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The New New Product Development Game using Scrum

December 13, 2017

People in the Agile community must have heard or have came across this white paper multiple times. We have been preaching about it in our training classes but I am not sure how many of Agile community members have actually read it thoroughly. The paper was published in Jan 1986 issue of HBR and is very much valid even today. The approach published in the paper focus on six characteristics which fits together as a jigsaw puzzle. The concept was to move away from the “relay race” approach and move towards the “rugby” approach.

In a traditional approach a product development moves like a “relay-race” where one group passing the baton to the next group. However, in “rugby”, the ball gets passed within the team as it moves as a unit up the field.

One of the most often used Agile framework i.e. Scrum is inspired by this paper. This article is an attempt to provide a refresher to people who are still struggling with understanding the Scrum framework foundation blocks.


The New New Product Development Game using Scrum


  1. Built-in instability – In a traditional approach people are very possessive about the work plan, monitoring and controlling the day to day activities for others. The new approach talks about providing a broad challenging goal or a strategic direction to the team while allowing them to find out their approach themselves. In Scrum, a Sprint is an agreement between the management and the Development Team. Product Owner along with management and stakeholders decides what next the Scrum team should work while giving them the flexibility of how they work. Once the Sprint Goal has been agreed upon then it’s up to the Development Team to find out how they are going to achieve it by planning their work in the Sprint Backlog.


  1. Self-organizing project teams – A group possesses a self-organizing capability when it exhibits three conditions – 
    1. Autonomy - It is very well proven that people take commitments made by them more seriously than someone else making it on behalf of them. Scrum talks about the self-organizing Development Team so that they are making their decision themselves and no one outside the team is directing them for their day to day work. Self-organization happens with a boundary and there are different levels of it. A self-organized Development Team is not allowed to change the banking business to an e-commerce. The Sprint creates a boundary and the Sprint goal allows the Development Team to self-organize.
    2. Self-transcendence – As per wiki “it is a personality trait associated with spiritual ideas such as considering oneself as an integral part of the universe”. The five Scrum values i.e. Commitment, Focus, Respect, Courage and Openness are a way to spirituality of professionalism, to be a better human being. This includes following a path of regular Inspection and Adaption while keeping an eye on the bigger goal. Scrum is based upon the empirical process theory and it has five events for inspection and adaption with utmost transparency.
    3. Cross-fertilization – As per the original paper “A project team consisting of members with varying functional specializations, thought processes, and behaviour patterns carries out new product development”. Scrum recommends the cross functional Development Team so that they have all the skills required for delivering a Done Increment every Sprint. There are no sub-teams or roles, all of them are called Developers. Respecting to the Scrum values the team members are Open for learning new skills.


  1. Overlapping Development Phases – In the traditional “relay-race” approach a bottleneck in one phase can slow or even halt the entire development process. While under the “rugby” approach the phases overlap considerably, which enables the group to absorb the vibration or noise generated throughout the development process. Scrum teams follow the overlapping approach wherein team members working on Product Backlog Items, each at a different lifecycle stage overlapping with each other. It enables shared responsibilities and cooperation, sharpens a problem-solving focus, encourages initiative taking and develops diversified skills. Working in an overlapping development phases environment requires cross functional team and it does away with traditional notions about division of labour.


  1. Multilearning – The two-dimensional learning (1) multiple levels i.e. individual, group and corporate and (b) across multiple functions is referred as Multilearning. Are we building the right product? Is it aligned with the vision? Are our customers going to buy it? Every Sprint in Scrum is a learning opportunity where-in the individual, team, and groups get together and learn about the market, users and the product they are developing. Sprint Retrospective is a good opportunity for learning about the improvements required in people, processes, working agreement, engineering practices etc. for delivering better and faster value to customer and organization.


  1. Subtle Control – The emphasis is on “self-control” and “control through peer pressure” which collective is called as “subtle control”. Scrum teams are self-organized but they are not un-controlled. Scrum provides enough checkpoints to prevent instability, ambiguity and chaos while maintaining the creativity and productivity. All events in the Scrum framework works as a checkpoint for its players e.g. Daily Scrum is an event where the Development Team inspect their progress towards the Sprint goal and adapts their Sprint Backlog accordingly. Similarly, Sprint Review is for inspecting the Increment and based upon the feedback from the stakeholders adapting the Product Backlog.


  1. Organizational transfer of learning -  The drive to accumulate knowledge across levels and functions is only one aspect of learning, other part is project members transferring their learning to others outside the group. Daily Scrum and Sprint Retrospective are the event where Scrum team members share their knowledge and learning with each other. During the Sprint Review the Scrum team share their knowledge, learning and challenges faced with stakeholders outside their group.


The source and inspiration for this article is and the HBR paper.

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