About 10 years ago, I experienced the mixed blessing of being part of yet another nextgen rewrite project. I was guiding a team of about 25 really smart team members, part of a much larger team of about 150+ people. Our team was responsible for completely rewriting the UI, the database, and the messaging hub, as well as for building and installing. I was using Microsoft Project to manage and predict the work of about 25 team members over the next 12 months. It felt like an interesting exercise in futility.
Bludgeoned Into Submission
I was introduced to the joys of Resource Leveling a 400+ line Microsoft Project Plan. I was not very good at it. Moments after I got the dang thing leveled, one of my team members would walk into my office and tell me something had changed. Finally, after many many years, Microsoft Project was able to do what many wiser, smarter people had tried to do and failed – bludgeon me into acknowledging that there might be a better way to manage the delivery of complex software. I just did not know what it was.
Another Dose of Humility
Fast forward a few years. My search for a better way led me to Scrum. I decided to become a Scrum.org Professional Scrum Trainer and passed the PSM-1. The next step was the PSM-II, and I was not ready for it. I failed. In those days, the PSM-II was hand graded by Ken Schwaber (the co-creator of Scrum) and the feedback gave me another dose of humility. There were gaps in my understanding of Scrum and I had much more to learn. It was time to go to Scrum.org Headquarters in Boston to learn and fill in some of the gaps.
Professional Scrum Mastery
In October 2012, I spent two days with Ken and Gunther attending the Professional Scrum Master course and had three key takeaways burned into the firmware of my mind. Scrum was a framework that helped organizations accomplish three key outcomes:
Increase business value.
Decrease non-value-adding waste.
Manage business risk exposure.
This seemed to me to be the bread and butter of Technology Executives. I assumed that Scrum would resonate with them. Turns out that was not a valid assumption.
Sleepless in CXO Land
Many executives that I coach seemed to be perennially in survival mode — neck-deep in alligators. They seem to be lurching from one call to another, wrangling one escalation after another. Trying to placate an unhappy client one moment and then trying to say whatever is needed to close the deal with a prospect the next moment. Threatening teams that caused production failures or those that were running late in one call and then being threatened by their management for quality issues and project delays in the next call.
These CXOs seem to be sleepless in CXO Land, living on antacids and anxiety medication. Interestingly, when I offered Scrum as a way to break out of this vicious cycle, they usually responded with comments like, “Out here, we need to keep it real and stay away from all that Agile textbook BS. We are trying to do real work and don’t have time to remove these stupid impediments teams are whining about. We wish these so-called Agile teams would get it and understand what we are doing and why.”
Suffering in Scrum Team Land
Speaking to members of the Scrum Teams gave me another perspective. They were tired of the whiplash from their executives. They felt like they were running fast in the direction of the most important project one day, only to be jerked in a completely different direction the next day. Scrum teams often struggled to get the context and to understand what they were doing, why they were doing it, and if anything they had done in the past truly helped their customers and their company.
In such organizations, it often feels like the efforts of Executives and Scrum Teams were disjointed and disconnected.
Executives were trying to set the destination and choosing the strategy to get there. Teams were trying to execute the strategy and help the company get to the destination. However, they were struggling to connect with each other, as if they were separated by a wide chasm. Ironically, this was exactly the kind of chasm Scrum was designed to help organizations bridge.
Scrum was designed to help leaders clarify the destination and create an environment where cross-functional teams could self-organize and find the most effective way to help the company get there. So, why were these organizations struggling to cross this chasm? Could it be due to a ritualistic, tactical understanding and implementation of Scrum? What might help such organizations elevate their understanding and cross the chasm?
Here is one possible approach that might help sleepless CXOs use strategic Scrum to beat stress and stay in sync with Scrum teams.
Step 1: BHAG
The first step is to articulate a clear, compelling, inspiring vision that inspires Scrum teams. One possible way to communicate this elevating goal is to create a BHAG, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, as explained in the book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Poras.
“A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as a unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.”
Some possible examples of BHAGs from the article on Big Hairy Audacious Goals on Wikipedia include:
SolarAid: To eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020.
Gift of Life Marrow Registry: To cure blood cancer through marrow donation by ensuring a match for every patient in need, whenever they need one.
Facebook: To make the world more open and connected.
Amazon.com: To be Earth’s most customer-centric company.
SpaceX: To enable human exploration and settlement of Mars.
Step 2: Strategic Pillars
Once the BHAG has been clearly defined, leaders can clearly articulate the strategy that will help accomplish it. One possible way of articulating the strategy is to use Strategic Pillars.
In his blog titled What Are the Strategic Pillars That Support the Vision?, Greg Githens says:
“Pillars provide strength and support for something. In the case of strategy formulation, strategic pillars hold up the vision. Remove a pillar, and the vision is in risk of collapse. (Strategic pillars are also called strategic planks.)”
For instance, one possible way to think of Facebook Strategic Pillars might be…
- Acquisition: Get new members to sign up for Facebook accounts.
