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Scrum in a Product Led Customer Driven Company

28 February 2020

What a time to be alive! Maybe I’m a bit over the top, but hey. 


ClearPeople is towards the end of a significant period of change (well, change is a constant in the world of Microsoft cloud services) and, although frustrating and challenging as it is at times, it couldn’t be any more exciting. My previous company was a new-born start-up and I used to work in a more agile fashion, why wasn’t that as exciting? Well, it was a business that had been born agile, we didn’t know anything else, so it wasn’t a challenge. Also, the company was smaller and based in a single location, which makes life somewhat simpler.


Going back to ClearPeople, we used to be more of a consulting-type company: we offered custom-made solutions to clients with very specific requirements. And it worked just fine. Consultants would take note of those requirements and we implemented them, then we showed the solution to the client, so it got signed off, we deployed to UAT and fixed the issues raised before going to production. Does it ring a bell? Yep, we’re talking waterfall, traditional project delivery approach. Be mindful with this, waterfall is necessary when both the type of project you deliver and your client you’re dealing with fit in that approach. And for us, it fit seamlessly. 


And then came Atlas.


Atlas, our intelligent digital workspace, the golden star, the jewel in the crown! How could we fit Atlas within our professional services model? Well… we couldn’t. I arrived at ClearPeople in a moment where the organisation had already realised this. If we had a star product, we needed to be a product-led company.


It sounds logical, right? Well, it is not that easy, keep in mind that those professional services were the ones paying our salaries and at that time we *thought* Atlas could be bought and were willing to bet on it, but like with any other bet, you can always lose. I was hired as Atlas project manager eight months ago. I just had one project while my teammates were managing quite a lot more, and even so I did not have an easy time. I won’t go into detail here, but you can imagine difficulties trying to get resources, fledgling processes for sharing resource between professional services projects and product development, no dedicated team, competing priorities, etc… Both Heads of PMO and Development were united in that they wanted to implement Scrum since we already had the typical ‘fake’ Scrum in place. What do I mean by that? Well, we had two week-long ‘sprints’ and had daily stand-ups. 


And that is where most companies that say they do Scrum stop without realising they just renamed normal project tasks with Scrum nomenclature. Is that Scrum? A naming convention? Of course, everyone is going to say no, that’s why it puzzles me the amount of people who think they work agile just because they have sprints. We also had a planning session for each sprint, in which we sort of planned what we wanted to achieve in the sprint but never fully realised our objectives due to priorities in the backlog being endlessly reprioritised.  Without Scrum practice knowledge, that led to a feeling of failure both within the team and organisation-wide – after all, there were a lot of so-called failed or at least under-performing sprints.


Luckily, it didn’t stop there for us at ClearPeople. As the company bravely realigned as a product-led company, the whole organisational structure had to change and adapt, driving a strong initiative to introduce true Agile. Our first and probably most productive milestone for Atlas was getting a dedicated team for it. Untouchable and protected. The wonderful Atlas Squad of which I am proudly part. We weren’t underperforming, we weren’t failing sprints: we had never had real sprints and so expectations were misaligned.


It is very important to understand that Scrum, an Agile practice, is not a protocol. It is not a set of rules, meetings and conventions that you implement and magically get to work. It is a mentality, a philosophy you need to embrace in order to succeed with it. And that mentality just happens to go hand in hand with a product-led company. In fact, the most outstanding product companies I know just happen to be at the leading edge of Scrum methodologies. It could be a mere coincidence, but I don’t think so. And probably you don’t, either.


So, what’s next? Are we done yet? Hell, no! Not at all, in fact. We’re in the culture-embracing part of it, but the results so far in the Scrum Squad are truly promising. We’re succeeding in sprints, meeting expectations, we have a lot of processes defined but which we constantly review, a fantastic hyper-motivated Squad and more… However, we must always keep in mind that this is a work in progress and we still have a long way to go.   


But then again, is anyone ever done improving their processes? Keep questioning and keep evolving. 

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