Review of “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” by Jeff Sutherland

In general, Unmarginalized is focused on my musings about economic topics. As I read books that are relevant to economics, and relevant to my profession in general, I plan to do short-form book reviews. This post is focused on organizational structure and productivity, but compared to many other posts, this one will not dwell deeply on economic theories. So if that is what you like, don’t stress, I’m not leaving that territory for long.

Introduction

Sutherland’s intent with Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time is to propose a radical new way of doing project management (PM). He explains why traditional PM is broken and proposes an alternative that can unshackle project teams from traditional PM rigmarole so that they can actually focus on solving clients’ problems. Sutherland accentuates two important virtues that are often lacking in PM and within the business world in general: humility and honesty. That said, this book was not written by a believer (at least that I know of) so there are also things that he gets all wrong.

Before getting into that, I want to say it is not often I come away from a book feeling changed but I can confidentially say that about this book. Processing this book is changing the way I interact with clients right now.  As I continue to process it, there are other principals which will take some time to fully bear fruit. Despite its faults, I think that Sutherland is on to something brilliant that deserves the attention of anybody who tries to accomplish things in a team setting, which is to say, every person on earth.

Fantasy is not Reality

For those not involved daily in PM, there is a well-worn diagram called a Gantt chart or waterfall chart. The intent of such charts is to indicate how various project tasks will progress one to the next, while clearly pointing out contingencies (i.e.: which tasks depend on prior tasks) and potential bottlenecks (i.e.: where the project could get stuck).

These are called waterfall charts due to how each task is arranged in a cascading pattern from the top of a page to the bottom. With their abundance of lines, colors, stars, and other glitzy embellishments, Gantt charts are often as elaborate and awe inspiring as waterfalls. It’s a good educated guess that my company has won a project or two primarily on the artistic merit of our Gantt charts and not due to the content represented within those charts. Scary, but true. I guess that even in the world of management consulting there are times when form outweighs function.

Thus, the purported value of Gantt charts can be summed up with these two statements:

  1. they look nice;
  2. they allow us to look ahead and avoid potential work stoppages;
  3. they make it easy for a project manager to convey what the project team has completed and what is left to accomplish.

Sutherland gets the theoretical purpose of all of this but in his words– “There is only one problem. They are always wrong.”

Gantt charts do convey a very convincing picture of reality but that is about the extent of their usefulness. Once a project team actually gets to work, it doesn’t take longer than about a week for a project manager to discover that he actually didn’t plan ahead very well. He sketched out his understanding of the future based on his very limited knowledge at the time. But once work begins, he discovers something that will prevent the project team from finishing within the prescribed timeline.  The data he needs is no longer available. The soil type at the job site is different from expected. The sprockets are on backorder for the next six months. Whatever the industry there are bound to be problems. Ugh. And this is just within the first week.

gannt-loosing-battle
For once, an accurate Gantt chart

Because of everybody’s irrational confidence in that original Gantt chart, traditional PM typically does not allow alterations to the original project plan, at least not without great effort and extra expenses. So, from both the perspective of the project team and perspective of the client, the incentive is to just keep pressing through with the original plan, even when it’s clear that it’s not the right fit. Eventually, the project team actually does get the chance to show the client some results. But more frequently than we’d like to admit, the client is not happy with the initial results. At this point, with a real prototype before them for the first time, the client explains their need. The project team discovers that it’s actually quite different from what they thought. Back to the drawing board.

At this point, either the company swallows the cost and re-does the project for free, or the company passes the cost on to the client via a “change order.” Either way, the project team fumes for having wasted effort on something worthless.

The Prophet Speaketh

Here is the fruit of traditional PM- inefficiency, frustration, and unmet expectations. It should be clear at this point to see why Sutherland denounces the entire system. Through the eyes of a Christian, I would put it this way. Traditional PM is based on the prideful belief that we can accomplish godlike omniscience when planning for the future. On occasion, this can be followed by the further deceit of not admitting the flaw in your initial plan, but rather blaming the client for the mistake.