- Engagement: Get Facebook members to keep logging in, posting content, sharing, commenting and engaging with each other.
- Mining: Mine user behavior and preferences to gain insights into what they like.
- Monetize: Monetize these insights by selling them to advertisers.
One possible way to clarify and complement strategy in a way that can be easily understood by Scrum Teams is to describe the business model with a canvas like Roman Pichler’s Extended Product Vision Canvas.
Step 3: Portfolio Investment
Once the BHAG, Strategic Pillars, and Business Models have been clarified, it is now time for leaders to create some guidelines for investing funds in the portfolio in a way that is aligned with the strategy. One technique I have used to help CXOs come up with these guidelines is to ask them to distribute 10 points of investment across the pillars. The only catch is that no two pillars can receive the same number of points. One possible resource to guide this thought process is Agile Portfolio Management by Jochen Krebs.
Here is how we might distribute funds across the strategic pillars in our illustrative example:
Step 4: Wildly Important Goals
To enable empirical measurement of our progress towards our strategic outcomes, the next step could be to design quantified goals. One possible format that has resonated well with organizations I have coached is called Wildly Important Goals, proposed by the Franklin Covey 4 Disciplines of Execution framework. The format of WIGs is Increase / Decrease x from y to z by Target Date.
To avoid setting tactical, misleading or sub-optimal WIG’s, we can integrate the Franklin Covey framework with the Scrum.org Evidence-Based Management EBMgt (TM) Framework
Some possible examples of Strategic WIGs:
- Increase engaged customers from one million to two million by December 2017.
- Decrease defects detected in production from five per week to one per week by December 2017.
- Increase customer net promoter score from 20 to 40 by December 2017.
- Decrease cycle time of concept to cash from six months to three months by December 2017.
Step 5: Scoreboard
Now that we have quantified success, the Franklin Covey 4 Disciplines of Execution framework suggests that we create a “player’s scoreboard” that clearly helps teams understand whether the company is winning or losing the game. Reviewing such a scoreboard can also enable empirical transparency, inspection, and adaptation. You can see this approach in action by watching a free YouTube Scrum Pulse episode by PST Don McGreal called Agile Metrics.
Step 6: Portfolio Map
Now that we have created the acceptance criteria or test for success in the form of a player’s scoreboard, it is time to express how we can execute our strategy. One possible approach is to define high-level backlog items for each strategic pillar by applying the User Story Mapping technique created by Jeff Patton.
Step 7: Portfolio Backlog
Now we can apply the portfolio investment guidelines and backlog management techniques to flatten the two-dimensional portfolio map into a one-dimensional, rank-ordered portfolio backlog. This can provide clarity to teams about leader perspective on value.
Step 8: Portfolio Roadmap
We could now start working with Scrum teams to apply ideas like Minimum Viable Product to forecast a cohesive and coherent roadmap that factors in business value, technical feasibility, complexity, dependencies, and risk.
Step 9: Portfolio Execution
Create the artifacts suggested in previous steps incrementally. Don’t use a big-bang, phase-gate waterfall approach or a sprint 0. Review and refine ideas in time-boxed refinement activities on a cadence.
We are now ready to start designing and executing experiments using Scrum. Depending on the size of the company, we could either use just the Scrum Framework or complement Scrum with a Scaling Framework like Nexus.
Step 10: Portfolio Learning
We can now start delivering incremental value to the market, use the player’s scoreboard to inspect market response, and adapt the backlog of future experiments with validated learning. Repeating this approach on a fixed cadence should help us sustainably increase value, decrease waste, and manage risk exposure to match our company’s risk tolerance.
Call to Experiment
My hypothesis is that this approach to strategic Scrum might help sleepless CXOs beat stress by staying in sync with Scrum teams. I am inviting you to conduct some small experiments to test my hypothesis in your context.
Experiment 1: Modified Perfection Game
Review artifacts like the BHAG, strategic pillars, portfolio investment guidelines, and portfolio map with your Scrum Team members. Ask them to rate them on a scale of one to five. For every point below five, request reviewers to suggestion one improvement that would earn one extra point from them.
Experiment 2: Teach the Teacher
Start Nexus, Scrum Sprint planning, and Sprint review meetings by having members of Scrum teams present their understanding of BHAG, strategic pillars, portfolio investment guidelines, and portfolio map to their colleagues. Listen closely as a way of getting empirical feedback to validate whether the executive vision has been understood by Scrum teams. Bridge gaps as needed by adapting the message and communication approach.
Experiment 3: Cadence of Inspection
Regularly inspect the player’s scoreboards in Nexus and Scrum team Sprint reviews and tap into the wisdom of stakeholders to adapt future experiments.
Experiment 4: Empirical Feedback
Use surveys to measure if this approach can create measurable improvement in alignment between CXOs and Scrum Teams. One possible survey question is, "On a scale of zero to 10, where zero is 'strongly disagree' and 10 is 'strongly agree,' please rate your level of agreement with this statement: Our CXOs and Scrum teams are completely in sync."
You can also find the slides that summarize this blog on Slideshare.