take into account when planning out time and duration for events.  Scrum requires daily OODA feedback loops that promote speed and adaptability during each sprint.

The Scrum board is a simple visual tool that breaks activities in to three columns; To-do, doing, and done.  In a glance, anyone can know where each activity is.  The to-do column is represents all the activities to be completed during each sprint (I will talk about sprints later).  The goal is to move as many activities to the done column during a given period of time.  Anyone on the Scrum team can own an activity and move it to the done column.  Key is the definition of done.  Done must mean completely done.

The Scrum sprint is usually one week to one month long as determined by the team.  Activities to be completed during the sprint goes in the “to do” column on the Scrum board.  Each day (preferably at the same time) during the sprint, the team holds a daily stand up meeting that last 15 minutes maximum.  Scrum teaches us to focus on systems rather than blaming individuals when problems are encountered during each sprint. Sprints are used to determine velocity during the project so that a completion date can be estimated.

The backlog of activities consists of everything that needs to be done for the project to be complete.  Since humans are terrible at estimating time (look up the cone of uncertainty), each activity is sized according to something a human can relate to easily.  One method I like to use is dog size.  A small activity is a Chihuahua and a large activity is a Great Dane. Other activities in the middle can be represented by Beagles or Dobermans. Sound crazy?

The magic in Scrum comes from the daily standup.  It holds team members accountable for activity and also allows problems and corrections to be addressed immediately.  The longer a problem remains, the longer it takes to resolve it.  Each day, during the 15 minute standup meeting, every team member answers 3 questions.  What did you do yesterday?  What are you working on today?  What obstacles are you facing?  This transparency is magic because activities can be adjusted and reassigned daily.  Remember, Scrum is about speed.

Fundamental attribution error is a human tendency to focus on blaming an individual rather than focus on a system when problems occur.  In Scrum, it is important to examine systemic causation immediately rather than look for a human to blame.  Scrum’s creator describes at length the origins of this thinking with the companies like Toyota.

My purpose in this writing is to give you a taste for Scrum.  Consider it an updated and effective alternative to traditional project management.  Like anything however, diluted understanding or half-hearted implementation will make any proven process ineffective.  Read the book, Scrum (by Jeff Sutherland) and gain a better understanding for the why this actually works.  A paradigm shift is required for traditional managers to understand efficacy.  For example, if your boss asks you, “how long will this project take?”  And you answer, “I don’t know yet because we haven’t started and we don’t know our sprint velocity yet.”  Expect a suspicious look.  If you read the book, you will discover that Scrum is being used for many purposes around the world from classrooms in Europe to farms in developing countries.  Let’s Scrum things up in your organization!

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