HRD's pocket guide to... Scrum

October's pocket guide breaks down the Scrum working process

Why do I need to know about it?

Scrum is an agile form of project management. It originated among software developers but has spread beyond IT into other functions. Small teams work closely together to achieve set goals in a set timeframe, with progress reviewed regularly.

It’s important HR are aware of the process so they can support others using it, or implement it within their own teams. “Since many teams are now wanting to work with Scrum, HR can support by assigning people to small teams, preferably co-located, with some promise of stability,” explains Yael Grushka-Cockayne, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia. “In Scrum, team mobility and matrix structures are more harmful than useful.

“Teams that work with Scrum tend to be happier and focus on the value their customers get and that they get by interacting with their customer,” she adds.

“The more HR understands Scrum the better catalysts they can be to enabling the Scrum mindset,” says Lisa Hershman, interim CEO of membership organisation the Scrum Alliance.

What do I need to know?

The Scrum process is typically as follows. Firstly a prioritised wish list called a product backlog is created. During what is known as ‘sprint planning’ the team chooses a small section of that list (a ‘sprint backlog’) and decides how to achieve those things. The team has a certain amount of time – a ‘sprint’ (usually two to four weeks) – to complete the work, but meets each day to assess progress (the daily ‘Scrum’). Along the way the ‘ScrumMaster’ keeps the team focused. At the end of the sprint the chosen work should be totally completed and there is a review.

Before Scrum is adopted the team must be clear on why it’s being used. “It’s important to note that Scrum and agile are not an end in themselves,” says River Island HRD and certified ScrumMaster Karen Beaven. “As with anything, if you’re thinking about changing established ways of working you need to start with the purpose for the change and identify ‘why’ you need to make it.”

“HR professionals must commit to finding Scrum’s role within their organisation, asking questions like ‘how do we shift roles to empower the team?’ and ‘what kind of push back do we expect in response to changes?’” advises Hershman.

Where can HR add value?

By utilising Scrum, HR can reduce wasted time and effort, as this won’t be expended on unnecessary things. This should have the knock-on effect of increasing productivity and saving money, says Beaven. It can also help when working cross-functionally.

“Regardless of if you decide to adopt this way of working in HR, it’s a valuable thing for HR professionals to be aware of because of the impact that it has specifically in the tech area of the business,” she adds. “By having a deeper understanding of it you are better placed to support them and the business transformation they are delivering. In addition, you may also need to take the role of ‘Product Owner’ [the person who has requested the work or who you are doing the work for] if you are implementing a new HR system with a tech team who operate in this way.”

“If HR works with Scrum it might be better aligned with the pace of the rest of the organisation already working with Scrum,” adds Grushka-Cockayne. “Often departments not working with agile/Scrum have a different vision for the pace of progress and end up asking for information that the Scrum team cannot provide. A Scrum HR team will be nimble and find it easier to support an ever-changing development agenda by others.”

“It rests in the hands of the HR department to feed authority into team-based approaches rather than a stagnant hierarchy… in that process HR becomes a well-positioned business partner,” says Hershman.

Anything else?

Be patient with Scrum, advises Hershman: “An early Scrum adoption is like a fragile little bubble. It starts to grow and float around, but it’s all too easy for the existing organisation to come in and pop it. That bubble needs to be protected until it can grow big and strong enough to survive.”