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SCRUM for Startups

Posted on Aug 4, 2011 in Featured, Work |

SCRUM for Startups

I learned about SCRUM last year when @la_gringa moved to a SCRUM model with her engineering team and got excited about the simplicity, the huddle-up approach and the ability to be successful in small chunks, working up to a large chunk of success. And although it applies mostly to agile development systems and theories, the same application can be applied to startups.

I’ve had a killer engineer walk out on me after I was (correctly) accused of changing directions for the umpteenth time. I’ve watched exhaustion hit teams of awesome folks after scrambling toward Beta. I’ve pushed things in and out of priority in fear of exceeding my monthly burn rate.  I’ve seen frustation from product owners and developers who are kept from using emerging technologies because previous decisions have already determined the course. SCRUM helps curb eager entrepreneurs and keep focus.

The concept of SCRUM works for startups because, we simply can’t afford to do anything else. Streamlined communication, quick huddles, sprints and backlogs work for us marketeers and entrepreneurs too.

1. Ownership. As startup minds, we tend to own a lot of pieces of a project. Letting ownership creep into other vital parts of the business (say, um, sales), slows down the process and keeps the owners from having command and control over their domains. The next time you, the entrepreneur, thinks your hand belongs in every piece of the pie, remember: you are not the owner of ever piece of the process and meddling in someone else’s sandbox can extend the production process and cause development lags. So hand it over, honey, and let the project owners own. If you can’t do it, be your own SCRUM master and whip yourself a few lashes.

2. Define your SCRUM team. Cross-function is key for us. We’re startups, afterall. But not every function crosses over at the same time or on the same sprint. Assemble the teams, assign the backlog and sprint like hell. Rinse and repeat. This means that each piece of a solution is represented by the person who can accomplish the sprint’s task for their specialty. I bet you’ll put yourself at the tippy top of each of those. When that happens, remember that you and you alone do not a SCRUM team make.

3. Sprint and sweat. I remember one of our first clients who wanted to be able to play with his prototype as we went along. Crazy! How could we have one whole chunk of the process finished enough for him to tap around on?!  Sprints make a lot of sense for startups. The end-product (and the audience it serves) is a moving target. Competition, client needs and learnings all keep things fluid. Overall the product is moving in a forward direction. In a sprint, you bust ass on one thing with no interruptions or changes for about two weeks. Then you huddle-up and check-in. A sprint gets one.thing.done.completely. Put a few sprints together and you’ve got yourself a product.

4. Burndown, not burnout. A great VC told me to put a stake in the ground and move forward from it. The burndown chart is a visual way to track what is left to do during a sprint (and during a full backlog cycle). As a marketer I like the burndown chart because it shows us where we’ve come from and what we’ve got left to do. It puts all of us team members, team leaders and product owners on the same page. We know what we’ve done (YAY us!) and what’s left to do (time to bust-a-move).

5. The Daily Bread. SCRUM meetings are an ADD’d out, caffeine-deficient person’s heaven. A daily 15-minute meeting with three questions for each person: (a) What have you done since yesterday? (b) What will you do today? (c) Is there anything standing in your way today?  I love this method. For entrepreneurs, we have a truckload of things to do in a day. Are you kidding me? But apply a daily SCRUM approach to your day, to your team and create an environment where everyone is on the same page. When you’re head-down in building at the speed of light, it feels good to know where everyone else stands.

Applying SCRUM to a startup environment creates a sense of ownership, but not dictatorship. It protects the process (the sprint process and the greater product). SCRUM determines the collective path and knocks back daunting tasks by breaking it down into chunks of successful sprints. It shows you where you’ve come from as a startup, as a series of smaller teams and as a lean response team. We don’t code in a box. We don’t sell in a bubble. We don’t market in a funnel. We huddle, we call the play and we play it.