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Scrum: Working as a Cohesive Unit Through the Product Development Cycle

Scrum is a product development methodology. You may have heard of Scrum before, maybe even used it, but where does the methodology come from and what are the ideas behind it? In this series, our product manager Christian Vestre goes a bit deeper and looks at the story behind what today is codified in the Scrum product development framework.

In the first article we talk about the original ideas behind scrum and where the name “Scrum” actually comes from.

Scrum: where it started.

Scrum is founded on ideas from research by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka when they collaborated in the late 1980s at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. This is not the “Scrum” that many companies around the world are using today. It was developed later by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland in the 1990s, but it was leaning heavily on the ideas of Takeuchi and Nonaka. It is interesting to go into the ideas that later influenced the “Scrum” we know today, outlined in their article “The Knowledge-Creating Company” as they can help develop a more nuanced understanding of the reasoning behind the strict ceremonies and roles that belong to the modern “Scrum” framework.

After having studied some of the most innovative companies of the time, Canon, Fuji-Xerox, 3M among others, Takeuchi and Nonaka saw similarities between how these companies organized their product development teams, and how the game of rugby was played. In their paper, a section is named “Moving the scrum downfield”, which later led to the term we know today as “Scrum”.

They observed that instead of following the normal sequential product design and development, as exemplified by NASA at the time, these innovative companies followed a different kind of methodology. They had multidisciplinary teams in constant interaction working together from start to finish on the project. There were no handovers to separate teams for things like feasibility tests or production. Instead teams followed a holistic approach: a single team went the distance and worked on the whole product development cycle as one cohesive unit.

Scrum (or Scrimmage) in the sport of rugby, is a way to restart play. It requires technique and fine interplay and sets off an attack. Takeuchi and Nonaka chose this metaphor to represent what they observed amongst the companies they studied and their holistic, cohesive approach to product development.

“A team tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth.”

-Takeuchi & Nonaka 1986 p.137.

The organizational dynamics behind successful innovative product development

A combination of organisational characteristics are behind the new dynamics which leads to more innovative outcomes and success in the development of complex products. According to Takeuchi and Nonaka these new dynamics are created from multiple different organisational characteristics working together, encompassing the following principles:

  • Built in instability
  • Self organizing project teams
  • Overlapping development phases
  • Multi-learning
  • Subtle control
  • Organisational transfer of learning

Built-in instability

By giving broader goals and a strategic general direction instead of micro-managing a single cohesive development team, there is more freedom for experimentation to figure out their own way of optimally solving the tasks ahead. However, this increased freedom is combined with very demanding goals set by management teams. This creates tension between the freedom afforded vs. reaching the demanding requirements set and adds pressure contributing to more creative and innovative outcomes.

Self organising product teams

For a product development team to have a self organising capability, it requires three characteristics: autonomy, self transcendence and cross fertilization.

Overlapping development phases

Having a multidisciplinary group with the same responsibilities as in the sequential development process, means areas such as R&D and production must be able to synchronize and finish by the same deadlines.

Working together closely creates the possibility of miscommunication due to differences in perception, this generates what Takeouchi and Nonaka call “noise” which can build up to bottlenecks. However, due to increased understanding among team members, the group does not get stuck and is able to navigate these bottlenecks better than when following a sequential development process.

Multi-learning

Due to the increased freedom and room for experimentation, the product development team learns a lot throughout the development process. This happens in two different dimensions: multi-level learning and multi-functional learning.

Subtile control

The management style that should be applied to the product development team is called “subtle control.” Management is done not through direct task allocation, but by giving checkpoints and goals open for different ways of accomplishing them. Other ways subtile control is achieved is by adjacent factors such as team composition, the work environment and a higher tolerance for failures.

Organizational transfer of learning

Transfer of learning happens through placing key people from earlier product development projects into new ones which allows for them to share their accumulated knowledge to new team members.

In addition to transmitting knowledge throughout the organization by letting less experienced team members learn from more experienced ones. There is also the approach of finding useful processes and institutionalizing them, meaning that successful routines such as retrospective meetings and regular status updates can be adopted in all projects and turned into the way the whole company does projects. A set of useful routines is what was later codified in the Scrum framework by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland.

For those of you who are interested, I recommend reading Takeuchi and Nonaka’s paper for greater detail of each additional supporting examples.

To summerize

What Takeuchi and Nonaka set out to do was to identify how innovative companies excelled at new product development. What they observed was that, in place of the commonplace sequential product development process, these companies all had variants of more cohesive approaches. With units working together throughout the development cycle, autonomy and self-guidance, led by larger objectives. This made for more creativity, cross-fertilisation of ideas and a larger extent of learning in the product development teams. All important factors of success in developing complex and unique products.

The scrum metaphor came out of what Takeouchi and Nonaka observed with a holistic approach to the whole product development process. The way teams worked as a unit by exchanging information and working together more closely, became more commonplace over time, and led to more success in developing innovative products.

Later on Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland further integrated these ideas, also taking inspiration from other areas such as Advanced process control (APC) to develop the Scrum framework as it is known today. Schwaber and Sutherlands Scrum framework was specifically intended for software development and is more specific to that than the more general observations made by Takeouchi and Nonaka.

In our second part of this article series, we will look at how and why this was needed for the methodology to become popular.

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Sources:

Takeuchi, H., & Nonaka, I. (1986). The new new product development game. Harvard business review, 64(1), 137–146.

Schwaber, K. (1997). Scrum development process. In Business object design and implementation (pp. 117–134). Springer, London.

Originally published at https://www.skalar.no on August 25, 2021.

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Skalar is a smart digital product company. We believe in synergy of business, design and technology. And we do this by creating solutions, services and business models that make a difference. Smart processes and smart results — that’s the Skalar way.

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