Start-Up, Stand-Up: The History of Scrum

Friday, August 28, 2020
Christopher Sirk

Scrum, scrum, scrum.

The ritual is ubiquitous in start-up culture. Every day or so, you run to the designated scrum zone, have a fifteen-minute stand-up meeting about this-and-that and ‘touch base.’ Then you go back to your computer.


Scrums are lauded by some for their efficiency and communication and morale-boosting roles. Other people hate them passionately.

But as more and more work becomes remote, does scrum even make sense anymore?

The history of scrum

This rugby-inspired work ritual traces its roots to… Japan. Of course.

The term ‘scrum’ entered the world of business in January 1986, when it appeared in Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka’s 1986 landmark essay “The New New Product Development Game.” The paper, published in Harvard Business Review, argues that companies need to embrace speed and flexibility to succeed in an increasingly competitive business environment.

The authors of "The New New Product Development Game", Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi

Takeuchi and Nonaka suggested that the old sequential, fuddy-duddy ways of managing project workflows are too slow to react to the demands of modern business life. Teams need to be able to ‘change plays’ and ‘move up the field’ together to reach the goal.

They intended their rugby inspired approach as “a vehicle for introducing creativity and market-driven ideas and processes.” The idea is to create a kind of power vacuum outside of existing business intelligence and procedures, a new liminal space where fresh “initiatives, risks, and an independent agenda” can emerge.

Scrum offered a new way of efficiently managing a company’s human resources, extracting more value from project teams and product designers.

The philosophy was backed up by the results of “lean” project management at Fuji-Xerox, Canon, and Honda. In the 1980s, these companies consistently outmaneuvered competitors and delivered better products faster.

But one can look further back to see the inspiration behind scrum.

In the 1930s Walter Shewhart at Bell Labs developed the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA). This system promoted employee engagement, problem-solving, and critical thinking. The idea was that conflict and freedom were key ingredients for innovation.

Around this time, Shewhart happened to mentor a fella named W. Edwards Deming, who took these ideas further.

One of Deming’s basic concepts was “Total Quality Management,” which is to say that if you focused on product and management quality, costs would drop over time, and productivity would go up. In Deming’s view, it was always better to focus on running a better system, rather than trying to push down costs. In the long-term, you would make exponentially more money and get a bigger market share.

He also suggested that management caused 85-97% of all problems in a company. As you might imagine, some executives still aren’t floored about this idea.

Deming ended up working in Japan after World War II when America ran Japan. His work there, on incrementally improving, iterative product development and “management quality,” helped usher in Japan’s post-war economic miracle.

Ironically, nobody noticed he was a bonafide genius in the USA until the 1980s, towards the end of his life.

Takeuchi and Nonaka were certainly fans of Deming’s work and took his philosophy further by promoting quasi-autonomous units within companies. They also dispensed with the notion of companies working as a relay race, handing off projects from one team to the next, suggesting it’s better to work like a single team passing back and forth to make it to the goal.

In doing so, they gave rise to the idea of agile innovation, now very much in vogue. Teams can be faster, happier, and better if you cut the fat from the bone.

The Takeuchi and Nonaka paper arrived at a key moment in 20th-century economic history, right at the tail end of the Cold War and the start of the supercharged globalization that underwrites our lifestyles today. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ushered in the “big bang” financial market reforms and kicked off the global free market. Under Deng Xiaoping, China quickly became the place that made all our stuff.

In other words, the game had just got a lot more fierce. London bankers, Silicon Valley dreamers, and pretty much everyone else had to shape up and deliver on merit consistently because the playing field was now a whole lot more crowded.  

Against this backdrop, Takeuchi and Nonaka’s appeal to produce “constant innovation in a world of constant change” seemed very timely indeed.

In the early 90s, American software developer Ken Schwaber took up Takeuchi and Nonaka’s ideas to implement scrum at his company, Advanced Development Methods. Jeff Sutherland and others implemented something similar at Easel Corporation. In both cases, what they got out of “The New New Product Development” was the emphasis on small teams working closely together, sticking a set of actions into set time boxes, doing daily stand-ups, and sprinting to meet deadlines.

Schwaber and Sutherland eventually realized they were soulmates, then joined forces as scrum evangelists. They presented an influential paper together in 1995 at a conference in Austin, Texas.

Then in 2001, Schwaber wrote a book with software engineer Mike Beedle called Agile Software Development with Scrum. In 2002, Schwaber et al. created the Scrum Alliance, and later

Fast forward sixteen years and scrum has spread across our earth. Whether you work at a small or midsize business, a start-up run out of a co-working space, or a big and proper corporate office, you have probably scrummed.

That said, it’s no big secret that a lot of people think scrums are dumb.

The airing of scrum grievances

Okay, so the scrum is intended to embody a spirit of spontaneity because you’re standing somewhere liminal and talking in a squeezed time frame. But if you do it every day at the same spot, how is that anything like a bunch of rugby hooligans grunting and griping their way to glory?

In other words, the improvisation and shake-ups that Takeuchi and Nonaka promoted are often just not happening.

Spying on another team’s daily scrum from behind the office plants, it always seemed to me their ritual was a lot like the morning roll call at the state penitentiary. Not that I would know anything about the state penitentiary, of course.

