Strategy Scrum Teams

Management teams can use Strategy Scrum to manage themselves and more effectively finish important work. It creates greater resiliency, a more collaborative culture and deeper agile understanding, which helps their Scrum development teams succeed.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
—Dwight Eisenhower

Many CEOs claim their companies are agile—thinking agile is just for developers—while the company itself can’t rapidly adapt to change, much less exploit it. In one example, a CEO told me his company was agile because his teams were using Scrum. But his company had mounted many ambitious projects long after competitors captured the market, and ultimately canceled them after spending lots of money. Agile principles, applied to the organization, avoid such expensive efforts. The company would have been much more healthy if the company was agile rather than just its developers.

Most companies execute faster and better when their executives live the agile discipline. Non-agile companies do not compare their potential investments with an economic model to decide what to pursue. Though a non-agile company may speculate on many new product investments, once it starts an investment, it doesn’t attempt to learn more about the market (and terminate a doomed project early) until the entire product is completed. Executives in non-agile companies regularly interrupt teams with new priorities based on their gut feelings. Non-agile companies often pursue many simultaneous efforts; sometimes there are more projects than teams. Honest contributors in non-agile companies often get fired or quit in frustration, after taking responsibility for failures and seeking solutions. Non-agile executives shun deep causal analysis of problems, asserting that the causes are obvious. (See Are We Agile? to analyze your own company’s overall agility.) I have recounted this hypothetical “non-agile company” example to colleagues, and several asked me, dumfounded, if I was describing their company.

To help managers and executives understand agility more deeply, I have long organized management teams into “Strategy Scrum Teams” to identify, prioritize, and collectively finish strategic work. “Strategic work” is anything that permanently improves the company, and includes improving the way the company capitalizes assets, creates marketing strategies, reviews employee performance, recruits new hires, and performs other “creative thinking required” managerial duties.

Organizing and prioritizing strategic work offers two benefits. First, we can compare strategic initiatives with the same economic metrics that we use for other forms of asset generation, and decide whether they are worthy of investment (i.e., manager time). Second, we can focus management teams (rather than individual managers) on rapidly completing the most profitable strategic initiatives. Strategy Scrum Teams have helped several clients complete strategic activities that had stalled.

In a related effort, Jeff Sutherland has created what he calls “Impediment Removal Teams,” composed of managers and specialists. Impediments are structural outside-the-team problems that interfere with team production. In Jeff’s case, ScrumMasters were charged with bringing impediments to the Impediment Removal Team; if a ScrumMaster went 3 Sprints without bringing an impediment to the Impediment Removal Team, that ScrumMaster was fired. Organizations that implemented this pattern doubled performance in a short period.

Implement a Strategy Scrum Team

To complete strategic management work with Scrum, identify the major strategic initiatives your team should pursue in the coming year and quarter.

Strategic work solves problems permanently; operational work solves these problems temporarily. For example, if your ecommerce site needs lots of product graphics for Black Friday and Cyber Monday (the heaviest days of pre-Christmas buying), you can hire tons of temporary graphic designers in October and November (operational), or you can create a year-round program to have permanent staff develop a catalog of seasonal graphics (strategic). Operational work costs much more in the long-run. If you look around your company and everyone seems to be “firefighting”, your company probably does little or no strategic work.

Here are classes of strategic work

  • Permanently improves morale
  • Prototypes a new operational process
  • Increases capacity or speed
  • Decreases cost
  • Improves quality
  • Improves sustainability (such as, employees working no more than 40 hours weekly)

When you try out a new operational approach, such as prototyping a new process for recruiting, that work is strategic. You have created something new, and you are experimenting with it. After you’ve finished experimenting and adapting, the same work (no longer a new creation) is operational, and does not belong in your strategic scrum backlog.

You probably can think of some important strategic initiatives to improve your company. Create a “strategic four-part user story” for each initiative. Here’s a template:

As a <stakeholder>
    I <can do something differently or better>,
    so I <get an economic benefit>,
    and so <the department gains economic benefit>.

Fill in each element of the template with details about your initiative. Some authoring tricks will help keep your team aligned on value. The stakeholder must never be someone inside your department. No matter what department you’re in, you serve someone outside your department.

The “I” in the second line is the (external) stakeholder. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes. Will they even notice this change? If not, you have a problem: you may have picked the wrong stakeholder, or you may have picked a strategic initiative that has no value to anyone outside your department. Regardless, fix your initiative so some stakeholder somewhere can see a change in how they work.

The stakeholder should get an economic benefit that arises from being able to do things differently.

The department gains economic benefit clause should be something that benefits you and your department. This is your payback for investing in this strategic initiative. If you and your department don’t get a benefit, then your interests and the stakeholder’s interests are misaligned. You may want to redraft your initiative, so it benefits people outside and inside the department.

Here’s an example:

As a recruiter,
    it takes less than 24-hours to schedule a phone interview after receiving a data science candidate application,
    so I don’t waste a lot of time tracking data science managers down,
    and so the data science department beats competing employers in hiring the best candidates.

