Doing Scrum, Being Agile and Getting Lean

12 August 2016

“There are three facets to making a great product: team motivation, product processes and company buy-in”, Macdara Butler, Senior Product Manager for Brandtone, stated at a talk in Dogpatch on Wednesday. Brandtone is a leading mobile marketing and engagement specialist working with companies like Unilever, Pepsico, OMO, Knorr and many more so Butler has plenty of experience in developing world-class processes for product development.

The three facets, while seemingly independent, are closely related. Efficient product processes which reduce unnecessary overheads when supported by senior management, lead to increased team motivation. Butler breaks down the key stages to implementing an efficient product process into short term (Scrum), medium term (Agile) and long term (Lean) goals.


Butler discusses that when he first started out in the area, Scrum was an easy-to-implement system for short term success. Scrum is an Agile project management methodology which timeboxes pieces of development and delivers iterative working software based on the highest priority features.

Butler had happy teams who were highly motivated with high company buy-in on the project. As a result the output was reliable and predictable. UX was also incorporated into the equation which lead to happy customers and users.

However, it wasn’t enough. According to Butler “Scrum alone isn’t going to make your product successful”. This is where he moves the discussion towards Lean and Agile and how more companies, such as Brandtone, are adopting these processes.


While Scrum is an Agile methodology implementing Scrum does not make a company Agile; this is down to the culture of the company. According to Butler, the Agile culture is pervasive in software development teams as a best practice process to develop great products and improve release cycles.

Agile as a culture favours working software over documentation, people and interaction over processes, communication over contracts and responding to change over planning. The last point is the most difficult for companies to adopt - the agility to change means that timelines are relegated and work is done based on the highest priority. The core assumption of the approach, borne out through years of software development, is that teams don’t know what they need to build at the start of a project and the sooner they get the software into the hands of the end users the quicker the learning can be. The famous line “Your product won’t survive its first interaction with a customer” implies that many of your key assumptions will prove false causing you to pivot the product to get the right product-market fit. Agile delivery lets you get your product out to customers earlier and react to the changes and feedback that come back.

However there are a few caveats to Agile that Butler wanted to point out.

Agile is often referred to as a culture instead of a process and this is due to the need for buy-in at all levels of the company. Butler references the famous Chicken and Pig Restaurant analogy. The chicken and the pig decide to open a restaurant. The restaurant will serve ‘ham and eggs with each of them providing the food. This highlights a key difference in stakeholder engagement: the chicken is involved whereas the pig is really committed! Butler points out that “if you don’t have agile adoption from the CEO down, it’s not going to work. It shouldn’t be up to the development team to drive organisational change”. The “pig” companies succeed and the “chickens” do not!

Additionally, with agile there is a risk that due to the immediate feedback teams can waste time focussing in the wrong direction for the product. According to Butler, “there is often too much focus on developing new features that nobody uses”, adding that “there is nothing in the scrum manifesto to help you in the long-term”. He lists off the usual suspects like Google Buzz and Google Wave which met the expectations of their technical beta testers but failed to solve real world problems.

When Scrum and Agile Are Not Enough… Use Lean

Lean comes from Lean Manufacturing and is a set of principles for achieving quality, speed & customer alignment. The core principle of Lean is to relentlessly eliminate waste, with waste being defined as anything that isn’t adding value. Teams should only work on what they absolutely need to be doing at this moment in time. But this is not as straightforward as it may seem.

Eliminating waste is tied closely to a complementary goal of optimising the whole. There is a temptation to focus on optimising a particular area, often it’s where the person has most experience. But optimising one area over others can actually be more detrimental to overall productivity. To optimise a process you need to identify the bottlenecks and optimise for these. In software development, like in manufacturing, the bottlenecks tend not to be in a particular process but in the handovers between processes. By reducing bottlenecks you can decrease the overall time it takes to get something for the start of a process to the end, which, in software terms, is the time from capturing requirements to getting working software in front of your users.

Butler outlines three practical steps that companies can take to transition towards lean:

1) Set up cross functional teams

Most organisations operate in traditional functional silos - marketing, design, development, testing etc. It is essential that different functional experts work and, ideally sit together when they are working on the same product or goal. A secondary benefit of cross functional teams is that they can see the big picture better and ensure that the product vision is being followed.

Goal: Eliminate the bottlenecks of handovers and the waste of mis-communication and ensure that the product vision is adhered to.

2) Give autonomy but track quality

Micromanagement is a bottleneck. You need to respect that the people doing the work are the ones that best know how to do it. Give them what they need to be effective and then trust them to do it. While you shouldn’t dictate how something is done you must ensure that the output is always of production quality. This follows the saying ‘what gets measured gets done’ as opposed to ‘what gets managed gets done’.

Goal: Facilitate quick delivery while minimising the waste of defects which delay product release and customer feedback.

3) Share and Collaborate

Companies need to ensure consistency across products both in terms of design and interoperability. Cross Functional Teams present challenges to the traditional management approvals and reviews which were implemented to ensure consistency. Therefore in a lean organisation transparency is key. Teams should use wikis, shared documents and shared calendars or lunch sessions among other option. Any method of knowledge sharing should be encouraged.

Goal: Ensure consistency in a fragmented world.

“Organizations that are truly lean have a strong competitive advantage because they respond very rapidly and in a highly disciplined manner to market demand, rather than try to predict the future.” – Mary Poppendieck

The League Tables in Productivity

In summary, a company’s ability to react to customer needs is becoming a significant competitive advantage. The companies who are winning in this space are not implementing new procedures on top of the existing structure but, rather, changing the structure and culture of the company from the inside out. Like changing the course of a cargo ship these things take time - and significant management buy in. While there is no “one true way” to implement this transition, by following the steps outlined by Butler above companies can begin their journey. To recap:

1) Scrum can help product teams take advantage of the communication and learning benefits of agile

2) The agile culture helps to support product teams to deliver the most pressing requirements versus strictly adhering to plans and timelines.

3) And Lean helps companies speed up their release cycles so that they can get products and features in front of their customers quicker.

Given buy-in is that starting point for this journey the final question remains to ask yourself: Am I a Pig, or a Chicken?

Got any other processes you use like Kanba or anything that’s worked? We’d like to hear your thoughts. Guest post a blog by emailing [email protected]

Source of the picture: General Assembly