Dr. Sutherland: historian, story teller, and mentor


Its a privilege to have such an exciting event for a first post to this site.

Tonight, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Sutherland at a meetup in NYC.  It was a last minute commitment, that also required travel by car, ferry, and a brisk walk on a blustery Manhattan night.

I did not know what to expect.  Would there be an enormous turnout?  Would I have a chance to ask questions?  Would he try to sell me on Scrum at Scale?  Would this be a tour predicated on self-promotion?

I’ll be honest.  I did not anticipate the overwhelming energy that consumed me by the end of the night.  Sutherland has lived an incredibly interesting life.

He began with stories of his days at the United States Military Academy, where he expertly recalled memories and wove together a compelling story about the impact of making things “Big and Visible”.  He led his troop in marching commands from the worst, to the best – in a matter of weeks (the L2 also known as the ‘Loosey Deucey’ for their lack of discipline), and actually marched behind General MacArthur’s funeral procession.

He described life as a Top Gun Vietnam War veteran, and shared stories about how 80% of the pilots that followed a plan, were shot down and killed in combat.  The pilots that adjusted and became unpredictable were the group of men who survived the perilous missions.  He even shared a picture of his Top Gun partner, and showed him ejecting from a plane that was clearly hit in mid-air.  He went on to quote Dwight D. Eisenhower (who at one point – had lived in the exact barracks and room as Sutherland, years before as a cadet):

“I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”

This underscored the importance of being flexible, as well as the value of being able to adapt to any given situation.  Instantly.  And Continuously.

He spoke of his days as a scientist, researching studies on the effects of cancer on human cells, and even shared that the first computer program he had written, had taken 30% of the University’s annual budget – with one run.  (My how far we have come in 40 years).

He spoke of his days at Toyota.  The codes and symbols they used to make progress (or lack of progress) – Big and Visible.

He cited the works of Sun Tzu, Miyamoto Musashi, and General Stanley McChrystal.

He told the story of meeting Nonaka and Takeuchi.  The New Product Development Game. The unofficial birth of Scrum in 1983.

And if that wasn’t enough, he brilliantly wove issues he has encountered at every large organization throughout this chat, and then described an approach to improvement predicated on descaling and what he labels “aggressive scrum”, which – by the way – is very much in concert with what Alistair Cockburn has been pushing with the Heart of Agile.  Though its probably fair to say that Sutherland approaches these problems more like a scientist, proving or disproving a hypothesis, and supporting his argument with facts and statistics.

Without revealing the entire transcript from the 2 hours I sat nearly motionless, I will share two final observations from Dr. Sutherland:

1.  Abolish timesheets.  They are highly inaccurate.  Instead, measure production.  What can we ship?  Focus on value.  Not whether someone billed the correct set of projects for 40 hours.

2.  Break up teams larger than 10.  Tomorrow.  As soon as you get in to work.

It was impressive.  It IS impressive.  Even hours later.  His journey has left an indelible impression on me.  It was certainly a privilege, and an experience I will never forget.  It reminds me that we all have humble beginnings.    We all have personal journey’s that influence how we approach certain situations.  And most important, its the sharing of these stories and journeys that make this field and profession – special.   Whether you are a fighter pilot, martial artist, bus driver, or school teacher – there are elements of agile you can incorporate in almost every facet of life.

Follow Sutherland’s lead.  Be an inspiration.  Let Agile be pervasive in every aspect of your life.  You might be surprised at the story you can tell to the next generation.