This blog post is about the source of many of Scrum’s ideas and techniques. I’m sharing this at the request of one of my friends at a company that uses Scrum. Many of the ideas in Scrum were first apprehended by Jeff Sutherland as he read the writings of Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in the mid-1980s. Here is a paraphrasing of one of the examples that Jeff discovered in this literature.
Two companies are in a bitter struggle over market share in the optics industry. Leadership has been swaying back and forth for years, until one of the companies comes up with a key feature with which it rapidly gains market share at the expense of its competitor. The competitor quickly becomes seen as a has-been, and its customers defect in droves. Revenues are down, and it appears that the company will have to start laying off employees. Desperate, the company tries something that has been described as a way to succeed. Senior management identifies a small team of the best people in the company and gathers them together. They instruct them:
“As you know, we are in desperate competitive straights. We figure that if we don’t come up with something new and significant within three months, we will have to start laying off your fellow employees, and may even fail as a company. We have selected this team to lead our way back to success. We want you to come up with a new product or feature for our existing products that will regain our luster, glory, and market share. Because this is the most important thing in our company, we are sending you across town to a space dedicated to this endeavor. You will not be interrupted by any other activities because this is the most important activity to our company. You only have three months to come up with a solution! Do not come up with recommendations or position papers – you are our best people, there is nobody to present to. Instead, come back with a product ready to produce, including sales, support, marketing and production plans. You may have noticed that you are not all from our product development organization. That is because we need a product that we can sell, market, support, build, and that is financially successfully. Accordingly, you are from the development, research, manufacturing, finance, support, and sales organizations. The work you do is the most important work for our company. If you need anything, let us know and we will provide it if we can. See you in three months.”
The workers (now a team with a mission) went to the facility across town. They were slow to get going, but as the days went by and the three month deadline approached, they became intense. They did not want to disappoint their fellow workers, nor did they want to stand in front of them and admit that they couldn’t come up with anything.
In every circumstances where this approach was used, the workers came up with a new feature or product to introduce into the market. Some were stellar, some good … but every team came up with something.
Scrum uses similar principles: A cross-functional, self-organizing team is given the most important work that the company has for it to do. It has to do this work by a certain time (time-box), and the results must be usable by the company. Since the team is working on the most important work of the company, it is not interrupted and management does everything it can to block impediments and provide any necessary help.