Innovating Your Way Out of a Crisis Using Scrum – The Battlestar Galactica Connection

Innovating Your Way Out of a Crisis Using Scrum – The Battlestar Galactica Connection

It’s no secret around the Danube offices that I am a Battlestar Galactica (BSG) fan. I’ve been teased as the resident sci-fi geek for a long time now (although I’m slowly getting each employee addicted to the Sci-Fi Channel show). For those of you who aren’t fans, BSG is based on the oft-used concept that, in the future, humans will invent artificial intelligence (AI) that eventually outsmarts and turns against them, threatening extinction. In BSG, a fleet of space-vessels narrowly escapes a cataclysmic nuclear attack and wanders through space, trying to stay alive and find a new planet to inhabit. They’ve heard of a mythical planet that was key to the early development of the race: a planet called Earth. Their AI nemeses, the Cylons, are also looking for Earth and the show’s drama stems from the race to find it first. Besides being a well-produced and highly entertaining show, there are several aspects of the plot that are worth exploring in terms of organizational effectiveness during times of scarcity.

Although we haven’t been subject to a Cylon nuclear attack, there is certainly negative sentiment about the economy which, at times, feels like panic. Depending on geography, cohort membership, and field of expertise, most folks feel less than enthused by the current market. There are many people who have real concerns and many experts and scholars with serious, empirically validated suggestions for turning things around. I’m neither, so please don’t think that I believe sci-fi is the key to our economic prosperity. Instead, I’d like to explore what BSG teaches us about creating success in times of crisis and how those lessons relate to Scrum.

1. In times of crisis, opportunity for success is everywhere.
So long as resources and needs exist, the economy will keep churning. We might be under attack by Cylons (or irresponsible lending practices); we might suffer major casualties (or watch our stocks plummet); and we might have nothing more than a ragtag fleet of outdated ships (or fewer tools than we did before). But, so long as we have a fleet and resources in the universe, demand exists for the resources themselves and for the innovation that allows us to find and capitalize on them. No matter how big the crisis, there is always demand for new and innovative ways to supply people with what they want and need.

In times of scarcity, the key to prosperity is innovation that allows us to meet needs with the fewest resources possible. Slashing resources and cutting spending without considering how to continue innovating is “cutting off the nose to spite the face.” Although belt-tightening may be inevitable and necessary, it must be done in a way that neither inhibits innovation or undermines survival.

2. Teams of motivated people can accomplish incredible things even when experts aren’t available.
In BSG, there is an episode in which Chief Tyrol, essentially the supervisor of the maintenance team, designs and builds a spacecraft from scratch. He is not an aeronautical engineer but he is so determined to build this spacecraft, that he recruits a team of similarly motivated people and is ultimately successful at creating a stealth machine. Within this story, I find an important lesson in Scrum that I see over and over again on successful teams. A group of motivated people, working together, can accomplish incredible, almost impossible things, even without experts at the outset of a project. Sometimes during times of crisis, we are put in uncomfortable “stretch” situations that demand seemingly impossible results. It’s possible to lose a team member due to layoffs, be denied tools you need to perform your job, have a deadline moved up to get to market faster, or simply have more expectations upon you than resources available. Motivated, determined, driven teams can overcome all of these challenges and be successful. Sometimes, those teams and their members don’t get to shine until they’re put in a situation that forces them to rise to the occasion. The Scrum framework helps organize teams to achieve the highest priority objectives first, with whatever resources they have.

3. Insubordination sometimes saves the day.
Kara Thrace, “Starbuck,” is a Viper pilot (a fancy fighter spacecraft, like an F-14) who is always getting into trouble on BSG. She acts as though orders are optional. She steals Vipers. She makes decisions based on personal feelings. And, in general, she’s a real pain. Somehow, almost all of her crazy antics end up positive for the fleet. Now, I am not telling our friends and customers that insubordination is a key to success. Please do not get fired, lose a license, or get sued for breach of contract because I told you to violate rules. Rather, it’s important to think outside the box and consider challenging the status quo. Many of you have seen www.despair.com. One of my favorite posters on the site says, “Tradition: Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.” When the going gets tough, it’s important to question the restrictions we encounter. If you run into a rule that is keeping you from building a better product or is inhibiting your effectiveness as a professional, see if there is a way of changing the rule, working around it, or getting an exception rather than simply being defeated by it. There are some people who will be offended at your suggestion that impediments in the forms of regulations, traditions, and protocol be changed, but there are just as many that will be impressed you asked.

4. Sometimes you have to put power in the hands of someone you’re afraid of in order to get ahead.
Sharon is a well known character (well, set of characters, actually) in BSG. She is a Cylon that believed she was human until well into the first season. Ultimately, her human friends on BSG realize she’s actually one of the machines and are initially terrified of having her in their midst. She works hard to prove her loyalty to humankind and, finally, is put into a situation where the humans must trust her completely in order to survive. She helps them and earns even more power. Had the humans refused to trust her, they would have all perished.

Sometimes, in order to survive or get ahead, you have to hand over power to someone you’re not entirely certain can handle it. In Scrum, this often happens when a Product Owner, who may have previously been a traditional project manager, must learn to trust the tactical decisions of the team while they stay in the strategic part of the process. As companies try to innovate with fewer resources and people, they often lose task-master style managers, which can be frightening. Who is overseeing all the work? In Scrum, we ask that the team oversee their own work and that they self-manage. “But what if they can’t? What if they’re too junior? What if I trust them and they don’t come through?” In lean times, we don’t have the bandwidth or resources for managing every possible contingency. Teams have to do the best they can, step up to the plate, and give their all. More often than not, when a team knows their colleagues, superiors, and organizations are counting on them, they prove they’re worth trusting by doing a great job.

5. Sci-Fi inventions sometimes become real life. Look to cool things you don’t think are possible for inspiration.
Ultimately, you might think this comparison to a science fiction television show is silly. But if you don’t believe that inspiration for inventions or paradigms can come from fiction, check out these ideas inspired by StarTrek: http://www.networkworld.com/slideshows/2007/110207-star-trek-inspired-inventions.html.

Although it might not be a best business practice to look to fiction for inspiration, I think it’s important to find fun and light-hearted ways to remind us of things that truly make teams successful. Times of prosperity often lead to lackadaisical behavior. When everything is comfortable there is no pressure to innovate, question the status quo, grow personal skill sets, or think outside the box. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Scrum is a framework that helps draw out the best in people. Scrum helps us identify, prioritize and attempt to meet business needs by requiring teamwork, respect for the opinions of all contributors, mitigation of risk, and enough slack to attempt (and sometimes fail at) totally new approaches. When conditions are comfortable, Scrum attempts to create a necessary tension between resources and demands in order to spur innovation. In times of need, Scrum manages the real tension and when the tension is authentic, we can expect the performance of teams to be improved.

Katie Playfair

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