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.


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.

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.


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.

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