It takes a scrum, or ‘disorderly struggle,’ to build a business

In the sport of rugby, a scrum is informally defined as “a disorderly struggle.” After 20-plus years of running my company, I’d say that’s a pretty good definition of business too.

In a fast-moving environment with lots of moving parts, disorder is the norm. Leaders struggle to stay in control by developing and implementing plans. Trouble is, long-term plans don’t work when business survival is based on agile responses to rapid change.

When faced with this conundrum, it’s helpful to think about a scrum in a different context: software development. For people in my industry, “Scrum” (with a capital S) controls disorder by providing a framework for managing software development projects while remaining agile.

“Agile” (with a capital “A”) is a practice-based methodology for modeling and documenting software-based systems. More flexible than traditional software modeling methods, Agile is used in many large companies because it is incremental, iterative and interactive.

When used together, Scrum and Agile transform a formerly slow and painstaking process into one that is faster, more accurate and more immediately beneficial.

Still with me?

While you may find thinking about a software development method like Scrum tedious, it offers a handy framework for general business management. Scrum is a way to break large to-do lists into manageable chunks, even as things change.

It also emphasizes collaborating and communicating with people who are doing the work and the people who need the work done. At its core, Scrum is about delivering often, responding to feedback and improving along the way. Not a bad business model for keeping employees engaged and customers satisfied!

Scrum in action

At Intertech, we use the basic Four Step Scrum framework to guide our business management processes. Here’s a simple overview of how it works:

Step 1. Creating the product backlog. A “product owner” creates a prioritized wish list called a product backlog. For us, this translates into a useful process for managing strategic goals. Similar to the product backlog where you selectively choose from a list of many features, we identify many ideas and then select three or fewer as strategic goals for the year. And similar to a product owner, we select a “champion” for each goal. 

Step 2: Sprint planning. During sprint planning, the team pulls a small chunk from the top of that wish list, a sprint backlog, and decides how to implement those pieces. At Intertech, champions give updates on progress at our monthly all-company meetings.  At our management meetings (where we review updates on goals and identify additional things to knock out) the champions lead the discussion and keep us focused.

Step 3: Time to sprint. The team has a certain amount of time—typically two to four weeks—to complete its work. This is called a sprint. A critical component is the daily scrum, a short daily meeting to assess progress. Along the way, the ScrumMaster keeps the team focused on its goal. At the end of the sprint, the work should be potentially shippable, as in ready to hand to a customer, put on a store shelf, or show to a stakeholder.

Like a sprint, as we execute on company strategic goals, we identify the top items to tackle during the next 90 days.  When those are complete, we identify the top “rocks” for the next 90 days.

We call the daily scrum a “daily huddle.”  Without question, this provides the biggest benefit for a business and should be the first thing to implement. The daily huddle is a short (15 minutes or less) daily meeting for team leaders.

Participation is mandatory, even for those who are out of the office (we use a free service, FreeConference.com, to facilitate the meeting as a call-in conference call for those not available on-site). The agenda is always the same:

  •  Big updates worthy of the group.
  • Stuck items. A stuck item is a bottleneck or something holding up progress. By proactively encouraging people to share problems, issues are shared earlier and you can “slay the monster while it’s a baby.”
  •  A metric or set of metrics that indicates the health of key areas.  For us, this is sales and profits for the next three months, along with a leading indicator for each side of the firm. 

 In addition to reviewing the top things to knock out in the next 90 days, once a month we have a “workout” where we discuss items that are not related to the rocks. Because we have this standing meeting to discuss non-strategic goal items, it allows more focus when we discuss the strategic yearly goals or 90-day rocks.

When it comes to keeping the team focused on goals, we’ve found that transparency works well.  Since champions provide monthly updates to the whole company, this creates accountability and ensures we’re focusing on the right priorities.

 Step 4: Sprint review and retrospective. As you might expect, this is when the team looks at the big picture and assesses results. It’s also the time to plan the next sprint. At Intertech, we ask three questions:

  •  What should we start doing?
  • What should we stop doing?
  •  What should we continue doing?

 These simple questions force us to focus with Zen-like clarity on what really matters. And that is the heart of Scrum: whether in software development or general business management, it’s all about doing what matters now and, most critically, accepting that mistakes will get made and rework not only is O.K. It’s almost mandatory.

This overriding philosophy is required before putting Scrum into action. In fact, the only time I’ve seen Scrum fail is in organizations that expect perfection in the first iteration, viewing re-work as failure. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The bottom line—in Scrum-based business management, as in life—is that we must learn from mistakes, keep moving forward and continually evolve, and we cannot wait for a “perfect plan” before beginning. If you can accept these tenets of “organized chaos,” you’ll reap big rewards like improved teamwork, better communication and faster results. . . and you might just stay a step or two ahead of your competition!

Tom Salonek



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