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Big tech aren’t shouting about agile or scrum…so what are they talking about?

I recently posted about this on LinkedIn, and it proved surprisingly popular. So I thought I’d share it here, together with some of the discussions the post generated.

Recently I’ve read books about Amazon (Working Backwards), Google (How Google Works) and Netflix (No Rules Rules). I consider them to be successful agile organisations and I want to learn from them. But search these books for a mention of agile — or scrum — and you get precisely zero results. So what do they talk about?

The picture shows the covers of the three books and underneath each image the text reads: Mentions of Agile and Scrum: 0

Each have individual cultures — and in many ways quite different cultures. But here are the most common themes:

1) Talent

Working Backwards and How Google Works dedicate a whole chapter to talent. 25% of No Rules Rules is devoted to talent and maintaining “talent density” — a high percentage of high quality people.

2) Culture

How Google Works and Working Backwards both kick off with a chapter dedicated to their culture. No Rules Rules is entirely about the culture of Netflix and the steps they took to build it.

3) Leadership

Each chapter in all three books discusses the role of leaders — in everything from innovation, to strategy, decision making and recruitment. When it comes to the latter each specifically calls out the importance of hiring well. At Amazon, Hire and Develop the Best is a leadership principle. In How Google Works, hiring is described as “the most important thing a leader does. And in No Rules Rules? Your number one goal as a leader is to develop a work environment consisting exclusively of stunning colleagues.

While there are other common themes, I’ve called these out because my impression was that they are foundational. They are the prerequisites for everything else these companies are able to do.

Normally we would talk about Leadership -> Culture -> Talent. I’ve flipped the order because what struck me was that each culture was possible only because of the talent. In No Rules Rules, “talent density” is explicitly called out as a prerequisite for every other element of their culture. Nothing else they do is possible without hiring the right people first.

These companies are not necessarily perfect, but it’s hard to argue with their success. I found all three insightful and inspiring. Collectively they make for one of the best learning experiences I have ever had and they left me feeling energised.

Arguably this is confirmation bias, but it reinforces what I’ve learned from my own experiences: if you want an agile culture with high autonomy and innovation, you need to hire for it. Great leaders hire great talent, great talent enables great culture. Focus on leaders, talent and culture. Simply hiring agile coaches and scrum masters or adopting methodologies isn’t going to cut it.

So that was the post, and here were some of the interesting challenges people made in the comments...

One theme amongst the comments was that, just because agile and scrum weren’t mentioned in the book, doesn’t mean those things aren’t happening there. It’s a fair point — and some people that have worked at these companies say scrum is used at times, as are other agile approaches. My take is that while these things may be used, they weren’t mentioned in the books because they were not considered critical to success. Instead leadership, culture and talent were the driving factors.

Someone pointed out that attrition at Google and Amazon is very high. This actually doesn’t surprise me. These are very high performance companies and my impression was they attract people who are extremely driven. Not everyone is going to enjoy these cultures. They are high energy work places. They don’t sound peaceful! At Amazon in particular it was extremely evident that people work very hard. That’s not automatically a bad thing, but as Amazon themselves say, it’s not for everyone.

Another comment suggested that it’s easy for these companies to hire top talent because they are enormously rich. That’s true — now. But these companies weren’t born rich. There were plenty of stories of crowded offices and desks in corridors. At one point Netflix had to cut a third of its workforce. Ironically that proved to be a turning point. Performance rocketed and gave birth to their concept of talent density which they claim is central to their success. So, personally I don’t buy the argument that “it’s easy for them”. It didn’t start easy, and each book is intentionally instructional “We did it, and you can do it to!”

But my favourite comment of all came from Aki Taha — he worked at both Google and Netflix. He shared with me an article he’d written on the differences in the hiring processes at Google, Netflix and Uber (where he also worked). It is fascinating how very different these processes are and how they originated from the culture of each organisation. The article is written superbly, I highly recommend it and I’ve already subscribed to Aki’s blog.

Via their hiring process, companies communicate — loudly — what it’s like to work for them. Are you listening for the signals?

All in all the post generated a lot of commentary — 214 comments and counting. I’ll be interested to see what you think!

Are you looking to create an agile culture in your company? I am a Business Agility Coach & Consultant helping organisations to grow, scale and deliver value fast. And I firmly believe that talent is fundamental to achieving these.

You can find me at betterfasterhappier.com.

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Amanda Colpoys

Amanda Colpoys

Business Agility Coach & Consultant supporting organisations to grow, innovate and deliver value quickly at scale.