Agile, Lean and the Scrum

I started my career as a teacher in the late 1960’s. It didn’t take long to work out that the way I had been taught didn’t work for a whole lot of my students. The way I had been taught assumed that teaching was about passing on bodies of knowledge, called ‘subjects’ to students.  Anything else was called ‘extra-curricular’ and was of secondary importance. So teaching my ‘subject’ was what I set out to do. But later, I retrained myself in classroom management and in my field of expertise to place students themselves at the centre of my endeavour as a teacher. What led me to depression in middle life was probably the unrealistic expectation that what seemed obvious to me was not obvious to nearly everyone else! Mass education was, and generally still is, institutionalised pragmatically around delivering knowledge and skills to keep the consumerist economy expanding. My interest was essentially ‘extra-curricular’.

But I soon found out that I was out of my depth as the young teacher of science. A student watching a Jacques Cousteau documentary on TV at home could know more about marine science in one viewing than their science teacher! I had a lad in my year 9 ‘bottom stream’ maths class who had built himself a TV! We tested his non-verbal intelligence and it went off the scale! And later, I recall my 12 year old daughter getting into disciplinary trouble because she dared question her teacher’s understanding of tsunamis – she knew more than her teacher because of her (unknown to the teacher) personal interest and reading. The role of the teacher as the font of all knowledge was being questioned by a 12 year-old!

The old ‘Mug and Jug’ theory (I’m the jug and you’re the mug!’) needed to give way to a different understanding of the role of the teacher and of educational practice in general. And increasingly, teachers were being faced with student resistance to ‘being told’ – interpreted as a threat to teacher authority and to the ‘image’ of the school.

The same dynamics were also being played out in the church. Authoritarianism and ‘telling’ was being met with silent resistance as younger people, in particular, began leaving the church in droves – to the bewilderment of church authorities. (Funny how that expression ‘church authorities’ rolls so easily on to the page…) The more recent disclosures of corruption and abuse among ‘authorities’, both church and state, has underlined the human deadend of institutionalised authoritarianism. The  exercise of power to dominate and to have one’s own way is crippling. And it is too glib and reductionist to diagnose this as a leadership problem, though it is that and more.

The cost of change from such institutionalism seems too great, but on the other hand, it is inevitable. Consider the energy debate – conventional or sustainable energy? We know it would make a lot of sense if houses became self-sufficient with solar panels and storage batteries – no personal need of the power industry and its electricity grid. But so much has been invested in coal-fired power stations and the grid. Likewise, so much has been invested in the petrol engine. It is the threat to the established way of doing things that stiffens the resolve of the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ gatekeepers to not only resist the inevitable, but put more energy into entrenching it. But ultimately, no matter how much effort is put in, deep down we know it’s not sustainable.

So what alternative ways of organisational thinking are emerging among the younger generation as they engage with their worlds – ’emerging’ because I think we are between ages – the Newtonian, Industrial Age of ‘either/or’, hierarchy and control, characterising most of our institutions, and an Internet, Quantum Age of ‘both/and’, collaboration, ‘open-source’ transparency, and risky uncertainty. Negotiating between ‘ages’ in ‘both/and’ ways is one of the big challenges of our time, including in my field as a chaplain, so bogged in the Industrial, if not the Medeival Ages.

One of my sons is Head of Tech in an art printing company of abut 65 employees in London. He is responsible for the web presence of the company and its digital connections. Before that he was creating touchscreen software for art museums like the Tate and MOMA, so that visitors could order prints of artworks on-line from digital kiosks in the galleries. As Head of Tech he has a small ‘creative team’ of three or four and is directly responsible to the Managing Director of the company.

How do I explain how my son arrived at this point? He didn’t fit into school – ‘why do I need to do this?’ (subjects) – was educationally saved by an empathetic art teacher, discovered the computer and basically taught himself, was identified in his first year at Art School as a possible candidate for a year’s internship in multi-media, emerged in his early 20’s to set up his own company with a friend who was a graphic artist to create websites for companies, won a trip to Europe, the prize of a Fringe Festival poster competition, and hasn’t looked back since. No university qualifications! You wouldn’t know he was the same person as the disenchanted school kid in danger of graffiti and computer game addiction!

So with an aversion to authoritarianism, silo-ed hierarchy and inflexibility, how is he coping in a relatively large company? We had a conversation during the Christmas break, continuing my education about what is happening behind the scenes of the Internet world.

‘Agile’ is a kind of manifesto for a process for software development. There is a focus on learning through exploration. Risks are encouraged but contained within short time frames. It’s a ‘learn as go’ approach. Work is prioritised every fortnight, so time between development and feedback is kept as short as possible and the intent is on creating value for the customer in small increments (iterations) each fortnight.

The emphasis on short turn-around times (‘iterations’) of the ‘Agile’ model arose because of the experience of software developers spending long and intensive development time in creating a product based on their ‘idea’, only to find, once it was produced, that someone else had beaten them to it or the market didn’t want it or had already moved on. So there was massive failure.

The second emphasis reverses the direction of traditional lines of authority. The team of development is completely in charge of development. Put crassly, the Managing Director doesn’t tell the Head of Tech what to do, and the Head of Tech doesn’t tell his creative team what to do. Lines of ‘authority’, if they even think that way, proceed in the other direction.

