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Dr. Jeff Sutherland is the Founder and Chairman of Scrum Inc. He is credited with being one of the creators of Scrum, which is celebrating its 30 year anniversary in 2023, and is a framework for enabling business agility at scale across an entire organization.
Sutherland’s mission has always been to spread Scrum around the world to free people from what he calls “the incredible life-draining system they’re working under.” His teachings consistently expose the archaic systems that hinder productivity, and he’s at the forefront helping the world’s biggest organizations make the transition to Agile.
To further his efforts, Sutherland is also a co-creator of The Agile Education Program powered by Scrum Inc., a training suite providing the curriculum and educational standards that give individuals and organizations a clear path to implementing Scrum in a way that drives immediate business results.
A graduate of West Point, Sutherland served as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War and later spent time conducting cancer research before immersing himself in the world of software development. With his expertise, Jeff has held the role of Chief Technology Officer at eleven different software companies, bringing a wealth of experience to each endeavor.
In 1993, Jeff pioneered the concept of Scrum by launching the first Scrum team. While things have changed a lot since then (spoiler alert: those original month-long sprints were far too long), he has continued to play a pivotal role in expanding Scrum’s ability to drive Agile transformation at organizations across industries including government, finance, healthcare, higher education, and telecom.
Recognizing the transformative power of Scrum, Sutherland co-authored the bestselling book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, and later published A Scrum Book: The Spirit of the Game. Through his books and extensive knowledge sharing, he has become a respected figure in the Agile community. His passion for fostering energy, focus, clarity, and transparency in project planning and implementation has made scrum a highly sought-after approach for organizations seeking efficient and effective project management.
We had a chance to sit down with Sutherland as he reflects on 30 years of Scrum, the new Scrum QuickStart offering and what the future holds for Scrum’s biggest possible impact on the world.
Fighter pilot. Cancer researcher. CTO. Co-creator of Scrum. Who are some of the mentors that shaped you on your journey?
This is a long list starting at West Point. General Westmoreland was superintendent when I was there. General MacArthur gave his famous last speech on Duty, Honor, Country in the mess hall while I was a cadet. I was trained and told stories about all the great military leaders of the past.
While I was flying F-4 Phantom aircraft over North Vietnam I was the wingman of Gen Vicent Cabas, the last surviving WWII ace who had more combat missions than any airman. He was the base commander and had a huge sign in the quartermaster area where we picked up our gear, “Our mission is to fly and fight and don’t you forget it.” Any bureaucratic overhead that slowed down an airman created a visit by the Base Commander who crushed all opposition forces immediately. Agile leadership in action.
From Vietnam I returned to the U.S. to a fighter squadron and applied to be a Professor at the Air Force Academy. I insisted on going to Stanford and got a degree in statistics, mathematics, and computing. I spent most of my elective time in computing in the AI lab led by McCarthy, one of the two godfathers of AI (the other was Marvin Minsky who I met with many times later). Every day McCarthy would come by the terminal I was using at SAIL and complain that I was using 10% of the total computing power of the AI lab working on a smart gaming program. But he never stopped me from programming.
On another part of the campus I was working with Herant Ketchadourian, the Chair of the Psychiatry department and leader of the most popular course at Stanford, Human Sexuality. Later he became Dean at Stanford. Because he was trained by my father-in-law who was Chair of Medicine at the American University in Beirut, he took me under his wing and I did all the computing and statistics work for five papers we published together in the medical journals. He said my father in law was a God who brought modern medicine to the Middle East. So I guess my father-in-law would also have to be a mentor.
While at the Air Force academy I was still doing research and publishing with Dr. Katchadouain and he advised me not to become a physician, which was my interest, but to build brick by brick on my background and experience. As a result I started into a program at the Univ of Colorado Medical School where two department chairman became my mentors. During my time at the Air Force Academy I had worked with the medical staff to start a Vitamin C study with cadets and had spent time with Linus Pauling in his Stanford Lab. Linus, with two Nobel Prizes, complained he should have had a third for discovering DNA but the data he shared with Watson and Crick enabled them to publish first.
