Ever wondered how to apply Scrum when there’s no software development involved? Ever doubted the applicability of Scrum in the real world? This article is a Scrum Guide in Star Wars style. I’ll show how the real world heroes from Star Wars organized their struggles against the Empire with Scrum. They already knew how to Scrum a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Rugby wasn’t invented yet, so they just didn’t call it Scrum yet.
To give you a sense of how Scrum works, I will first introduce the cast and their Scrum roles. Then we’ll look at the recurring Scrum events where they inspect and adapt. Finally, we’ll discuss how they organize their work with User Stories and Epics.
The cast and their Scrum roles
Maximizing the value out of the small rebel team
We’ll start this Scrum Guide with Leia. Princess Leia sees the bigger picture. She has a keen sense of what is right and what is wrong. She knows what is valuable to the living beings across the galaxy. That’s why the rebels value her leadership. Her political savviness was of key importance for uniting all rebel factions. In Scrum, Leia is our (Chief) Product Owner.
It’s her responsibility to make most of the few resources the rebels have. This involves a lot of talking, stakeholder management and decision making. When necessary, Leia fires her blaster but she’s by no means a soldier.
Representing the larger organization and their concerns
Next, we have the leaders of all rebel factions. They have a huge stake in the rebellion. Their peoples depend on it. They are the Stakeholders. The rebel leaders are only involved in the main fight by supporting it. They are not committed, however: they don’t fly X-wings or swing lightsabers.
Delivering a great outcome
Luke, on the other hand, is committed. He’s in the middle of it. He gets things done. He’s a good shot and an expert at lightsabers. Han, Chewie, the X-Wing pilots, and the droids are committed too. Together they are a multidisciplinary team: the Development Team. They are self-organizing too. Han performs best when you convince him of the value of the mission. He does not respond well to direct orders. Just let Han figure out the details with Chewie and the droids.
Finally, there’s Obi-Wan and Yoda. They are the mentors, the masters. They don’t swing their lightsaber often. Their mission is to teach, mentor and coach the team into performing the best they can. They know they’re not going to be around at all times. That’s why they aim to make themselves redundant from the start. In Scrum, we’d call Yoda and Obi-Wan Scrum Masters. Even when they’re gone, their wisdom (and ghosts) continues to guide the team.
Neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan ever update the Burn Down chart.
Pushing sticky notes around Scrum Boards is something the Development Team does. They are self-organizing. So it’s up to them to track their progress.
The Evil Empire
The Evil Empire tries to be Agile too. They make some big mistakes though: in Star Wars, the emperor is both Chief Product Owner and Scrum Master. Combine both roles in one person hampers Agility. The effectiveness with which the Empire can inspect and adapt is thus reduced. They just keep building Death Stars. Better ones and larger ones, for sure. But they never seem to learn that pooling all their resources into one superweapon is a very risky bet.
The recurring Scrum events
Star Wars, A New Hope kicks off with Leia in a tight spot. Darth Vader is boarding her ship and she has to figure out what to do. She does a quick Scrum Sprint Planning. It’s a timeboxed event – Darth Vader is coming! – where she gets together with her team and makes an action plan. They decide the most valuable thing they can do is warn Obi-Wan Kenobi. They quickly discuss the overall objectives and the steps required and get to work.
The droids are self-organizing: once they are off in their escape pod, it’s up to them to figure out how to best achieve the mission goals. They self-organize with frequent funny exchanges in which they make day short term plans. In Scrum, we’d call that Daily Scrums.
As they are captured by Jawas their original plan derails completely. It’s a good thing however that the droids are Agile: they aren’t programmed with strict tasks. They have a good sense of their mission. They manage to get help from Luke and Obi-Wan despite being captured and sold.
The team is now expanded with more expertise. This allows the effectively deal with the stormtroopers at Mos Eisley spaceport and escape Tatooine. Obin-Wan – the newfound Scrum Master – gets to work in the Millennium Falcon and starts teaching the team about the force and the Empire. The team’s performance rapidly improves. Who would have thought they would be able to free Leia and get the Death Star plans to Yavin IV?
At this point, our Rebel Scrum Development Organisation has grown to multiple teams. They are Scaling Scrum. Leia is the Chief Product Owner and she makes sure all the teams are aligned by discussing the mission with the team leader and some representatives. Han leads the smugglers, Gold Leader leads the X-Wing squadron.
At Yavin IV we meet our heroes in a war room, overseeing some hologram with stars, ships, and planets. The heroes are looking at their progress – found the Death Star schematics! – and figuring out what to do next. In Scrum, we call this the Sprint Review. There’s usually a rich assembly of representatives from different rebel factions. For these stakeholders, it’s important to make sure the overall plan – the Product Backlog – works for them and their people. With Leia, they are focussed on the bigger picture. What are the broad steps towards a peaceful and inclusive galaxy? They come to the conclusion that destroying the Death Star is the obvious first step. The stakeholders agree on the resources needed and the risks to be taken. Now the teams are ready to do their detailed planning.
Finally, before the next sprint, there’s some quiet time for introspection and retrospection. In Scrum, we call this the Sprint Retrospective. The teams review their capabilities and what they have learned. They align on goals and values. They reinforce their bonds and evaluate their commitment. In Star Wars — like in many movies — this is an emotional moment, the silence before the storm.
At this point in the movie, the retrospective is mostly focussed on Han’s lack of commitment. Will he come around? Will he really join the team as a full member? With the end of the first Sprint Retrospective, it’s also the end of the first Sprint.
Alas for the rebels, after Episode IV the Empire strikes back. They will have to adapt their plans for an inclusive Galaxy as they go. This is called backlog refinement. They cannot foresee that the Jedi will return in episode VI. This means they have to continuously update their plan with what they know. They only need a plan that is good enough to make the next step.
Themes, Epics, Users Stories and Tasks
Many real-world Scrum Teams organize their planned work – also known as their Product Backlog – in Themes, Epics, Users Stories, and Tasks. This is a way to bundle portions of the work in different sizes in order to keep the oversight. In Star Wars the cast didn’t do that explicitly. The writers of the movies did, however. The theme of the Star Wars movies is ‘Space opera’. It consists of several epics: ‘escape with the Death Star plans’, ‘the attack on the first Death Star,’ ‘Luke’s Jedi training,’ ‘the battle of Hoth,’… The epics consist of several (user) stories. Now, take the attack of the first Death Star: It has the following stories: ‘divert Death Star defenses’, ‘destroy gun turrets around trench’ and ‘trench run’. The ‘trench run’ story can again be split into several actions: ‘enter the trench’, ‘cover Luke’, ‘shoot Darth Vader’, ‘lock on target with the force’, ‘fire photon torpedo’. This vocabulary helps teams connect their smallest actions to the overall mission.
Conclusion: Scrum focusses small teams to have a great impact
Scrum is nothing new. It’s been around since a long time ago, in galaxies far, far away. Scrum just formalizes many smart ways to organize effective teams. Star Wars is an epic telling of how small, focussed teams can have a huge impact against all odds. That is: if you don’t pervert Scrum.
Much like the Evil Empire, some organizations force development teams to do ever more mindless work in ever less time. These organizations combine the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles in one person. Their stormtroopers will burn out eventually.