Book Club: Scrum, by Jeff Sutherland

Every Thursday, I’ll be briefly reviewing a book that I find to be interesting, engaging, and valuable for Agile Faculty. Because the Agile Faculty mindset values exploration, curiosity, and multidisciplinarity, these resources will come from a variety of different areas that speak to a wide range of interests, including higher education, faculty development, Agile and Scrum, design thinking and creativity studies, and social innovation. And I’ll throw in a little bonus review of a piece of fiction or non-fiction I’m reading just for fun.

The first book in this Agile Faculty Book Club is Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, written by Dr. Jeff Sutherland (Crown, 2014). Sutherland is one of the co-creators of Scrum, along with Ken Schwaber. He is also an original signatory on the Agile Manifesto, CEO of Scrum Inc., and chair of the Scrum Foundation. Sutherland has had a varied career ranging from fighter pilot to cancer researcher to chief technical officer in 11 software companies – all of which, along with a fascination with empirical control theory, allow him to bring a multi-layered  approach to not only getting more done with Scrum but also finding joy in that pursuit.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time is genre-bending; it’s part autobiography, part philosophical manifesto, part social science storytelling, part nuts-and-bolts guide to Scrum practices, and part call to action. Sutherland truly believes Scrum can radically transform the way people work in any environment, not just software. And he also firmly believes that “no one should spend their lives on meaningless work, not only is it not good business, it kills the soul” (p. 11).

This book is very accessible to non-technical readers and a good place to start if you are looking for a general text that helps you understand more about Scrum as a way of thinking and approaching work. Sutherland mixes stories from his time in the military, experiences coaching and consulting with teams in industries from tech to banking to healthcare to non-profits, and a little Asian philosophy all to argue that the time, energy, and spirit we put into our work should be meaningful and add value not only to our lives but to those around us. You’ll find one of my favorite quotes from this book early in Agile Faculty: “Work doesn’t have to suck. It can flow; it can be an expression of joy, an alignment to a higher purpose. We can be better. We can be great! We just have to practice (p. 39).

While that might sound a bit too much like a self-help book quote, Sutherland does offer good practical advice and examples of Scrum being used in many different environments to positive results. I have many notes in the margins of my copy highlighting where I saw direct connections to higher education and faculty work. It’s no secret that traditional higher education is on the edge of a massive culture shift, or, if I’m being dramatic, a change-or-die situation. The Design Thinking Studio in Social Innovation immersive semester program my colleagues at Elon and I are piloting was a direct reaction to our frustration with the traditional constraints of required seat time for credit hours, grades, semester course loads of anywhere from 3-5 unconnected courses, and the one faculty member to one course ratio.

Breaking out of those entrenched constraints is painful (if even possible), and Sutherland argues that, “we’re all creature of the system we find ourselves embedded in. What Scrum does is accept this reality, and, instead of trying to find someone to blame, it tries to examine the system that produced the failure and fix it” (p.67). I like the idea of starting from a place of acceptance and making small, collaborative, incremental changes consistently over time to eventually transform the way we practice higher ed today as a system and in our own faculty careers. When I wrote Agile Faculty, especially in Chapter 1 about faculty vitality and the thought experiment in the Afterward, my goals were to explore how faculty might achieve the levels of personal vitality Sutherland argues we deserve, while at the same time (re)assessing the underlying systems of higher education that might benefit from some Scrum-driven innovations.

If you are looking for a light but extended view on Scrum after reading Agile Faculty, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time is worth your time.

Completely Unrelated Bonus Review
I recently finished Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Little, Brown, and Co., 2017), and I highly recommend this novel, especially it you are a fan of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian visions – in fact, Atwood chose to mentor Alderman as she was writing The Power as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Without giving too much away, the premise of the novel is that human women evolve over time until all females have an organ that creates electrostatic energy that can be wielded for both healing and destruction. The novel looks at the critical moment in history when the power manifested in the majority of the population through the eyes of several women of different ages and how this change in power impacted relationships, families, governments, and ultimately society as a whole. It’s a fast read that asks deep questions about the nature of gender, social power, and evolution.

One Comment on “Book Club: Scrum, by Jeff Sutherland

  1. I like your quote “I like the idea of starting from a place of acceptance and making small, collaborative, incremental changes consistently over time to eventually transform the way we practice higher ed today as a system and in our own faculty careers.”

    It’s interesting how scrum can be applied to variety of domains/verticals. The core principles apply but each vertical can also have its nuances.

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