Scrum is the best thing that happened to our government team

Delivering work in small increments keeps us focused, aligned and continuously improving

The wonderful thing about working in government is that there’s no shortage of important problems to solve. From making permits less painful to improving internet access for low-income youth, there’s no lack of opportunities to make impact in the San Jose Office of Civic Innovation & Digital Strategy. This is why I love my job.

The problem with having a big mission is that it’s hard to focus on one thing at a time. Everything feels like a priority. Throw in a few unexpected crises, and you’ve got a lot of perpetually overwhelmed public servants running around.

How do we cut through the chaos to deliver on the most important stuff ? For our team, the answer is Scrum.

Team elation at completing our first “perfect” Scrum sprint after six months, meaning all planned tasks were completed by the end of the sprint.

We’ve been running our team on Scrum for a year, and the results have amazed us. At our July retreat, we selected Scrum as the single most compelling practice from our past year of work to transmit to our organization — a city government of 6,000 employees.

While Scrum isn’t necessarily a good fit for every government team, I think many of my colleagues would reap huge gains in productivity and job satisfaction from Scrum. Wouldn’t you want to feel as thrilled about your work as we do in the picture above??

What is Scrum?

Scrum is a management framework in which teams plan and deliver work in small increments, organized in fixed-duration cycles known as “sprints.”

For our team, a sprint is two weeks long. Here’s what happens in each sprint.

  1. We hold a “Sprint Planning” meeting to agree on goals for the upcoming sprint and decompose each goal into a series of smaller tasks.
  2. Each day of the sprint, we have a 15 minute “Daily Stand-up” meeting (also known as “Daily Scrum”) to share progress, plan the upcoming day of work, and identify obstacles.
  3. At the end of a sprint, we conduct a “Sprint Review” to assess how successfully the goals were met.
  4. Lastly, we hold a “Sprint Retrospective” to reflect on how to improve our process in the next sprint.
  5. The cycle repeats with Sprint Planning for the next sprint.

It sounds simple, but there’s a lot of nuance in making the system work well. To learn more about the Scrum framework, including the specific team roles and rules of engagement, I suggest you check out the Scrum Guide.

While Scrum is most well known in the software industry, our team has found it can be adapted well to different types of deliverables that exist in the government universe, including Council memos, procurement procedures, and program development. We believe Scrum is best for teams doing collaborative work where the exact path to the goal is uncertain.

How Scrum Got Us in the Habit of Getting Things Done

While the rules of Scrum seem cumbersome at first, the highly structured but lightweight routine is key to its success. In our office, the recurring meetings have become a fact of life, establishing a dependable rhythm for prioritizing, aligning and delivering as a team.

I like to think of Scrum as a keystone habit that sets in motion a cascade of other virtuous behaviors. It’s like going for a run every day. You start eating better, sleeping better, working more productively, and before you know it, you’re a fabulous superstar. (Note: I am not a runner.)

Here are the top five most valuable behaviors that our team has gained from Scrum.

1. We are disciplined about prioritizing

Like all teams, we have an endless list of things to do (called the “product backlog” in Scrum). The difference is, we do not start working on any tasks until they’ve been explicitly prioritized for the upcoming sprint cycle. That means that we say no to some requests, and we pass on some opportunities, no matter how intriguing they are, if they don’t stack up against existing priorities.

This process gets our entire team to acknowledge on a regular basis that there are only so many hours in a work week. We can’t do everything we would like to do, and it’s irresponsible to pretend otherwise. Limiting our commitments to what we can actually deliver makes those commitments meaningful.

2. We hold ourselves accountable to our commitments

It’s one thing to set priorities, and another thing to keep those priorities top of mind amid a barrage of urgent requests. Our daily stand-up meetings help us stay on track. Each team member reports on what she accomplished in the past day, what she’s working on next, and any barriers she faces. We move tasks from “Sprint Backlog” to “Work in Progress” column, and to the “Done” column as appropriate.

Snapshot of our Scrum board at the end of last week. We divide our work into eight major themes; each theme has tasks that are in backlog, work in progress or done.

The peer pressure to report on accomplishments is incredibly useful as motivation. If I spend my day working on stuff that’s outside of the Sprint goals, it’s going to be pretty obvious to my team members at the next daily stand-up meeting. The satisfaction of moving tasks to the Done column serves as a small but addictive reward for getting things across the finish line.

3. We stay aligned as we progress

In almost every work situation I’ve been in, team members struggle with being in sync with each other. They never know exactly what others are working on, and consequently don’t know when to avoid duplicate work, or when to help each other out.

Scrum creates unprecedented transparency among our team regarding priorities, progress, and impediments. Sprint goals and tasks are up on the wall for all to see. Every day, I count on our 15 minute stand-up meeting to get clarity on my tasks and how they fit with the rest of the team. In my experience, these high frequency but short duration check-ins are much more efficient at alignment than weekly team meetings.

4. We have autonomy in how we do the work

One of the goals of Scrum is a self-organizing team. Our boss, the inimitable Kip Harkness, establishes the priorities of what we’ll work on, but once the direction has been set and agreed to, the team gets to decide the “how” and “who” of delivery.

Once the sprint is underway, Kip doesn’t need to keep a close eye on our day to day activities, unless we ask him for input. Over time, as our team completes sprint after sprint delivering on what we committed to, the trust in our team grows, creating a virtuous cycle of increasing responsibility and autonomy.

5. We iterate to improve

The real secret to our team’s success with Scrum is that we have iteratively improved over the course of 25 sprints over the past year. With the retrospective meeting, Scrum has a built-in mechanism for continuous improvement as a team.

Records of the most important “plus” and “delta” for Sprints 9 through 24.

At the end of every sprint, our team does a “plus/delta” brainstorm to identify things that worked well (the “pluses”) and things that need improvement in our process (the “deltas”). We then vote on the most important aspect to continue and the most important aspects to improve in the next sprint. Over time, the small improvements from sprint to sprint accumulate. The way our sprint process works now is very different from where we started. I expect it will continue to improve and evolve over the next 25 sprints.

What could Scrum do for your team?

Based on our conviction that Scrum enables high performing teams, we’re taking first steps to spread Scrum within the City of San Jose. This fall, our resident Scrum Coach Sing-Man Yuen is leading a Scrum bootcamp and spinning up a handful more Scrum teams throughout the organization.

Here’s how you can help us build our community of practice:

  • If you’re a Scrum coach, we’re looking for local talent to volunteer some pro-bono hours of coaching and mentorship.
  • If you’re a City of San Jose employee interested in Scrum, get in touch with so I can keep you in the loop.
  • If you’re a public servant at another organization with your own Scrum experiences to share, I’d love to hear your successes and challenges.

Hit me up on Twitter @michellethong, by email, or reply in the Responses section below.

Acknowledgments: The success of our team’s Scrum journey has been the product of many individuals’ openness and commitment. Special thanks to our Scrum Master Sing-Man Yuen, Product Owner Kip Harkness, thought partner and Scrum evangelist, Erica Garaffo, and fellow Scrum team members Dolan Beckel, Betsey Shotwell, Ann Grabowski and Andrea Truong.

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