Scrum’s co-creator talks about the framework’s transformational effect

Jeff Sutherland on the challenges ahead as more companies adopt agile and scrum

john sutherland
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Jeff Sutherland is one of the inventors of the scrum development process. He also created, along with Alistair Cockburn, Ken Schwaber and others, the Agile Manifesto in 2001. He's currently CEO of Scrum, Inc., and a speaker, author and thought leader in software development.

Sutherland's latest book, Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in half the time, is available now. Sutherland sat down with CIO.com's Sharon Florentine at Agile Alliance 2015 to talk about the past, present and future of scrum and agile.

CIO: First, Jeff, there's often some confusion in the C-suite about the differences between scrum and agile -- and I won't even bring in some of the new iterations like Kanban -- can you break down the basic differences between them?

Sutherland: Sure. To put it very simply, agile is the larger set of values that can be applied to product development and management -- or almost anything -- and Scrum, extreme programming (XP), Kanban, are different subsets, different languages to describe those principles. Scrum is specific to the software development practice, its lean product development, but agile is a bigger framework that you can use in, say, marketing or sales or most other aspects of business.

CIO: Scrum is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. How has scrum changed in the last 20 years?

Sutherland: Well, first, this started long before 1995. Back in the 1980s I was hired by a large bank to help with their projects because everything was broken. Their developers were burned out, their products were bad, they were always late, their customers weren't ever happy; all their attempts to fix these problems were failing, too.

Around this time, I implemented the scrum prototype into one of their business units, and that quickly became the most profitable area of the business. Five companies later, in 1993, I was hired to build an entirely new set of software tools and the company I worked for needed an entirely new process to do it. And we decided to formalize that; that's Scrum.

A lot of scrum is based on lean product development principles, and especially Taiichi Ohno's principles of flow that Toyota uses in their production methods. At that point, I asked ["Agile Manifesto" co-author] Ken Schwaber to come in and help with this. He was CEO of a product management company at the time, but it wasn't working out -- in fact, he said to me that if he ever tried to use the products he was selling, he'd end up going bankrupt, so why the hell not try and sell scrum?

We started formalizing it from there, and that was 1995. Fast forward to 2001, I got an email from Ken saying he wanted to take scrum, remove the engineering piece and come up with a formalized statement that would focus on the process management piece, instead. We all got together -- the three of us from Scrum, Ken, Alistair and a bunch of other engineers and sat around trying to figure out how to do this. It took us a whole day just to decide that we were going to call this 'agile,' and by the second day, a bunch of guys gave up and just went skiing instead. [Laughs] Then, Ken and I were in the room with Martin Fowler and he said, 'Great teams are based on the way they work together, not on the processes and the tools they use. The whole point is having working software and getting customers involved directly in the process.' And when the other guys came back from skiing, we had it and went from there.

And the scrum framework today is almost exactly the same as it was in 1993 -- the biggest change is that we have a lot more tools and technologies to implement it. We have more people using it, more knowledge and resources to help people understand it and advocate for it.

CIO: Did you have any sense back then that this methodology you'd created would have such a huge impact on software development?

Sutherland: Oh, of course not. I had no idea. It's just incredible to look around and see the amazing things that are happening, even in places you wouldn't expect. There are large government agencies we're meeting with running projects that look more like they came out of Google than the government. Everywhere, now, people are realizing that scrum and agile can make everything faster and more efficient -- I've even heard of it being used to plan weddings. Weddings!

CIO: How have scrum and agile affected development culture for the better?

Sutherland: It's changed so many things both from an individual level to a large business level. I remember talking to software developers who would say, 'Our projects are always late, we always have too many bugs, the management says we're bad developers and the customer is always pissed.' And I would ask how long this cycle had been going on, and every single one of them said, "It's been going on as long as I've been in software." So, then, my next question would always be, 'Do you want to continue to do your job this way? Do you want to continue to live your life like that?'

Here's an example -- not in software, but of the same kind of principles. Accion Investment Group is a nonprofit I've done work for that works mainly in South America that gives micro-loans to impoverished families and helps them start small businesses in their communities. We'd lend them, say, $25.00, and then we'd coach them on how to scale their business. Once they paid the loan back, they'd have extra money. Suddenly, a woman who couldn't feed her kids three weeks before had enough money to buy clothes and shoes. That means she can send her kids to school. That means her kids will get an education and start reinvesting in their own community -- it all takes off from there.

There are parallels in the software development and business communities with this. Once an organization makes the transformation to agile or scrum or one of these iterations, there's often so much money left on the table, they can turn around and invest in their people and their own business processes and do it really, really well. It definitely helps, of course, that so much is digital and software-driven nowadays.

CIO: What new business challenges are arising now, and what new methodologies will arise to address them?

Sutherland: So many major companies right now are realizing they have to go through a transformation driven by scrum, or they won't survive. SAP, for example, spent billions on a product they couldn't sell a few years ago, and after that they had to look internally and said, 'We have to change and adapt.' The thing is, nothing 'new' will ever be able to replace the principles Scrum is built on, because they are so fundamental to human behavior and existence, in my opinion.

But I will say probably half my time is spent with management teams helping them better focus, better adapt so they can build a product organization that will be razor sharp on setting their priorities. And how they can build stable teams that are way more productive. Instead of throwing more people at projects that are failing, they should be focused on throwing projects at existing, stable teams.

CIO: Why do some CIOs see scrum and agile as being strategic and necessary, and some don't? What's the disconnect?

Sutherland: This is still a relatively new paradigm, and often those paradigms don't fully shift until the old guard who made their living by them dies out. In a market like we have now, though, the market can accelerate that decline. Some of the old guard aren't feeling the market pressure yet, or they think they're fine, they're making enough money and the market will change back in their favor.

As an example, I'll just say, how did that work out for Nokia?

We've unleashed a revolution, and those companies that get this and do it well, are going to survive. Those that don't, won't. It may not be tomorrow or next week, but they will not survive. It's a different way not just of working it's a different way of living.

This story, "Scrum’s co-creator talks about the framework’s transformational effect" was originally published by CIO.

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