How is it that such a broken system remains the predominant model of project management? I think a lot of it is driven by a lack of humility and a lack of honesty on behalf of the project team and the project manager. In an earnest effort to convey confidence to clients, the temptation from the first meeting onward is to tell our clients all kinds of fictions. “We’ve done this a million times,” we say, “and we know exactly the problems that will come up. And we know exactly how to solve them.” But sooner or later, all that we said in our proposal starts to unravel. We are crushed beneath a waterfall (chart) of our own design.

vader3

The Humility & Honesty of Scrum

The beauty of Scrum is that it doesn’t ignore the uncertainties of a project management. It embraces them and uses them as fuel to really engage project teams to serve clients’ needs. The radical idea proposed by Sutherland is this. Since it is impossible to work on a project where the end product is exactly what we thought it would be when we started, how about we actually acknowledge that? Instead of telling clients fictions about what will happen every step along the way, we tell them that we will listen to them every step of the way. We will give them content as we go along that is our best effort to meet those expectation. We will still end up with a result similar to what intended when we started but we haven’t set up an impossible standard of foreknowledge in the process. It is a simple but revolutionary concept.

I could tell you I’m going to leave Seattle by car on Monday and end up in Chicago on Thursday, and I would likely be right. Or I could tell you that I’m going to leave by car on Monday, exactly what city I will stay in each night, what I will have for lunch, the color of the bedspreads in each hotel room I sleep in, and the number of semi-trucks that I passed on the way. In the first case, I would be telling the truth. In the second case, I would be pretending a level of knowledge that belongs only to God.

Some Criticisms

Sutherland shares some other ideas in this book that I put in the grey area of wisdom. In other words, these ideas have some merit but they also do not fully deal with human nature to its core.

The author is very discouraging of any form of vainglorious leadership and title mongering. He offers the rather drastic recommendation that everybody tear up their business cards and jettison their titles. The idea being that this will engender a sense of team comradery that will get people’s eyes off of status and onto customers. His intent, which is noble, is to strongly emphasize the importance of respect, humility and supportiveness.

Despite his good intentions, I think it is silly to think that by removing the external trappings of authority you can somehow make it go away. This strikes me a bit like  the severe treatment that Paul advises us not to enact against ourselves (Colossians 2:20-23) but applied in a corporate setting rather than a personal setting. Take away the titles and people will still look to leaders within their groups. They will still selfishly try to climb over each other to get accolades.

However, I do appreciate what he is aiming for here. From my own experience, I can say that small changes to outward things like organizational structure and physical space can make a big difference in how people work and how they feel about their jobs. All that said, I could just as easily see the Scrum methodology working in a context with traditional management practices. A great manager will not be leveraging his title or his business card to serve himself anyway. He uses that authority to lay down himself on behalf of his employees.

I could go on with other little nitpicky criticisms but I’d rather focus on the positives. The only other notable negative thing that I can say about this book is that at some points Sutherland goes a bit off the rails in his promises for what Scrum can accomplish for people. In his zeal, he claims that this method will reconnect us who we really are and unlock some hidden secret to happiness in the workplace. It’s almost like going to heaven. Except you don’t have to die first! Now, I know that for many people work is fraught with a good deal of the meaninglessness and frustration, but as a Christian I know that this is not where people’s real problems lie. As believers, we are encouraged to accept the work circumstances we find ourselves in and to find peace with them by working for God rather than men (Philippians 4:12; Colossians 3:23-24).

The Takeaway

This book has changed my project management philosophy from top to bottom. I don’t know yet how much it will change my company’s practices. Old habits die hard. They die especially hard when you are working for government clients. In the short-term, I may need to continue using Gantt charts and following traditional project plans. However, I will also seek to bring the creative energy of my project teams into projects rather than strangling them with details about what the final result is supposed to look like. Most importantly, I will not be positioning myself as a prophet who knows all things, sees all things, and does all things. Rather I will seek to be a humble guide who knows a lot but not everything, and who has the client’s best interests in mind.

Fundamentals I: Lord Over All Things

As I launch this blog, I want to cover some basics that will explain my fundamental beliefs about my faith and my view of economics. For starters, a natural first question for a reader might be “Why would a Christian spend so much time thinking and writing about economics? The poor soul must be really preoccupied with mammon.” Well, here is why: God is God over all things and not just our precious little hearts. This includes our heads, our hands, our feet, our backs and all other body parts that we use in his service. It seems to be a fundamental law of the universe that when we put our bodies toward productive activities it is not too long until money enters the scene. So herein lies the tension, we are not to love money but in the process of serving the Lord he gives us money.

