Using Agile and Scrum to Manage Philanthropy

Most businesses struggle with creating a framework of organic innovation inside the company as they grow. Once companies get to a certain point, they have a difficult time continuing to develop interesting and innovative products for their customers.

About one year ago, Total Attorneys decided to return to its agile beginnings. At first, we broke into small, cross-functional teams. After a few months of this, it became clear that we would need a common framework to make our agile methods effective. The decision was made to adopt Scrum inside Total Attorneys.

Scrum is a methodology of breaking large projects down into smaller tasks with the purpose decentralizing decision making, understanding your velocity and promoting self-organization. Traditionally, it is used in the software industry, but we have also applied it to all areas of the company, including our accounting, legal, and recruitment departments. Employees went through extensive training to learn the methodology.

One of the most interesting applications of Scrum that I’ve seen within Total Attorneys came from a philanthropic effort. We are partnering with Purse of Hope to fund a house in Uganda that will shelter and give aid to women caught in the human sex trafficking industry. The house provides the women with counseling, educational, vocational, and other resources to change the course of their lives. Women’s rights is definitely the cause of our century.

A major benefit of scrum is that it is a decentralized process, and allows people to be innovative and take ownership of what they are working on. So, not long after I announced our partnership with Purse of Hope at the last Total Attorneys all-company meeting, I was happy to see that people had begun to work on the the project organically, and that they had already begun to self-organize. I was walking down the hallway and noticed that a Scrum board for the project had been created, complete with the Story, Task, In Progress, and Done categories.

When you walk through Total Attorneys, you will see many of these Scrum boards all over our walls. It was only natural that people would use Scrum for the Total Impact House because it’s the common framework to get things done here. You can always walk around and see where everyone is at with their projects.

Creating a common framework in which everyone can work is an effective tool to increase productivity. People are able to work together at the drop of a hat. Look into Scrum or other agile methodologies and see if they would be effective at your organization.

2 Responses to “Using Agile and Scrum to Manage Philanthropy”

  1. Ryan Postel says:

    Scrum also works best when people take ownership and initiative over projects like the Total Impact House. Props go out to Tristan among others for setting up that scrum board and keeping this project moving along.

  2. Jeff Steinberg says:

    Having a common framework our whole company, not just software development, can unite around IS really powerful. It’s also not what typically comes to mind for me when talking about Agile and Scrum, so I’m really glad you brought it up.

    Using Agile and Scrum for something other than software development is pretty cutting edge, but it seems to be turning main stream rather quickly. This year’s keynote at Agile 2009 Conference by Alistair Cockburn addressed just that, Agile is like a melted iceberg. It dropped into the water of software development, left its traces (ripples and waves), but is now common practice and a natural part of the whole.

    Outside Total Attorneys I’ve talked to companies using it for their sales, marketing and customer care. I’ve read reports about the Church of Sweden using Scrum too. Whether it’s used to organize philanthropy or software development is of no consequence. These teams all have common goals that need innovative solutions and Scrum is an excellent way to achieve them.

    You’ve seen the TED video called Surprising Science of Motivation by Dan Pink. That discussion contains much of the same logic behind the Scrum process. If you are trying to solve difficult, imperceptible problems, then you need to be in a creative mind frame. Many companies are too good at creating a factory like environment. It’s almost instinctual. Unfortunately, that kills innovation and creativity.

    It should be no surprise, most motivation incentives that worked great for easy tasks actually slow people down when they are trying to solve complex or barely visible problems. What works best is intrinsic motivation, focusing on autonomy, mastery and purpose. This is what scrum does really well; allowing team members to self organize, utilize their strengths and work with a sense of purpose to achieve hyper productivity.

    Jeff Sutherland has an interesting metaphor he calls “red pill, blue pill” based on The Matrix. He warns people learning scrum that it’s the equivalent of Neo choosing the red pill and waking up in a spaceship, realizing that his whole existence had been an illusion. Once you have learned how to work as a self organized team, you never want to go back to being plugged in to the machine.

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