Stefan Roock

All About Agile and Lean

Shades of Scrum: Scrum outside IT

Scrum originated outside the IT (development of cars, copiers, printers, photo cameras, computers, see Nonaka’s & Takeuchi’s famous article „The New New Product Development Game“) but most Scrum implementations are in software development. But non-IT strikes back and Scrum starts to spreads into non-IT areas. Some real world examples:

  • Develop service products.
  • Develop and manufacture cars (e.g. Wikispeed, Johnson Controls)
  • Manage enterprise transitions.
  • Execute training classes.
  • Manage consulting.
  • Organize sales.
  • Manage accounting.
  • Organize scientific research.
  • Schools (see Facebook)

Every area has its own specific challenges. But let’s start with some general observations.

When applying Scrum to non-IT it is in my experience helpful to start with the product concept. What is the created product (or service) we are talking about? When we try to develop and manufacture a car with Scrum this pretty obvious: it is the car. When it comes to more intangible areas we may have to spend some time thinking. Some examples:

  • Sales: Is the product a set of orders? Or is the product a set of long-lasting customer relationships? The decision what the product is has a huge impact on the way we think about the work of sales.
  • Training classes: One might guess the product is knowledge but that doesn’t cover the whole story. The knowledge was there before the training classes and wouldn’t need the class for creating it. For a CSM class one might think the product is a set of Certified Scrum Masters. That is a valid product and it would focus the training class on test preparation. Since I don’t want to do test preparation and prefer to prepare participants for work I prefer to think of the product as “more skilled participants” (or more specifically “more skilled Scrum Masters”).
  • Enterprise transition: The product is an agile enterprise. This seems to be pretty easy but it has a significant impact on the work of the transition team: A set of Powerpoint presentations doesn’t make a valid product increment.
  • Scientific research: Often the success of scientific research is measured in publications. Therefore one could think of these publications being the product. But I think this isn’t appropriate. The number of publications is a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) like the revenue for a software product. In the same way you wouldn’t see the revenue as the product you wouldn’t see the publications as the product. I think a more appropriate product is insights.

When the product concept is clear the next step is pretty easy: What are valid product increments and what does “potentially shippable” mean for these product increments. For scientific research an insights might be shippable if it is new to the world of science. In the case of enterprise transition the product increment usually is a more agile enterprise and it is already shipped (= implemented) when the Sprint Review happens. In the case of car development and manufacturing a drivable car may be a valid product increment. But parts of the car that can be inspected, assessed and as a part delivered may also be valid product increments. When you want to create a very fuel efficient car by developing an innovative fuel efficient motor the motor might be a valid product increment. How to produce a product increment like a more agile enterprise every Sprint (at least once a month) may be again very challenges. I will address that later.

Now that we have a concept for product and product increment I like to address the question of the Product Owner. How do we measure success and who is the right person to be the Product Owner for that product. To find an appropriate Product Owner two questions should be answered: Who is empowered to prioritize features (or who could be empowered to do so)? Who is accountable for the product (who is an appropriate “single wringable neck” for the product)?

  • For a training class the trainer is the Product Owner. In my training classes we regularly have a discussion if the participants are the Product Owner. I then ask: “Imagine you are pissed off by the training class and leave it disappointed. Who is responsible? You as the participant or me the trainer?” The trainer is the “single wringable neck” and therefore is the Product Owner of the training class.
  • For an enterprise transition the Product Owner is a top level manager, e.g. the CEO.

The Product Backlog is quite easy to build. What is necessary to create the product? It may be appropriate to fill the Product Backlog with goals (not features). In sales for example you typically would have goals like “win a deal of at least 100.000 USD at customer XYZ”. When applying Scrum for training classes the learning modules or learning objectives may provide the Product Backlog Items.

The next step is to form the Development Team. The team needs all the skills necessary to produce product increments. When we have a clear understanding of the product we want to deliver it is quite easy to decide who should be in the team. For an enterprise transition the team needs to have managers and leaders of the company (otherwise the team is not able to achieve changes).

As the Scrum Master you need an experienced Scrum Master (of course) but as a rule of thumb you a more experienced Scrum Master than for an average software development project. The body of knowledge about how to apply Scrum for non-IT is much smaller than for software development. That means that the Scrum Master needs a more solid understanding of the Scrum principles and he needs to facilitate insights about how to apply Scrum in new ways.

When you have chosen an appropriate product the Sprint Review is easy. When you have problems demonstrating and inspecting product increments and gathering feedback about the product chances are high that your product concept is inappropriate.

During the Sprint Retrospective the Scrum Team (Product Owner, Development Team and Scrum Master) inspects its way of working and comes up with action items to improve their way of working.  I haven’t encountered any specific challenges here when applied to non-IT.

The mechanics of Sprint Planning and Sprint Backlog are easy to apply but during Sprint Planning a problem may become visible: The team has no idea how to create product increments at least every month:

  • How could we possibly change the organization in just one month?
  • How could we create a car in a month?
  • How could we win a new customer in just a month?

The team has to find out how to create product increments every Sprint and we need to bear the tension that is created: We need to create product increments every Sprint and we don’t know how. Constraints like these create innovations. Just extending the Sprint length or faking the product concept (“Powerpoint presentations are the new product”) would kill this possibility to improve. We need to forge and apply new ways of working and there is no promise that we will succeed. In all the areas I listed at the beginning of this article teams have managed to find these new ways of working. I am confident that others can do it also.

In some cases we have to tweak the Sprints. A training class might last for two days. Since we want to gather feedback from the participants during the training we might end up with a Sprint length of 2 hours or a half-day. That might question the justification of the Daily Scrum. While there are ideas how to apply Daily Scrums in such a situation I generously skip them in training classes with a Sprint length of a half-day. (But I have applied four Daily Scrums per day for software development successfully).

Some domains require the team members to work highly distributed. Consultants may form a team but work at different clients. Sales people also normally work alone or in pairs when they work with clients. Still coordinating with the rest of the team to achieve a higher mission (create the product) is worthwhile. But is more challenging to apply appropriate mechanisms and the Scrum Master may have more work to do to make people cooperate that were used to work on their own for years or decades. Sometime it might be appropriate to transform the Daily Scrum into a Weekly Scrum.

When Scrum is not appropriate

The list of areas where Scrum is applied may suggest that Scrum could be applied everywhere. That may be true but it wouldn’t be efficient. Scrum needs teamwork. When teamwork isn’t necessary or teamwork isn’t achievable Scrum doesn’t make sense. When you just have routine work with low variability to do and there is nothing to lean, Scrum is inefficient (why would you talk so much during Planning, Review, Retrospective and Daily Scrum?).

But sometimes there are surprises. I would have thought that accounting is just routine work that doesn’t need a team. But I know of several accounting teams that say that teamwork is appropriate for them.


Scrum can be applied to a lot of knowledge work domains where teamwork is appropriate. For most areas outside IT there is only a small body of knowledge about how to apply Scrum. When trying to apply Scrum in a new area prepare to be challenged. I love to hear your experiences and of course I offer my help as a coach when you want to apply Scrum to areas outside IT.

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Eine Antwort zu „Shades of Scrum: Scrum outside IT”.

  1. […] Scrum outside IT: Scrum is used mainly for software development today but starts to spread out to other areas. The blogpost shows concrete example of Scrum outside IT and presents an approach to handle projects outside IT with Scrum. […]

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