Your Work Exists in a Marketplace

We as Christians ought to be cognizant of the fact that our actions have both eternal value (measured by God’s approval or disapproval of our actions) and temporal value (typically measured in greenbacks). There are things that have high temporal value but almost no eternal value, and vice versa. Those who focus solely pursuing wealth are those that Jesus rebukes for worshiping mammon. Those who focus solely on serving others without regard for themselves still need to make a living. But the fact is these methods of valuation are not mutually exclusive. Many of the things we do in order to obtain a material benefit actually produce a blessing for others. Many of the things we do in order to bless others end up bringing us a financial return (dare I say a profit?). God designed the system to work in this way. I think, at least in part, that is what he meant when he told us “pursue first the Kingdom and the rest of these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). The point is that we should not pursue wealth for wealth’s sake. We should pursue great results (products, services, children, whatever) and God will bless those efforts if he wishes.

Now there is no question that the New Testament encourages us to focus on our eternal home and cultivating the characteristics that will be approved once we get there. Jesus says, for example: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:19-21). Also see Galatians 5: 22-23, Colossians 3:1-2.

This does not change the fact that God gave us a playbook, approximately 834 pages long (at least mine is) instructing us in how to live wise and fruitful lives while on this earth. Once we are made God’s people through Jesus blood, he wants us to contribute on earth through faithfulness, perseverance, hard work, and mortifying our sins daily. As you do this, inevitably you will be interacting in the economic marketplace daily. You are receiving a paycheck aren’t you? You are spending it on things that you and your family want and need, aren’t you? Sure you could hold your holy little nostrils shut every time you make a deposit at the bank, but wouldn’t you rather know how to manage your money in a faithful way? Wouldn’t you rather have a mental framework for understanding why the economy functions as it does?

God Can Give Prosperity

When we examine the entirety of the Bible we find that God has a lot to say about money and even about wealth. The number vintage Biblical heroes who were wealthy in their time is noteworthy. Abraham had more livestock than he knew what to do with (Genesis 13:2). David was revered not just for his earthly accomplishments but also for his wealth (Chronicles 29:28). Similarly Job, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Solomon are all named as men of affluence. Further, it is clear that these men didn’t get rich dishonestly. God thought of wealth as a blessing when he gave it do them. Consider, if money and possessions were a curse, wouldn’t Job’s days emaciated and covered in boils have been the real blessing and not the days when God returned his possessions two-fold? (Job 42:10). God revealed and promised to David to not let him suffer perpetually, but that he would receive both temporal and eternal blessings for obedience (Psalm 34:10-12; Psalm 23:5-6; Psalm 25:12-13). Not to mention, one of the primary themes of Proverbs is advice on how to build wealth through hard work and integrity. “The blessings of the Lord makes rich, and He adds no sorrow with it.” (Proverbs 10:22).

At this point you may say, “Well, yeah but these guys are all from the Old Testament. God changed all of that when he sent Jesus. Now aren’t we are supposed to forsake wealth and follow him?” Well you are certainly right that we are supposed to forsake all things in favor of Jesus. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to continue working. Consider Paul’s words in Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” Consider that Paul himself continued his vocation even while he ministered (Acts 18:3). Furthermore, there were faithful followers of Jesus in the New Testament period who were well off and who were not rebuked for their financial position (1 Timothy 6:17-19; Matt 27:57). Importantly, Jesus himself spoke favorably of responsible management of resources (Matt 24:14-30; Luke 14:25-34; Luke 16:10-13).

Lastly, a point that I think is frequently missed, on occasion Jesus himself used wealth and valuable possessions in parables to serve as analogies for heaven and forgiveness. Think of the pearl of great value, the parable of the workers in the field, and the parable of the talents, to name a few (Matt 13:46, Matt 18:21-35, Matt 25:14-30). Those who want to overly spiritualize Jesus’ parables would say that these are just stories about salvation and we should not get caught up on the symbols. But if wealth were categorically a bad thing, these would certainly be strange choices for symbols, wouldn’t they? A common saying in English is “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” The saying itself implies that applies are sweet. If we used the same hermeneutics as some Bible commentators, we would conclude from this saying that we should all avoid bad company and apples while we are at it. They are just a symbol for good character after all.

apple-meme

On to the Next Topic

Throughout the Old Testament and continued into the New, there are certainly had no shortage of sharp words for those who worship wealth. I’m not trying to dodge this reality in the least. I’ll explore this topic and harmonize it with this one in a future post. Fear not, this blog is not intended to be a blanket approbation for all things Western capitalism. If you are a fan of free markets enjoy for now but don’t get too comfortable.

