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Agile/Scrum and the South Pole

What does Agile & Scrum and a mission to the South Pole have in common? This is what i was asking myself as i read the article Collins on chaos, published in Fortune Magazine. The story is a timeless tale of leadership, planning, and execution.

The article is on Collins’ latest book, Great by choice (Amazon, Google). He relates the behaviour of the teams to the performance of modern companies. What can these explorer from over a century ago teach us about how to make high tech products?

In 1911, two teams set off to reach the South Pole. Remember, this was the time before GPS, jets, and satellite phones. Failure did not involve calling to get rescued, it could mean perishing. Many things were similar between the expeditions: they had a similar number of good days and bad days, took similar routes, had just as much training, and faced similar challenges.

Amundsen, the winner, and Scott, the looser, employed very different strategies. The difference was discussed by Aesop more than 2 millennia ago in his story of The tortoise and the hare. Amundsen set a SMART goal for his team of a certain distance each day. They didn’t always achieve it, but they always tried.

More importantly, is what they didn’t try. They didn’t try to make up for lost time by going farther on easy days; they kept up a maintainable pace. But, more importantly, they also didn’t quit when the going got tough.

Scott and team would hold up for the day in a tent during a blizzard, exhausted from overexertion from the good day’s trek. But this meant that he had to catch up from what he wasn’t doing.

How does this relate to Scrum? In Scrum, teams set realistic goals and track to them. The steady pace towards the goal is  marked in burn down-charts. When things are behind schedule, a conscious decision is made: which deliverable is dropped? The one that is behind, or perhaps one that is lower priority? The team has a choice of swarming more important deliverables and continuing the failed ones next sprint. The important lesson from the antarctic explorers here is to set an achievable pace. Any more and the team will get burnt out.

Equally, don’t drop things because the going is hard. If it is important to the project, make progress on it.

It is important to seek ways to make things easier by training, bringing in new tools, or improving processes. The article (and book) oversimplify the advantage that Amundsen team had. They were more prepared and efficient and had other practices that facilitated their journey, as is discussed in a more in-depth comparison of the expeditions. Cutting out waste such as unnecessary repetitive tasks and maintaining a clearer sense of direction are also critical to success.

Which companies eventually win out? Collins argues those with the tortoise strategy.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. How to read 10 books in a year – mbells linked to this post on 2012.Apr.24

    […] a previous post i talked about goal setting and tracking. This can be done in much the same way. What does it take […]

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