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Human Resources and Scrum

An Incremental Pathway to a Vibrant Organizational Culture

28 April 2009

Laszlo Szalvay
CollabNet, Inc.

Historically, the function of the human resources department has been twofold: to police the organization for compliance and to help cultivate a vibrant culture in which employees can flourish by recruiting and retaining the best talent.

But as the global recession affects more and more companies, policing employees has taken a backseat to creating a workplace that is not dominated by fear, anxiety, and apathy.  A quick glance at HR Magazine’s editorial calendar reveals the next four issues will all focus on employee retention as a means to realize cultural improvement.  So how can human resources create an environment in which its employees are engaged, motivated, and empowered? Those familiar with Scrum will recognize those attributes as the same ones commonly used to describe self organizing teams.  Product Owners and teams working in Scrum environments already know that the Scrum framework can enable those benefits on the team level. But human resources departments need to wake up to the fact that Scrum can be leveraged to realize similar results at the organizational level.

In the recent report “Ensure Success for Agile Using Four Simple Steps,” Forrester researchers David D’Silva and David West conclude that “too many agile projects fail because the main focus of the implementation is not improving the way IT delivers software but instead simply adopting agile principles and practices.” The analysts’ observations are correct: Scrum and agile are means to an end; not ends in themselves. One of Scrum’s most essential “ends” is to create functional and rewarding workplaces where employees can pursue the work they love.  A vibrant culture that allows teams to create a better product, faster, is a very desirable end, both for the IT department and the company as a whole.

There is an intersection between human resources’ role in a company and what a successful Scrum implementation can yield.  It stands, then, that human resources departments should be working in tandem with the leaders of Scrum transformations so they coordinate end goals.

This article will consider three ways human resources can be involved in a Scrum transformation to ensure that end goals are aligned with company goals.  As a prerequisite, I would begin the transformation process by educating human resources on what Scrum is (from an “ends” perspective).  This could occur as an informal conversation about goals or as a more formalized training session.  There are many individuals who are certified by the Scrum Alliance1  to perform ScrumMaster Certification training.  They are all capable of teaching not only the mechanics of Scrum and techniques to improve Scrum skills but also the important cultural benefits of team dynamics and workplace happiness.

Include Informed HR Representative as a Stakeholder in the Pilot Project.

The best way to convince management of Scrum’s value is to make the first few projects highly visible (something you can champion later to peers or supervisors).2 I would argue that an organization’s first Scrum projects should also make cultural end goals visible and relate those goals to the human resources staff.  One way to do this is to invite the HR department to attend sprint retrospective meeting in a listen-only mode. Make sure to dedicate part of those meetings to sharing how the sprint brought the organization closer to achieving cultural end goals.  This “inside” view of how the team is achieving organizational end goals will help persuade skeptical stakeholders of Scrum’s inherent cultural improvements.  It will also help to legitimize Scrum from an orthogonal layer within the enterprise.  As other departments within the organization witness the team’s success, it provides a powerful testament of Scrum’s potential that can, in turn, translate to organizational support later on.

Create Scrum Career Paths. 

Once the HR department is on board and measuring the team’s happiness meters, it’s time to sit down and discuss career paths. Because Scrum values teamwork over individual heroics most organizations will need to revise how they compensate their employees. While it would appear this issue is central to employee satisfaction, it's just as important to employers who want to secure and retain top level talent. Given that Scrum only identifies three roles in the framework, employers will want to find new ways to compensate and promote employees that allow them to grow professionally without contradicting Scrum values. Here are some recommended questions to get the conversation started:

  • What does a ScrumMaster’s career path look like?
  • If I am an intern and a team member, and the person to my left has 20+ years of experience and is also a team member, what is the pay scale and why?
  • Should there be a formalized team bonus structure? Why?
  • Who’s my functional manager? Why?
  • Who does my performance reviews? Why?

I would not want to prescribe any answers to these questions (much of it will depend on company culture), but it’s important that Scrum roles are given legitimate career paths that are understood and embraced by human resources. It’s important to note that a Scrum implementation may indeed present at least a few headaches for HR and management, but who said Scrum was easy? Nobody.3 

Get Better at Talent Acquisition. 

When the qualities that will translate to success in Scrum are well understood by the human resources department, hiring the right person becomes a more involved process than simply reviewing a resume. Again, it is critical that stakeholders understand Scrum’s inherent cultural end goals in order to make informed hiring decisions. Being informed begins with a conversation between the recruiter and the hiring manager. We’ve all been there – a bunch of keyword-filled resumes that the corporate recruiter is pressuring you to review.  Instead of searching keyword placements on a resume, recruiters need to be educated about what it means to have a mentor on your Scrum team – how to translate teamwork and self-organization into a better culture. Like American Idol, some have it and others don’t.  One litmus test we used at Danube when we recruited about 20 employees (out of a pool of 200) for a large scale Scrum transformation was to ask them to write code. If they refused because of title and rank, they were immediately cut from consideration.  Another warning sign we avoided was a title request.  If a candidate demanded a certain title; we politely excused them from our recruiting process. We wanted hands-on doers, not jaded architects who were too important to be bothered to write code or help the team member next to them.  This might seem like an unusual approach to recruiting, but had we not screened potential hires for personality attributes as well as coding acumen, we could not have gone on to improve our end-client’s culture.  

As your goals for a successful Scrum transformation continue to expand to include a formal cultural improvement initiative, it is imperative that you continue to solicit support from different departments within your organization.  One department that could be a potential partner or sponsor is human resources.  Through successful alignment of your cultural end goals, you can bridge the gap by sharing tactics, mechanics and techniques to use Scrum to transform your organization’s culture into something vital.




1 Unlike uncertified agile mentors, the Scrum community’s Certified Scrum Trainers have all undergone a multi-year vetting process.

2 See Kane Mar’s work on selecting a project from a portfolio of projects here.

3 See CST Michael James’s blog post, “Scrum Is Hard and Disruptive.”

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Kevin Moore, CSM, 6/17/2011 3:09:26 PM

I stumbled across your article (which I appreciate is quite old now).

I am a CSM working with a team of 6 developers, all of which are completely on-board with SCRUM. I am a CSM and my current position is "Development Team Lead". Traditionally, the company I work for have always followed a standard waterfall model for Delivering software, but the development and test team have been using SCRUM practices (typically 2 week sprints) for the actual software development phase.

Talks are currently underway to adapt SCRUM for ALL process, and are specifically looking to release more frequently. This is a huge challenge, we are currently shipping software to customers every 6 months!!!(due to the waterfall type approach). I am confident that the business as a whole will look to be more Agile, and utilise the development teams exposure and experience with SCRUM. However, this is not my challenge !

As a Team Lead, one of my responsibilities is challenging my team members and help with their career paths. The company I work for is very keen to retain talent, and more importantly develop individuals by challenging them, and giving them visibility of a natural career progression.

From my initial research, I have not found anything useful with regards to how SCRUM can help with Individual team members careers, and their need/desire to move "Up the chain".
Can you offer any advice (extending further on your blogpost) or experience in this area?


Kev Moore

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