 

This is Mine

My 2-year old daughter holds a brown paper sack, emboldened on one side with the four letters that spell her name: COCO. The sack served as a makeshift Christmas stocking this year since her real stocking is stored in a basement somewhere in Idaho. It contains an assortment of toys and candies, some the same as her sisters and some selected especially for her. She confidently states in the company of all three of her sisters and her parents: “This is mine.”

candy
Photo credit: https://flicker.com/photos/tompagenet/

Typically that combination of words drives me to one knee in order to commence a discussion about thankfulness and giving but on this occasion I have no desire to correct her. Though it seems trivial in the eyes of an adult. In her eyes, as the middle sister among four and a little soul who has very few of her own possessions, this is a very special gift. As she holds the sack and ponders its contents, there is an obvious sense of responsibility and awe. A sense that we should all seek to emulate with the gifts we have been given. God is the author of economics and he knows how intimately linked are the concepts of ownership and stewardship. If we saw our earthly skills and resources as a frivolous mist, we would have no desire to care for these things and would therefore produce no good works.

When Jesus speaks to us with the parable of the talents, the terminology and the narrative imply a sense of true ownership (Matthew 25-14-30). This should not be considered a spiritual form of leasing. Nor is he simply asking us to keep an eye on things for him while he attends to errands. The master in the story “delivered his goods to them” (v 14); he granted to each “according to his own ability” (v 15); he justifies his distribution based on how well the talents are used “for to everyone who has, more will be given” (v29); and he judges the faithfulness of his servants based on how much they trust him and put the talents to work (v 30). God does not take our stewardship lightly. He expects a return on his investment in you, in the form of faith-enacted works.

Our selfish hearts can concoct many ways to shirk this responsibility. One is to claim with an aw-shucks sense of self-righteousness that these gifts don’t really belong to us and it’s only a matter of time until they are taken away. Another, perhaps worse excuse is to look at our gifts as temptations that are to be avoided, lets we get caught up in idolatry and forget the Lord.

In the course of history, we have also designed large scale systems that enable other types of sins. One of the central claims of socialism is that nothing ultimately belongs to a person but to all people. This does not remove the possibility for sin, it simply removes any sense of personal responsibility that would encourage people toward good works. If I benefit equally regardless of whether I’ve done the work, why go through all the toil? But, I heard some say, through the internet cosmos, “we are to seek the good of others above ourselves, isn’t personal ownership just a way of accommodating to people’s baser instincts?” Well, note that Jesus did not tell the unfaithful servant “you ought to have given this to the church/government/co-op in order to determine its best and highest use.” His actual rebuke was much more personal: “you ought to have deposited my money” (v 27).

Looking back thinking of my daughter handling her earthly treasure, I get a small sense of the awe that Adam must have felt when the Lord told him to take dominion over every living thing. Thinking of her say “this is mine,” a sense of joy tingles in my chest. Her emphasis is not on mine but on this, and that makes all the difference.

The Benevolent Bureaucrat

Not every need can be handled by the free market but those things that cannot are still best managed in a way that mirrors free market mechanisms. That is to say, government systems work best when the reigns of control are closest to those who are being served and, wherever possible, the cost of those services are borne most directly by those who benefit from them. Working as a management consultant for state and local government agencies for roughly ten years, I can confidently say that this is frequently not the case.

The distortion of government’s relationship with citizens is not something new. Frédéric Bastiat wrote The Law in the midst of the Third French Revolution. In this work, he warns of government’s tendency to bloat and engulf large slices of public life. If given the opportunity, government authorities look for ways to serve niche audiences, which in turn quickly becomes a way of serving themselves. Bastiat outlines how the state develops laws to assist special interest groups and in the process creates a system wrought with favoritism. He also touches on the benevolent bureaucrat fallacy that naturally follows (my term, not his). Once legislation is established to protect certain groups over others, the system must be monitored. There is no way for the government to play this role without assuming the position of a holy arbiter that is capable of objectively judging what is “good” for society:

“How comes it to pass that the tendencies of organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their agents form a part of the human race? Do they consider that they are composed of different materials from the rest of mankind?… They have, therefore, received from heaven, intelligence and virtues that place them beyond and above mankind.”

-The Law, Frédéric Bastiat

Like many of you, I am witness to this phenomenon running rampant across our semi-socialistic society. As a consultant who has worked with public sector clients for nearly ten years, I am also privy to the deep end of bureaucracy in a way that many are not. In my experience, I have started to see a pattern. I will speak in generalities here but all that I say is true, as far as generalities go.