Later at the University of Colorado, I became a Professor of Radiology in Dr. Bill Hendee, one of the leading radiologists and radiation physicists in the 20th century. My next book will be dedicated to him. The TEHS Framework for Scrum in Healthcare. Twice the Energy with Half the Stress.
And we are only at the beginning. We are not even yet into the mentors that directly affected Scrum.
Reflecting on the past 30 years, is Scrum as big as you imagined it getting? How does the present day compare to your original vision?
When we benchmarked Scrum with Capers Jones tools and technology from Software Productivity Research and got it to run 10 times as fast as other project management frameworks, you would have to say Capers was my mentor in productivity. He has published more books than anyone I know on productivity research. So I knew we had a product that was ten times better and as soon as my Scrum product was acquired by another company I wanted to release it into the industry and asked an old friend, Ken Schwaber, to help. Together we became the Steve Jobs and Wozniak of the software development process although Ken always felt we were like the Blues Brothers, trained by the Creative Initiative Foundation masters, Harry and Emila Rathbun at Stanford, to be on a mission from God. And of course we caused massive disruption. When I had dinner with a dozen CIOs in Brussels they asked me if I knew what I was called in Belgium. I said I don’t know and they said, “You are the White Raven, because everywhere you go there is total devastation, but green shots start coming up in the rubble and good things begin to happen.” So you would have to say the CIOs of the world’s leading companies have also been my mentors.
It was after the Agile Manifesto that Scrum really took off and became the Hoola Hoop of Product Development. By 2007 the Swedes told me Scrum had won the Agile wars and it was game over. What was I going to do next?
So things have turned as I hoped. We had a product that was 10 times better but at the end of the day it is all about the marketing and we got lucky because developers all over the world started spontaneously marketing our product.
What was the pushback to Scrum 30 years ago? How did you handle it?
When I met with VCs for lunch in the early days they told me I was some kind of flower child from the West Coast. That self-organizing teams were a pipe dream and it would never work. But when you have something 10 times better you just smile and push on. Now they come to me and want me to help get all their companies Agile.
So I would say traditional management was and continues to be the primary destroyer of innovation and productivity. In some ways, nothing has changed.
Your background has brought you across the country and globe. Ultimately, you chose Cambridge, MA as the headquarters for Scrum Inc. What made Cambridge and Boston the right fit and how has it become the home of Scrum Inc.?
My wife and I spent years in Silicon Valley, first at Stanford and then she stayed there while I was in Vietnam. When the Air Forces started sending us around the world we committed to returning to Silicon Valley or the MIT technology area on the East Coast as I grew up there and our last assignment to a fighter squadron had been at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod.
Because of the Air Force Academy, I stayed in Colorado and moved to the Univ of Colorado Medical School in Denver. After a decade on the faculty, I was pulled into a large banking company in the Denver Tech Center. This is where the first prototypes of Scrum began. But my wife decided she wanted to become a minister and said she was going to Harvard Divinity School. This brought us to Boston and it was out of the Cambridge and Route 128 tech community that Scrum formally emerged. After working with many tech geniuses who would only work if they could see the MIT Dome from their office, I was immersed in the MIT tech community and came to understand that Silicon Valley had more money, but the MIT area had more startups and the east coast was more team based which is a natural environment for Scrum. So Scrum Inc was incubated in a venture capital firm but quickly moved to the Cambridge Innovation Center where there were 600 startups in one building (and you could see the MIT dome from the offices).
We should all read your book on the topic, but what’s the secret or a key insight to delivering twice the work in half the time?
Because of my decades in healthcare and the new research in my current healthcare startup it is clear that the secret to twice the work in half the time is twice the energy with half the stress. This can be measured today 24/7 with Firstbeat.com analytics which are used to train olympic teams. Three of my mentor at West Point were the Coach of the Olympic Gymnastics team and his two Assistant Coaches, both on the Olympic team. As a result I was trained for multiple hours every day including weekends for years by the Olympic Gymnastics team and they taught me the relentless disciple of continuous improvement which is fundamental to Scrum. Now we can put the olympic analytics on your watch and train you to have twice the energy with half the stress and you will find it is easy to get twice the work done in half the time because you enter a Flow state where things become effortless, time evaporates, and you are in a state of exhilaration. For less than 10% of the cost of the current health care system we can eliminate more than half of your hospitalizations and doctors visits, extend your healthy life 30 years or more and this will disrupt healthcare just as Scrum has disrupted project management.