I say this because their scrum was clearly being conducted for the benefit of management. It was a lame power trip, rather than anything inclusive and creative. Day in and day out, it didn’t bring any important information or cutting edge new ideas to bear on our departmental projects.  
It was also conducted in a narrow hallway near a busy door. I’m sorry, I don’t get it.  

My own in-the-scrum experiences have been similarly questionable. They’re often hijacked as a means for managers to passively receive information from team members. With that comes a very normal, unfortunate power dynamic of team vs. management that pushes the kibosh on any hopes of a ‘spontaneous’ same-level ritual.

I don’t think it’s too radical to say that managers often lack access to the minute specifics of the project team members are working on, and by design, they often don’t really care. They usually just want to hear everything is still on the rails, then grab some new tidbits of information to present to superiors.

When a scrum is run hierarchically like this, it can become a graveyard for individual initiative by forcing everyone to share without oversharing, conform superficially, and then two-week sprint together to meet a series of sometimes arbitrary deadlines. It’s short-sighted and atomizes work.

Scrum is supposed to promote agile work and self-organization, facilitated by a scrum master. However, when it’s run by a designated, permanent person in this role, and set to run for a specific team at a specific time, it’s no longer a venue for the circulation of fresh people and ideas.

I mean, it might be fun to think about a scrum master being a free-spirited facilitator, rather than an overseer, but they are very often simply a project manager in sheep’s clothing.

Creative people are forced to justify and explain themselves quickly and constantly, which is counterintuitive at best, anti-intellectual at worst. Individual ownership of ideas is often trashed too, which can be both infantilizing and career-inhibiting.

The dynamic can help feed a culture of “terminal juniority,” where team members are infantilized and forced to manage their reputations. The superficial ‘leveling’ effect of scrum culture is no substitute for, you know, actually nurturing team members’ work and workplace well-being.  

In other words, constant alignment like this is often beyond overkill. It’s just plain bad.

Generally, a good team is self-regulating and they’ve already talked to each other about what’s up and needs doing. Team members should be communicating with one another throughout the day across channels anyway. If they’re really small in number, they can do it verbally from desk-to-desk, and if the team’s a bit bigger and/or includes remote workers, there’s always Slack and collaborative CRM tools.

Scrums can derail team members from their work and waste time. Everyone has to go gather somewhere, so they’re yanked away from their workspace. That’s especially bad if someone is ‘in the zone.’ If a team member has the misfortune of multiple scrums a day for the multiple projects they’re attached to, the time and focus lost can add up fast.

In many cases, the scrum is just another place to work that old saw of corporate attrition.

Now, that said, I am not suggesting we dismantle all management structures and reorganize businesses according to anarcho-syndicalist non-hierarchies.

I am also not saying scrums are 100%, completely useless. I agree they may be able to bring some positive benefits to a business, but only when applied in the right context.

For example, stand-up meetings can provide a quick means of finding out who is waiting for who to do what. Sometimes, a team member is new or shy (or both) and doesn’t know who to talk to about a specific project issue, or is being blocked or slowed down by someone else’s lack of progress. A scrum meeting offers the chance to get everyone together and de-kinkify the project pipeline.

Meanwhile, in ‘war room’ moments, it might make a lot of sense to scrum daily until crisis has been averted. Less apocalyptically, constant alignment via scrum can be a great idea when time is squeezed and a deadline looms.

But honestly, whiteboard meetings, informal and constant same-level coordination, and good old-fashioned project meetings from time to time can fulfill many of these criteria.

Digital collaborative tools are another alternative. They keep getting better and better.

An era of digital scrum masters

Standuply and other digital scrum master software may be poised to turn the scrum trend on its head.

In part because the way we work is significantly shifting. Tech companies are hosting employees remotely all across the world. InVision, digital product design, workflow & collaboration tool, doesn’t even have a brick and mortar headquarters. While most employees at Automattic, a web development corporation best known for, are also enjoying the benefits of remote work.

This shift towards remote workers doesn’t look so good for the office’s narrow hall scrum meetings.

Software alternatives to the scrum meeting are popping up as add-ons to remote worker-friendly communication tools.

Standuply, for one, uses a Slack bot to handle routine communications. The daily stand-up is replaced by a poll sent out to individual team members.

The bot asks everyone the routine scrum questions: “1. What did you do yesterday? 2. What do you plan to do today? 3. Do you have any obstacles?”

You can use Standuply Slack Poll integration to tie a survey at a fixed time zone or according to local times for individual team members.

Once everyone has responded, the results are sent out to everyone to read at their leisure. You can set the polls to go out on a regular schedule or as a one-off event.

Meanwhile, Standuply’s Intelligent Data Assistant lets you send data requests to individual team members. They can send you database files from Google Analytics, MySQL, MongoDB, and more. Then you can stick them in a report.

Pretty much everyone is already using Slack, so it’s super simple to try. The bot is convenient because everyone can organize and conduct meetings together, regardless of distances and incongruous schedules.

The field of digital scrum masters is really heating up. Some of Standuply’s competitors include Tatsu and Standup Bot. A lot of people are paying attention to this new twist in the scrum saga.

Whatever the original intentions of scrum, the overdeveloped, rigid, and routine idea of ‘scrum’ that plagues a lot of workplaces needs to get kicked to the curb. Digital tools point to a way for scrum to stay relevant in the future, offering flexibility, transparency, and more freedom.

In other words, digital tools promise to de-suckify the scrum as we know it today.

After all, if the future of work is truly agile, why would it include standing around?