Scrum in sales: Q&A with Scrum founding father Jeff Sutherland

“Many of our companies have spread Scrum outside of development into sales, marketing, finance and senior management,” says Jeff Sutherland. Perhaps best known in QA circles for his work with Ken Schwaber on formalizing the Scrum methodology, Sutherland has had an impressive career as an Agile consultant, medical doctor, and Air Force Fighter pilot. One of the Agile Manifesto signatories, he will be attending the reunion and celebration of manifesto author’s at the upcoming Agile 2011 conference event in Salt Lake City, August 8th.

Before signing the manifesto, Jeff was a Chief Technical Officer at several bio/medical startups; after signing it, he went on to serve as CEO of Scrum Inc and as partner at OpenView Venture Partners, a venture-capital investing firm.

Most recently Jeff has been interested in expanding Scrum outside of the IT Shop, including broader concepts in product development and management.

Matt Heusser: Is it fair to say that most of your recent focus has been on Scrum outside of the software group? What made you want to focus in that?

Jeff Sutherland: Most of my work with Scrum is still with IT groups, although that has been expanding into development operations. However, since 2006 I have been working with OpenView Venture Partners and they use Scrum for everything. Our investment team, search team, finance and admin team, and company support teams are all Scrum. As a result, many of our companies have spread Scrum outside of development into sales, marketing, finance, and senior management. Several of our CEOs have Scrum boards in their office. I started up a new Scrum team in December to run Scrum Inc. — sales, marketing, finance, training, consulting and new business development are all run by Scrum. Everyone is on a Scrum team including the CEO. This team went from a velocity of 40 story points in December to over 160 points today, the first office team to go hyper-productive. Because of these initiatives I am increasingly asked to help expand Scrum beyond IT and am starting to get people in Scrum training that are not IT people.

Huesser: Specifically, your Agile 2011 talk is on “Scrum in Sales;” what drew you specifically to sales?

Sutherland: I’m the Agile coach for iSense, a Netherlands based consultancy. The CEO is focusing the company on Scrum in the Netherlands and with their Indian subsidiary. I attend the quarterly management meetings of the company to review progress. The sales team was selling Scrum consulting and training and decided to do Scrum themselves to understand the process better. To their surprise, it made the sales process predictable and controllable and gained more revenue for them and a competitive advantage in the market. Every time I visited the company, I reviewed their Scrum board and talked about what they were doing. I suggested they write a paper on their findings and their CTO, Rini van Soligen, helped out a lot. It will be presented at Agile 2011 in Salt Lake City.

Huesser: Tell us about your talk. What are you going to say? What do you expect the audience to take home?

Sutherland: Scrum in sales works. The challenge is to understand your product backlog (the sales funnel) and build a self-organizing and self-motivated team that can understand and control the sales pipeline to drive more revenue and a competitive advantage. Understanding and implementing Lean practices is very helpful in sales. Many people do not understand that Scrum is an implementation of W. Edwards Deming’s PDCA cycle (Plan, Do, Check, Act). This is the same cycle that is implemented at Toyota. Lean comes from the book, “The Machine That Changed the World,” which is an American understanding of what Toyota was doing 20 years ago. Scrum is based on the work of Tacheuchi and Nonaka who consult with Toyota and write books on Toyota. Their deep understanding is that “knowledge generation” based on team dynamics is what drives innovation. Thus Scrum is based on a deep and advanced understanding of what the Americans call Lean. Toyota has changed a lot in the last 20 years and redefined their processes and the Toyota Way. Tacheuchi and Nonaka’s understanding of what drives Toyota has not changed and is the essence of Scrum. This understanding is what we need to drive into sales.

Huesser: How do you see sales intersecting with Scrum? Have you worked with teams that have adopted the method?

Sutherland: When sales implements Scrum, they understand the essence of Scrum, and they can communicate with the client that they know what they are talking about. Sales go up and that drives increased revenue which is what sales is all about. At the same time, they understand what the developers are doing and how to avoid selling what the developers cannot achieve. So the relationship with development improves a lot.

Huesser: Can you describe the transition a “typical” sales team might go through when moving to Scrum?

Sutherland: In the paper, we describe the sales team before the implementation of Scrum. They were an isolated group of individuals focused on their own quota, not working as a team, and not working together to get better to improve company revenue. The first step in implementing Scrum will show the sales people they are not a team. Then they have to fix this. They will probably need coaching from experienced Scrum people to get the team process working. They have to see their sales go up and see they can control their revenue stream to become believers. Then they have to build the discipline to sustain that competitive advantage as a team. Instead of lone wolves they need to become a wolf pack. They will take down more meat as a pack. They will need someone to bite them when they get out of line.

Huesser: What does “success” mean for a sales team adopting Scrum? Can you quantify it?

Sutherland: Success means they exceed their quota and increase their company market share at a much faster rate than before Scrum. As a wolf pack, lone salesmen can no longer compete with them. With developers behind them doing good Scrum, their customers are happier, their quality is higher, and their costs are cheaper. Customers prefer working with them rather than their competition.

Huesser: This is great stuff, Jeff. Where can we go for more?

Sutherland: My website has a link “Jeff Sutherland’s Papers,” and there you can find the paper we will present at Agile 2011 on Scrum in Sales.