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Strategist: A New Role for Scrum Organizations?

20 March 2009

One vague area in Scrum is vision and strategy. Most discussions about Scrum fall within the boundaries of daily scrums and release plans. What is needed is more understanding of how Scrum and a company’s vision work together. To help senior management comprehend the limitations of Scrum and to help Scrum teams visualize the big picture, each organization that wants to implement Scrum needs a strategist –someone responsible for creating a level playing field where all stakeholders and participating parties in business can contribute and add more value. The strategist’s role should be to evaluate ever-changing market trends, sales, and the organization as a whole to make sure that what engineering builds is not just feasible but valuable.

Value, in this case, is not about metrics. Value is the perceived financial gain or goodwill that a product or innovation will create. Potential sales or new business are often used as measures of this value. It is important that a strategist be able to research this kind of data and have it available before taking up a project for implementation. Feasibility is equally important in determining value. Market opportunities must be balanced against organizational capabilities. Too often companies enter markets where they do not have sufficient capabilities to compete effectively. The strategist’s job is to act as ScrumMaster of the organization, recognizing the market opportunity but evaluating it against existing capabilities, not just of the engineering team but of the entire organization.

Scrum will help a team deliver a quality product but a Scrum team, in the end, can only deliver what it was asked to create. If what was asked for is too expensive given the current capabilities or not appropriate for the existing market, the company ultimately won’t receive the value for its investment. This isn’t the fault of the Scrum framework. It’s a function of garbage in, garbage out. A strategist is essential in a Scrum organization to ensure that the needs of the market are balanced against the capabilities of the organization.

You may wonder, isn’t this the product owner’s job? I don’t think so. Not only does the product owner have enough on his plate already, he is usually not in a high-enough position to be able to see the whole picture. The strategist must be someone in the organization who has a global view and a data analysis background: a traditional strategist or senior management executive. Below are several reasons why I recommend a strategist in addition to a product owner.

  • The product owner is more intrinsically oriented to the development of the product. The product owner usually comes from a business analyst or project manager background. Taking on the strategist role would require that the product owner spend too much time away from the team.
  • A traditional strategist operates agnostic to the technicalities of a product and bases her job around market trends. A strategist’s strengths are non-project-management areas such as market research and trend analysis.
  • A strategist has the unique ability to translate market needs into terms of financial gain for the senior management team and into terms of engineering work for development. These two components create a road map for organizational prosperity.
  • A strategist acts as a liaison between senior management and the product owner to streamline communication and help both parties make well-informed decisions.

Overall the strategist should enhance the value added by Scrum. Having a strategist ensures that what senior management envisions and what the engineering team paints are in harmony not only with each other but with the market as a whole.

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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Mike Dwyer, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 3/30/2009 3:20:53 PM
I am not sure what you want this role to be or if this even falls into an Agile or Scrum frame.
First let's make sure we both agree that Scrum and Agile do not deliver product rather they deliver the most viable value within a given timebox. One can argue from this statement that Agile and Scrum are primarily tactical and therefore out out of scope when it gets to strategy. This, of course is a nearly bogus argument because it tries to draw a distinction between what is visioned and what is being done. In fact strategy only touches vision when it completes a cycle and defines the current vision.

Now that mere fact that strategy is cyclic brings Agile and possibly scrum back into the conversation but not quite. You see, there is no product owner, no definition of done with strategic thinking in this logic, just an endless repetition of strategic scans of the market and equally repetitious listing of options and priorities to consider. So in this sense Scrum and Agile are out.

