Did Steve Jobs Predict the Rise of Agile/Scrum?


I make no secret of my affinity for Steve Jobs, although these days it appears far more hip to strip the man of any achievement he may have had. Social media is awash with millions of comments ranging from “Xerox PARC thief” all the way to “Megolamniacal dictator snake oil salesman”.

I imagine that amidst all of the criticism and the praise there is, like most narratives in which a hero rises, falls and is reborn once more, there is a grain of truth in both camps. As my friend and prominent blogger Tony Pitt likes to say;

A little of column A and a little of column B.

However, it is not his business achievements which fascinate me most. It is Jobs almost uncanny ability to predict the world that we take for granted long after his vision has come to pass.

I recently finished I,Steve Jobs; a slim volume edited by George Beahm which aggregates almost 3 decades of media print and interviews to distill some of Jobs best known insights.

The truth is, I had fairly low hopes for the book, finding it nestled in the bargain bin of a discount bookstore in the UK. I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading it to also find out that Shane Parrish of Farnam Street, whom I respect immensely, had also read it and reviewed it favourably.

As I flipped through the book taking notes I made a few observations in the margins which later coalesced into a realization; Steve Jobs worked in a Scrum-like process long before 1995.

Here are 6 quotes from I,Steve Jobs which are fundamental to an effective Scrum Team;

On the duties of the ScrumMaster

The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create space for them, to clear out the rest of the organisation and keep it at bay…This is the neatest group of people I have ever worked with. [snip] They really want to see this Product out in the world.

On the need for cross-functional teams, as articulated by the Scrum Alliance and the Scrum values of Respect and Commitment.

In our business, one person cannot do anything anymore. You create a team of people around you. You have a responsibility of integrity of work to that team. Everybody does try to turn out the best work they can.

Following on from that theme

My model for business in the The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s negative tendencies in check. The total was greater than the sum of it’s parts. That is how I see business; things are never done by one person; they are done by a team of people.

On the need for the Product Owner to challenge the business

Some very good people invent some very good products and the company achieves a monopoly but after that the product people aren’t the ones driving the company forward anymore. It’s the marketing guys or the expansionists or whatever…So a different group of people start to move up. And who eventually ends up running the show?
The sales guy.

On the need for good user stories

When you first start trying to solve a problem [you see it is complicated],… the first solutions you come up with are very complex and most people stop there. But if you keep going and you live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion you can arrive at very elegant and simple solutions.
Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there. We believe our customers are smart and want objects which are well thought through.

On the Definition of Done

It’s not done until it ships

Admittedly it is easy to cherry pick various statements from any individual with a well-documented canon of soundbites but we should not be shy about calling out effective working practices which existed before the Scrum Guide but underpin the core values, artifacts and ceremonies of the Scrum method.

This post was originally published on the personal blog of Steven Feeney. It was subsequently republished on Urban Times.


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Steven Feeney is an Agile Coach and loves reading, golf and talking startups. He is the founder of Sure Summit Consulting and Slicing Pineapples Creative Agency.

He blogs at stevenfeeney.com and medium; He can be reached via @steven_feeney so don’t be a stranger.

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