A government agency will receive funding for some purportedly benevolent task. I work most frequently with agencies involved in education, workforce development and economic development but I think the points of emphasis will be pretty similar across different sectors of the government. Pardon me for having you read this bureaucratic puke, but these words are not my own. Some common aims include: “to provide better services,” “to gain understanding of issues facing businesses,” “to facilitate connections among stakeholders”- take your pick. Government employees who have been through such efforts in the past form cliques that include a small number of private sector representatives but a much larger proportion of government employees. Therefore, throughout the project they are talking to other people just like themselves, but with a slightly different shade of responsibilities within another division of the government. And the meetings sound like this:

“Hi, I’m the workforce education coordinator for xyz College.”

“Hi, I’m the director of workforce development for xyz County.”

“Hi, I’m the assistant director or workforce initiatives for the xyz Metro Area”

And so on.

bureaucrat
My wife and I like to play the game called Dominion. I thought that this fella seemed to capture the bureaucrat persona quite well.

So these people get together and they talk about what they want to accomplish. To their credit, they may beg and plead for involvement from the businesses that they are seeking to serve, but usually to little avail. Now the business people that do get involved usually have an angle for doing so; either they are a small companies that think they are signing up to receive some form of special privilege, or they are major corporations big enough to employ a government affairs person. This is how the special interest crowd gathers steam. Some choose to work closely with the government and in the process their needs become paramount to others.

However, by and large, the people that government agencies are seeking to help are too busy serving their clients and trying to make a living to show up and talk to the government! It’s truly stunning how much of these government funded, which is to say YOU funded, projects boil down to a bunch of mid-level bureaucrats in conference rooms talking to one another. “Jim, that was a great lunch. Now let’s talk about next time we are going to get together.”

The opinion of a single private sector representative is more valuable than that of 16 government workers. It is also about that rare.

In my years, I have organized lots of interviews, focus groups and surveys, and in every project the opinion of a single private sector representative is more valuable than that of 16 government workers, and it is also about that rare. To use an example from a recent project, the company I work for set up a series of focus groups with small businesses. The attendance was paltry in general. At one particular meeting, the one person who showed up was a representative from the US Equal Opportunity Office. His opinions represented the norms of an average business owner about as well as a butcher represents the opinions of a cow.

After crunching all the data, summarizing all the focus groups, and looking up all the best practices the client is left with a report that highlights the opportunities the agency has to really help the public. There is a network of government employees, supported by a small cadre of private sector representatives, who want this initiative to work. In the best of circumstances, those private sector business are willing to pony up some dough to keep the ball rolling. In the worst of circumstances the wheels start churning. “Well, this is going to be expensive. I wonder where we can get some money to fund it…I know. Taxes!”

Once the taxation route is taken, it is not long until those programs become ends unto themselves. They must be protected against any threat of reallocation or downsizing. This is all for the good of the citizens, mind you, because government cannot make a profit and therefore is free from the sinful temptations of the private sector. Remember Bastiat’s words, they possess “intelligence and virtues that place them beyond and above mankind.”

Now I don’t want to overstate my point. I am not an anarcho libertarian. We need government and when government workers are acting as public servants, they have a noble calling. Neither am I opposed to the government seeking to understand the needs of the citizens it serves. Why should market research be limited to the private sector? What I am saying is that if a service is truly needed, it should not be so hard to get people involved to talk about it. Indeed, if it’s so essential we shouldn’t require grants from the Department of Bureaucratic Affairs in order to keep the initiative going?

My least favorite projects to work on are those where there is a large chunk of external money dropped into the coffers of state and local government. In these cases, there is no lever for local citizens to guide (or eliminate) these initiatives. These efforts are most likely to end up self-serving and self-justifying. By contrast, some of the most successful government agencies that I’ve worked with are those that receive voluntary funding directly from the groups that they are serving (think of Chambers of Commerce and workforce training centers that are co-funded by companies). In other words, there is economic proof that they are needed and that they are doing a good job. If they weren’t they would quickly find themselves without a paycheck.

Why, you might ask, if I feel so cynical about government social services projects do I continue to work in this industry? There are two answers to that. One, despite the brokenness of the system, some people do need the services provided by these agencies. In time, I hope Christians will step into these voids to serve the needs of the public but for the time being I’d rather that these things are done inefficiently than not done at all. Second, I am actively working on getting involved in projects that are not so fueled by coercive government funding.