This arises because how can the Managing Director know what is in the head of a bright young software developer, what he or she could contribute to the company from their own imagination? The developer is employed on the basis of creativity and imagination, trusted to do creative intellectual work and with the skills and commitment to translate these into benefits for the company. They are creating something new. The Managing Director has to clear any Industrial car-assembly-line image of organisation from his mind, though for every employee there is still plenty of menial hard slog. This insight, that places great freedom on each individual in a team, subverts any authoritarianism that might come down the chain of a hierarchy. It creates conditions for a nurturing leadership style. (see my blog of June 24, 2013 – ‘A Nokia Conversation’)

It also changes how time is understood. When my son was first taken on by a former company, he was given the key to the door and told he could come and go at any time of the night or day! This gave him the flexibility to do other work in his spare time. Some companies actually insist that you have to either take time on your own projects (e.g. a day a week away from the company’s projects) as part of your employment contract or you have to be out of the office for periods of time – to think, connect and create! Creating space as part of a company’s culture parallels the Oasis understanding of hospitality as making space.

In the ‘Agile’ organisation, individual freedom to imagine and create is balanced by commitment to a culture of collaborative teamwork. The image is of a rugby scrum, each member of the creative team locked together and pushing the company in the one direction.

‘Scrum’ implements the ‘Agile’ model. Typically the ‘Scrum Master’ (Head of Tech) gathers the Creative Team at the beginning of the day and each member of the team responds to three questions:
what did I do yesterday?
what am I doing today?
what support do I need?
In addition, the company has an intranet. So throughout any day anyone can post what they are doing or pose questions and anyone can respond. In that way the Scrum moves forward together and the process is transparent to everyone.

Typically the Scrum Master is concerned about process. He or she is a coach and a sheepdog for the team, defending the team from the product owner, while giving intelligence to the product owner.

The Product Owner is concerned about the product. He or she defines what is to be built and in what order. This defines the direction the Scrum heads.

The Creative Team begins by breaking up the overall task into smaller increments and then selecting something to work on. The timeline (‘sprint’) for work on each product increment is limited to two to four weeks.

It goes without saying that the stakeholders of the company must buy in to this risky, ‘learn-as-you-go’ organisational model. Buying into and attending to ‘Vision’ and paying pro-active attention to company culture becomes essential in this open, team approach.

‘Lean’ organisation is a variant of the ‘Agile’ approach. It draws from Toyota’s manufacturing processes. The focus is on learning from hypotheses. ‘How do I find out I am right about…?’ So there is emphasis on research to see if an hypothesis is possible. (You may have noticed an increase in the number of customer surveys and ‘focus groups’ these days, for example. Their prevalence emerges from the ‘lean’ approach.)

Lean organisations expect failure most of the time. That’s how they learn. ‘Humility’ is a category in the lean organisation – a quality one might expect from Japanese culture.

The other contribution of the ‘Lean’ model, that relates to the shortest possible feedback cycle of the creative ‘Agile’ process, is to aim to produce the minimum viable product in order to see if the idea works. In this way, large risk is minimised.

This book is really influential in the tech world – this is the author doing a talk so you can get a sense of it in one hour:

There is a great, really short book on it, which I have only just realised is available in full on this page:



So why am I interested in Agile’, Scrum and Lean organisation?

I think because:

* intuitively we have already been organising ourselves in a similar way in Oasis

* the Oasis Team, consisting of volunteers, will not thrive in an authoritarian or punitive system; it must build on the strengths of each member within commitment to the vision of Oasis

* an incremental model suits the limited time commitment of volunteers

* the role of the Coordinating Chaplain may easily be identified as the Scrum Manager and his line manager, the Product Owner

The Oasis Team: A Cohesive Team, A Learning Community, Individual Autonomy

Organisational Principles:

  1. Encourage the autonomy of each member of the team, having committed themselves to the vision of Oasis and its agreed processes.
  2. Recognise that a ‘command and control’, permission-asking leadership/management model is inappropriate.
  3. meet regularly at a weekly team lunch*as a primary focus for reporting, reflection and facilitation, responding to the following questions:
    • (1)  What have I been doing last week
    • (2)  What am I planning to do next week
    • (3) What needs do I have/ possible blockages/ support I would appreciate, to achieve what I am planning for next week.

* video conferencing or periodically locating the lunch to different locations could be investigated to include members of the team in remote locations.


The Coordinating Chaplain or nominated Scrum Master ensures participation, reflection and learning, to keep discussion on track within the above three focus questions, and to ask clarifying supportive questions that relate to emerging trends.


  1. The focus for open accessible communication within the team might be via a whiteboard – room bookings, connections/projects and ideas. This information might be mirrored on the web for remote access, and information from remote sites be added to the whiteboard and the web.


  1. The Coordinating Chaplain meets each individual team member, on or off campus, every 2 -3 weeks to facilitate more in-depth reflection, achievement of personal goals and individual learning goals, and to offer support.


  1. Decisions and processes be understood as provisional and subject to critical re-evaluation; any changes be by consensus decision-making among the team and reflected on the Oasis website.

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