What to do, what to do. So let's toss out conventional thoughts on strategy and move to CAS and emergent solution development. While this fits better with Agile and with Scrum, in theory, current trends in the Agile and Scrum community inhibit the use of the tools in emergent theory. Why would I say that.
let's see, emergence is primarily a series of testing boundaries to see where they are. The most effective way to do this is by failing fast and often and current Agile - Lean thinking looks at this as waste. And they are right, as long as we are doing incremental development. Since we are not in emergent development and they arent wrong, the only thing left is to recognized that the rules we have come to chant around Scrum and Agile are limited to incremental development and cannot be applied to strategic or emergent work.
Thomas Isomaki, CSM,CSPO, 4/29/2009 12:47:49 PM
Srinivan and Mike, thanks for the posts :) I personally believe that Scrum indeed does affect the strategic goals and thus might itself be counted as a strategic strength for a business. The principle of scrum might be tactical but adopting it makes it turn into a strategic issue. let's see who agrees with my following statements ;):

1) Incremental development(Scrum, Agile) might result to incremental launches. This creates more flexibility in product release policy that might lead to adjustments in the organizatorial goals themselves

2) Continuous improvement(Agile) in an company undoubtedly creates a tension in the organizatorial culture since we are introducing new practices to our professional environment. Increasing amount of improved practices on the other hand might make a need for strategic change arise. Paradoxically, Continuous improvement should be lead(!!) by the strategic goals but since the team is self-sufficient and thus lives pretty much its own life, agile turns into one of the striving forces that affect the goals:)

3) Adoption of any new process (here: scrum). In practice, today the change from traditional (or whatever) to scrum organizations might be based on success stories, statistics and mere generic knowledge about scrum. Since the adoption process leads to increased level of scrum maturity in form of concrete experience, the adoption itself brings new perspectives and changes to both internal as well as external company behaviour.

Yet I am not sure whether a new role would make our life easier. May be Scrum just should be kept as simple as possible and focus on, as Mike says, its tactical nature. An organization can be divided in groups of people in many manners, and forming scrum teams is just one way. The way organizatorial goals and awareness is exposed to different people (with goals etc.) might be another, and both serve their own purpose. Together they form what could be named as a dynamic AND goal-oriented team. A problem might arise when the scrum team is the ONLY organizatorial playground for its members. This could happen when hiring external people for a short-lived project... there simply is not enough time to get familiar with the organization-wide values, principles and goals.

John Clifford, CSM,CSPO, 5/22/2009 5:53:46 PM
The strategic role in Scrum falls on the shoulders of the Product Owner... the one person responsible for ROI. Product Owners reflect the priorities of stakeholders, while stakeholders reflect (and own, at the appropriate level) the vision and goals of the organization.

Let's use an analogy from the days of sailing vessels. The Product Owner is the captain of the ship, while the Scrum Master is the First Lieutenant; one decides on the mission, the other works with the crew to ensure proper and efficient execution of the necessary tasks to accomplish the mission.

Your article begs the question: what problem are you trying to solve? Are you trying to fit corporate management and governance into the Scrum paradigm? If so, why? Do you see a problem with current corporate management and governance methodologies that could be solved via Scrum?

There's no doubt that companies need to be agile (if not Agile) in reacting to changing business environment conditions. However, organizations can be agile without being Agile; the US Marine Corps is a good example of a hierarchically-organized yet agile organization that uses management by objective and encouragement of initiative by autonomous units in the heat of battle instead of trying to rigidly control large numbers of forces like chess pieces.

Remember, the Agile Manifesto stresses product over process. There is value in prioritizing goals at the corporate level. Is there value in appointing a separate strategist between executive management and the Product Owner? Or, is this actually adding a layer of unnecessary hierarchy? (I believe the latter.)
John Brown, CSPO, 5/26/2009 8:39:00 PM
An interesting topic - at my company I am the VP of Marketing and Strategy (I'm also a co-founder, board member and recently a CSPO). The Product Owner reports to me and while she owns the product, my job is to make sure that the rest of the company's activities (namely Sales, Operations, HR, & Marketing) are aligned with the pace of development and all are in alignment with our overall strategy. My role is to communicate and clarify business priorities, protect the dev team from external pressures, and ensure alignment of activities and resource allocation across the organization.

Our product owner is masterful in her role, but simply does not have the organizational or strategic perspective to fulfill the role of company strategist too. I highly recommend close ties between the PO and the executive in charge of strategy.

BTW: I'm a former Marine Corps officer and highly recommend the Marine Corps doctrine "Warfighting" for those interested in designing and leading an organization in the face of fluid complexity. It's required reading for Marines and tons of parallels with Agile/Scrum.

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