Or course, even Scrummers are telling me this is impossible and another one of my crazy ideas but we already have technology in my lab that is 10 times better so winning is inevitable just like it was with Scrum.
Can you briefly describe what the Lean Principles are and how they might have evolved over the past 30 years?
Takeuchi and Nonaka never talk about Lean. That is a western concept. They are two other of my mentors. They talk about Scrum, continuous improvement, the Toyota Way, and highest performing teams which they saw in lead hardware manufacturing companies.
The key metric is process efficiency which is a measure of Flow (the same metric we are now using in healthcare). To improve process efficiency you need to shorten TAK time. The work time divided by clock time for any process must be maximized. For the typical team the process efficiency is 10% of less. For good Scrum teams the process efficiency is over 50%. Within one week we had an Indian team focus on process efficiency and they increased velocity by 300%. You only need to get to 400% to be doing twice the work in half the time. You have to analyse the flow of process to get improvements in process efficiency for a value stream whether is be the enterprise, a product, or at the team level. The best tool for this is the Toyota A3 as it frames the problems and does root cause analysis to get many layers deep, where for a few thousand dollars you can swing millions in expenses and revenue.
What Toyota says about Scrum is that is take Lean (Kaizen, continuous improvement) and turns it into Kaikaku (revolution) because it totally disrupts the structure of an organization. We took one of the leading products at Toyota with 200 people working 5 years and producing nothing to a team of 20 people that is six months delivered everything. Scrum is the new Lean.
How do you describe Scrum Patterns? Is there a future AI application for Scrum Patterns?
We want the Scrum Guide to be short and not prescriptive. Scrum itself is a partner language for hyperproductive teams. We knew teams had to do certain things to achieve high performance so we wrote them as patterns where there is a context, a problem, and the pattern has repeatedly solved the problem in multiple companies. So this was a way to add to and amplify the Scrum Guide while still allowing maximum flexibility.
chatGPT is very good at seeing and documenting patterns so I expect AI will be helpful here. It has already doubled the productivity of my global web team.
Where do you envision the best application(s) of AI impacting organizations in their transformation to Agile?
Good developers today have 80% of their code written by Copilot so every good developer is five times as productive already. This is why there are tens of thousands of developers being laid off. But in my experience there has always been a team effect so if each team member is five times as productive there will be a multiplier and my main research interest in Scrum right now is to prove that a team is 25 times as productive where each individual is five times as productive by by making AI a member of the team, the team as a whole is 25 times as productive.
I work daily with an AI and only organizations that do this will be alive in a few years. The handwriting is on the wall and most people don’t see it yet.
What was it like implementing the Agile Education Program in Japan and how did you impact the country’s future?
First, Professor Nonaka asked me to help save Japan in 2011 when we first met for dinner in Tokyo. His major concern for Japan is lack of innovation and he thinks Scrum is the solution. We got a change to seriously help in 2016 when the senior management of KDDI, one of Japan’s largest telecom companies, asked us to form a joint venture, Scrum Inc Japan, and completely revamp Scrum training which they said was not working. We added lean principles, hyperproductive patterns, Scrum@Scale and started the global Registered Scrum and Agile Education Program as a result.
Scrum Inc. made the decision to offer Scrum education in new and modern modalities such as on-demand video through the Agile Education Program. What drove these decisions and how is Scrum QuickStart helping empower more enterprises globally?
Scrum Quickstart evolved because some organizations were asking us how we could train 10000 people at once. Also large organizations have thousands of new people every year that need to be retrained. Even if the people know Scrum they have to be retrained as the Japanese discovered to get the high performing Scrum of Takeuchi and Nonaka. Twice the Work in Half the Time is not the goal, it is the baseline for Registered Scrum and with the advent of AI teams are going to have to do a lot better than twice the work in half the time to even survive.
With regards to problems you aren’t solving, what is the biggest opportunity globally for Scrum to positively impact the world?