Virtually every recruiter would love a 24-hour turn-around from their hiring managers. And, though it might be hard to achieve, the hiring managers get something great, too: better hires.

Add no more than 3 “Acceptance tests” at the end of your user stories, which tell a non-department member how to confirm the work was completed, like this:

As a recruiter,

  • it takes less than 24-hours to schedule a phone interview after receiving a data science candidate application,
  • so I don’t waste a lot of time tracking data science managers down,
  • and so the data science department beats competing employers in hiring the best candidates.

Acceptance tests

  • The applicant tracking systems shows that each candidate was scheduled or rejected within 24 hours on a business day.
  • The applicant tracking system shows the average lead-time for interviews was under 1 week.
  • HR personnel, in answer to this question, “How likely would you recommend recruiting for the data science department to a colleague?” produce a positive Net Promoter Score (see The Net Promoter Score and System).

Put your initiatives in an ordered list, called a Backlog. If you could only get one of the user stories finished in a year, would the topmost one be your pick? If not, fix it. If you could only finish two, would the first and second be your choices? If not, fix it. Etc. Do you and your team think that there’s a strong chance (greater than 50%) that you will complete all 5 stories within the year? If not, make your strategic user stories less aggressive.

Identify a subset effort (maybe taking a month or two) from each strategic initiative. Write each effort as a user story with acceptance tests. Do you and your team think there’s a strong chance you will complete all 5 efforts within the next quarter? If not, make your efforts less aggressive. Put these 5 efforts at the top of the Backlog, above the strategic user stories.

Finally, identify a work item (maybe taking a couple of days) from each effort. Write each as a user story with acceptance tests. Do you and your team think there’s a strong chance you will complete all 5 work item user stories within the next week? If not, make your work items less aggressive. Put these 5 work items at the top of the Backlog, above the strategic stories.

We now have no more than five big strategic initiatives for the next year, no more than five medium sized strategic efforts (parts of the strategic initiatives) for the next quarter, and no more than five small strategic work items (parts of the strategic efforts) for the next week. They all align: the work items we plan to complete this week will help move us forward on all of our quarterly efforts and on our yearly initiatives.

Get one of your best ScrumMasters in the company to run your Strategic Scrum team. Some people say managing graphic artists or developers is like herding cats. Well, managing managers is much harder. Managers will claim to be firefighting all the time, and you will be tempted to cancel meetings when only a few attend. Resist the temptation, and try to corral them. The only way you and they can get out from the mind-numbing trap of operational work is to show them (not just tell them) that strategic work is more productive. And to do that, you must at least slog through one major achievement. And to do that, they have to show up for meetings.

Commit to a weekly 90 minute Review/Retrospective/Planning meeting, a daily 15 minute standup, and work as a team to complete things on the top of the backlog. If you’re like my buddies, you’ll find that doing the Review/Retro/Planning on a Wednesday or Thursday will be more sustainable (to avoid Monday holidays and Friday early-weekend-departures).

Your ScrumMaster may want to know who the Product Owner is. That’s the boss, if he or she can reliably attend a weekly meeting. Otherwise, you have to pick someone who can responsibly speak for the boss. In any event, be sure to pick a [Surrogate Product Owner] for when the Product Owner can’t attend meetings..

If you do this, please report back to me. I would love to hear your stories. I have been able to make this work in a few companies, but it was tough. Managers who manage operationally (you know, the ones pulling their or your hair out) have a very hard time prioritizing strategic work. However, you will find that they eventually appreciate the value of strategic work, and they may continue the Strategic Scrum Team all on their own.

Good luck!

2 responses to “Strategy Scrum Teams”

  1. Zach Bonaker Avatar
    Zach Bonaker

    Hi Dan – wonderful article. I’ve been doing something similar for a few years after being inspired by Alan Dayley’s “enablement team” concept. Much the same principle as your strategy team described here – get leaders together and work on the initiatives that slow us down (or outright inhibit Agility).

    However, you’ve refined the concept very well – I love this iteration. It seems especially well suited for organizations that have reached a strong understanding of Agile at the execution level (i.e., teams/products).

    It never ceases to amaze me how every “strategy team” initially scoffs at the backlog content. “That’s not a real problem” or “I can’t believe they care about that” – commonly heard. Then, once the team gets into the work, they discover how excited stakeholders are.

    Currently I’m trying to keep my head above water with getting traction for Agile at just the team-level… so our “strategy team” is focusing on enabling teams for now (initiatives that teams themselves can’t change). I hope that I’ll be able to experiment with your concepts here very soon!!

    Thanks for being there and contributing!! You’ve been a huge influence on me lately – thank you!


  2. Dan Greening Avatar

    From Charles Bradley:


    I’ve noticed this pattern emerging over the last year or two, and have dabbled in it myself. Excellent pattern IMO.

    Another similar approach (which I’m not suggesting is better or awesome — but interesting to consider for mining ideas) is here:

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