Portfolio Management Scrum

Pushing Agility Upstream

Most agile teams live in a waterfall ecosystem. When powerful stakeholders—like business partners, customers, other departments or executives—demand future commitments, while interrupting contributors with unprioritized demands, smart Scrum teams raise a protective shield. They make the Product Owner manage stakeholder priorities, and make the ScrumMaster defend them against interference. If anyone provides a date to a stakeholder, it’s going to be the Product Owner: the Single Wringable Neck.

But instead of just defending ourselves against an external onslaught of unprioritized need, we can go on the offense. We can evangelize agility upstream. Impossible requirements point out that stakeholders could themselves benefit from agility. If we teach them agility, they and we will both go faster. Together we can develop a strong, sustainable and profitable business ecosystem.

My buds and I have pushed agile upstream twice recently, and it’s more fun than you might think.

Example 1: Marketing

Traditional marketing departments demand that staff respond to immediate needs: the “hair on fire” approach to planning. In the past, engineers working closely with marketing have accepted these interrupts, and some of our own past work reflects the ragged architecture and appearance you might expect. Expensive rework wasted engineering time. Bugs caused significant problems.

In 2007, our engineering department adopted Scrum. After that, marketers ran headlong into ScrumMasters defending engineering sprint boundaries. Marketing’s first reaction was to find ways around Scrum restrictions, demanding their own dedicated teams, or time-boxing vaguely defined marketing related work that engineers would have to fulfill.

Engineering colleagues at first tried to satisfy these needs, but then realized marketing demands were distracting them from important work. I assumed we just needed to explain ourselves better. Scrum meant we wouldn’t be able to satisfy marketing needs the same way. Marketing would have to prioritize needs earlier, based on our work estimates. They would have to allow us to say “No” to low priority work. Nick Kim (another evangelist ScrumMaster) and I started a conversation with key managers.

But as we talked, we realized that marketing suffered the same problems our we had experienced in the Bad Old Waterfall Days. Creative contributors in marketing looked overburdened and frazzled. They talked about trying so hard to meet requirements, but no one controlled the flow, so they were always late. We started to advocate that the marketing department adopt Scrum. Nick became their ScrumMaster for a few months. Over time, we helped motivate adoption of combination of Scrum and Kanban in much of marketing.

Marketing folks seem a lot happier now. Engineering and marketing are working together more harmoniously, and, I claim, producing better work.

Example 2: The Company

To meet market needs, executives want everything as soon as possible. Traditional companies hire whole product silos with dedicated engineers, or acquire whole companies, to address newly defined products. At first, it works: you have all the people you need for the current market demand profile. But gradually those historic assignments become less aligned with company value. Over time, your product silo produces less and less value per engineer. Engineers working within siloed Scrum teams might boast of high productivity based on code output, but tied to last year’s markets, their ongoing work earns less money over time. This exposes the fallacy of measuring work in “function points,” “lines-of-code,” and other code-based metrics: a team can produce lots of function points, but make little money.

Startup companies can often produce value more rapidly than large companies. Unhindered by long-standing work responsibilities, desperate for liquidity and operating intimately with customers, startup engineers have more motivation to work on projects that bring money in fastest.

We are a big company with several products, so we have to create a process substitute for startup-motivation. Faced with unranked needs from executives, and concerns about engineering productivity, we created a single Enterprise Scrum, with a three-month sprint cycle, to organize all engineering work. We asked decision makers to prioritize work by dollar value. We concentrated our best efforts on the top-ranked projects. This structure has transformed Citrix Online engineering to become a more responsive group, with growingly predictable deliveries.

As engineering becomes more sophisticated in tackling external projects, friction between engineering and others can reveal learning opportunities. Urgent projects require a just-in-time mechanism to handle sudden market changes without disruption. Productivity problems around user-experience, software architecture and operations indicate the need for multi-quarter portfolio planning. Difficulties prioritizing “apples against oranges” may reveal a deeper problem: Sometimes people don’t know what their projects are really worth; they should be trying to figure it out.

These efforts are making the whole company more agile. Our President knows our engineering velocity, and we manage priorities to that velocity. VPs and Directors intercede frequently to remove impediments in engineering. Things are a lot better.

Promote Agility, Develop Strength

Agile methods can help most organizations get better stuff done in less time. A key philosophy drives Scrum: If we are going to work on something, it should matter to someone outside our team. If you’re a skilled agilist, these concepts are second nature. You could help many people around you, by carrying the agile message upstream.

Ideal stakeholders and Scrum practitioners assess value thoughtfully, respect focused work, discuss uncertainties, accept responsibility for problems, and help reveal embarrassing root causes. Unfortunately, when you start promoting Scrum to the unconvinced, expect some disappointments, pushback and politics. But if you persistently and diplomatically promote agility, carefully wending the shoals and backwaters of other departments, you will strengthen your company. If you do it with integrity, you should emerge with a great reputation. And that will help your career.

By Dan Greening

Dan Greening is a serial entrepreneur working on his fourth startup, where he leads implementation of two agile practices, Lean Startup and Scrum. Between the third and fourth startup, he was the lead agile coach for Citrix Online, Skype, Overstock, and other companies. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from UCLA. He is a Certified Enterprise Coach with the Scrum Alliance, and a Scrum@Scale Trainer. He has published innovative work on agile management, parallel processing, and chaotic systems.

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