In project management it is game over and Scrum has won. A great book Superabundance showed that the time you need to work to buy anything has gone down about 70% since 1980 except for healthcare and education where prices have consistently gone up and quality has gone done. These two areas need total disruption and Scrum with AI will do it. I’m focused on healthcare disruption because of my 40 years experience in healthcare.
Scrum has gained significant popularity and has been widely adopted across industries. However, if you could introduce Scrum to one unconventional or unexpected domain or sector, which one would it be and why? How do you envision Scrum transforming that particular field?
I don’t know any domain that Scrum has not affected. The ones that need complete disruption are healthcare and education. The cost needs to go down by over 90% and the quality needs to go up by 1000%. We have the technology to do it today. The incumbents in these domains will do everything they can to stop disruption. Today it is illegal to say you can cure anything so the FDA has to go. We will cure everything including aging itself and once people realize it they will take matters into their own hands, just like early Scrum developers did.
Your son JJ Sutherland is the current CEO of Scrum Inc. What is it like working with your son and how does the nature of a family business apply to culture and work at Scrum Inc.?
It has been a privilege and a joy to work with my son. Few fathers have such an opportunity. JJ is a great visionary who sees that the world needs to change and how to change it.
Collaboration and teamwork are key elements of Scrum. If you could assemble a dream team of historical figures, living or deceased, to work together using Scrum, who would you choose and why?
My mentors, only a few of whom I mentioned, could create a Scrum team to change the world. Many unfortunately are no longer with us.
You have a new healthcare startup. Can you tell us more about that?
Already have answered this question. The bottom line is that your individual health is no different than your team health. You are made of a complex assembly of components that must work as a team. Even your brain is made up of multiple competing and arguing components that produce intelligence as Marvin Minsky has explained in Society of Mind. What people need to understand is they are a team and the “team” that they are on at work is a team of teams, essentially Scrum@Scale.
Let’s talk about sustainability. Can you talk a bit about your sustainable home, the natural habitat you’ve developed in your backyard and the purpose behind it?
It is possible for everyone today to produce more energy than they need with no carbon emissions. It is possible for everyone to convert they backyard in to a national park through rewilding which will restore the planet and create a nation park of back years many times larget than all the national parks in the world. We need to stop worrying, and stop complaining about climate change (which is often use politically to siphon money to people who should not have it) and start doing what obviously needs to be done and can easily be done because the technology is already here to do it. In 2009 I decided never to own a gasoline care again because I had been fighting in too many wars fueled by drugs and oil. Everyone needs to make that decision. I then decided I would only use electric power from the sun on my roof. No more utility power except in the short term as backup and storage. In my Cape House I do not even need that. It can totally run off grid. Everybody just needs to get off their butt and do this.
FINAL QUESTION: We like the idea of ending our episodes with a challenge for the listeners/readers. Whether it be reaching out to an old friend, reading 5 pages a day from a book, creating a new healthy habit… What is one challenge you have for the listeners?
The starting point for the TEHS Framework (Twice the Energy with Half the Stress) is mission, values, and purpose. Everyone has to have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning, even if you are bed ridden. So the TEHS Framework says start wherever you are and learn something new every day and us it to make yourself a better person. This starts you on the path of continuos improvement that built Toyota. For my healthcare startup we learned 20 years ago how to cure Lyme disease. I made everything open source. Two bed ridden women in a Florida nursing home read my web site. They couldn’t even get out of bed. One of my clients asked me if I knew about the two women in the nursing home that were lying in bed waiting to die that were all of a sudden up and about and having a life. I sad no and called them up. They said we just read your web site, bought the technology and applied it and it gave us our life back. I can’t tell you how many Scrum people have come up to me in conferences, burst into tears, and said Scrum gave me my life back. Your work life is just the beginning. As one of the mentors in the Creative Initiative Foundation taught me. It’s not about happiness, although that is nice, and written into the Declaration of Independence. Humans are built for ecstasy and the TEHS Framework will tell people how to systematically move into the Flow state and achieve the ecstatic performance of an Olympic athlete. It starts with a commitment to every day learn something new and apply it to make yourself better. Everyone can do that and we need to challenge them to get off the couch and have at it.