Labcast: The Role of Executive Leadership in Successful Scrum Adoption

August 30, 2012

In this week’s Labcast, Alex Brown, the Chief Operating Officer of Scrum Inc. discusses the critical role executive leadership plays in successful Scrum adoption.

scrum adoption

He also walks listeners through the challenges, solutions, and benefits of getting executives engaged and on board with the development methodology from day one.

Labcast 84_ Alex Brown on the Role of Executive Leadership in a Successful Scrum

Kevin Cain: Hello, and welcome to the OpenView Labcast. I’m Kevin Cain; and today I’m joined by Alex Brown. to talk about the role of executive leadership in a successful Scrum adoption. For those of you who don’t know Alex, he’s a chief operating officer at Scrum Inc. Hey, Alex, thanks so much for joining us today.

Alex Brown: My pleasure, Kevin. Happy to join.

Kevin: So, as I mentioned at the outset of this podcast, what we’re talking about today is the role of executive leadership in successful Scrum. Obviously, you want to get your executive leadership engaged, from day one, in Scrum, if you can, not always the easiest thing to do. What are some of the big obstacles that you see to that successful engagement?

Alex: Sure. Actually, ideally, you’re right, you’d love to get management involved from day one but, actually, the much more typical path is somebody in the engineering side of the organization is familiar with it or discovers it and brings it to the organization. It’s only after the fact that leadership gets involved. That is really where a lot of the barriers come in, because this is something that’s been brought to them by the Engineering Department and, as well-intentioned as they may be, it’s outside the norm of their experience. There isn’t a lot of management and business education, yet, in Scrum. So, it’s foreign to them. The biggest barrier is just helping them to understand just what Scrum is and how it works with what they do.

Kevin: So, I imagine it’s a pretty significant education process that needs to happen.

Alex: There is and it needs to be a two-way communication. It’s funny, I think the Scrum and agile community is even a little guilty of painting management and leadership as the villain or the enemy; which is something that we are actively trying to undo right now and, that only, if anything, heightens management’s resistance to feeling like this is something that’s brought in from the outside, if they’re treated like the problem.

Kevin: So, what is your recommendation or advice, then, for kind of combating that problem?

Alex: Well, the nice thing about Scrum is it actually empowers the team itself to think more like business managers and to be focusing on business value. Actually, part of that is helping to train management in what it means to be a leader in the natural environment. So, part of that is taking the perspective of leadership, understanding probably what they’re feeling, being introduced to something with language and terminology that’s unfamiliar to them, where they feel like they’re neophytes, and actually helping to ease their fears and concerns and feel little bit more comfortable in that environment. Help them to understand what they need to do to be successful as agile leaders.

Kevin: And I’m sure demonstrating what value that using Scrum brings would certainly play a pretty big role in that whole education, convincing process.

Alex: Sure. Most business people are very attuned to the dollars and cents of things. So, certainly, demonstrating successful Scrum and the benefit that that brings to the company, is probably the best thing you can do. But, even before you’ve been able to do that, just being able to frame what Scrum is, in a way that makes the business value and the dollars and cents impact clear to them, often goes a long way to defusing that resistance.

Kevin: So, I can imagine that there’s probably a variety of different levels of engagement that your executive team might have. What are sort of the advantages of having a really committed leadership, and how much commitment do you really need to be successful?

Alex: Really, any Scrum team that we worked with, at some point, runs into a wall. They’ve addressed all of the impediments that they can handle themselves, and so the things that are starting to slow down the team are external to the team. You know, they may involve corporate HR policies. They may involve reporting requirements or part of the budget and financing cycle; but they’re outside the team’s ability to address themselves. This is where it’s really imperative, that the leadership team be on board and supportive because it’s precisely those issues that need to get escalated to be removed and to help the team keep improving.

Kevin: So, it sounds like without that executive commitment, it’s really never going to be possible to truly be successful with Scrum. Is that true?

Alex: I mean, you can get to some level of improvement, but I have never seen a hyper-productive team that got there without some level of sponsorship and support at the senior levels of the company.

Kevin: So, let’s suppose for a minute that you’re a CTO somewhere and you’re trying to convince your management of the values and importance of Scrum and wanting them to be fully engaged, are there any other suggestions that you would bring or offer for those people? I mean, we talked a little bit about the [inaudible 00:05:16] value and kind of all that. But is there anything else, a little bit more, I guess, concrete and tactical that they can do?

Alex: Well, it’s funny you should mention it. We have seen this issue over and over again, enough, that we’ve actually, recently developed at Scrum Inc. a leadership workshop, specifically to bring that message to senior leadership and, to some extent, the CTO, as well as they can frame the argument, is always going to be perceived by leadership as representing the Engineering Group and coming with a certain bias. So, sometimes it’s actually helpful to bring somebody from outside the organization and, to come in almost with a new lens, clearly not being beholding to anybody in the organization and try to frame that argument that way.

But, one of the elements, and the key thing that needs to be communicated as part of that is management’s Bill of Rights, you know. What they should expect from a well functioning Scrum team, so they feel like they have that accountability and visibility that is what they kind of cling to in traditional management methods.

Kevin: Alex, thanks so much for joining us today. I really appreciate all your input on Scrum and the role of executive leadership. Thanks very much.

Alex: My pleasure, Kevin. Anytime.


<strong>Alex Brown</strong> is a partner at <a href="">Recon Strategy</a>. Prior to this role, he was the Chief Operating Officer of Scrum Inc., a firm specializing in agile strategy and rapid new product innovation. Before that Alex spent 6 years at BCG, where he was a leader in the healthcare and consumer strategy practice areas. His engagements included re-envisioning high performance network design for a major national PBM; and designing a "nudge unit" leveraging consumer psychology to improve patient outcomes for a leading retail pharmacy. Prior to BCG, Alex led demand forecasting of complex transportation networks for major public investments. Alex graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. and Masters in Engineering, and earned an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.