It’s that time of year when our thoughts turn to the Holidays, Family, and for much of the world…Santa.

I have a soft spot in my heart for this time of year so I never miss the opportunity to catch a classic Christmas movie from my childhood.  Not the modern takes on the season, but the classic films where just when things seem the darkest our clay-crafted heroes pull out a Christmas miracle in the last moments before Santa’s sleigh leaves the icy tundra for his trip around the world.

Lately, however, I’ve started to notice a recurring theme in these movies…Santa and his elves are actually saving Christmas with Scrum.

Let's see how.

Real Elves Generalize

santa-painting-toy-planeLook at Santa’s Workshop and you’ll no doubt see lines of long tables filled with happy elves working away.  The elves are, of course, happy and productive.  But if you look closely you’ll also notice something else.  As each toy completes it journey down the table it passes by carpentry elves, painter elves, and even gift-wrapping elves…each of whom contribute to the product in their own special way.  A quick glance at the busy workshop will tell us two things:

  1. Elves specialize.
  2. Elves organize into co-located, cross-functional teams.

Each elf has a chosen speciality that they excel at more than any other elf at the North Pole.  And the organizational structure of Santa’s Workshop allows each elf to pursue their chosen passion and use it to contribute to the toys in their very own way.  But, as narrow as each elf’s chosen specialization may be, rarely are these specializations compartmentalized.  Rather than stashing each group of elves into their own corner of the workshop, each group works together at long tables where the different specializations can collaborate.  This lets each elf communicate more readily and shortens the feedback loop between each discipline as the toys move between them.

Because, at the end of the day, the elves know that a toy is not a complete until they’ve all had their chance to contribute.

There's No “I” in Elf

Even with each elf’s chosen specialization when push comes to shove and Jolly Old St Nick’s annual run is threatened, the elves never fail to pull together in the face of adversity.  Whatever the crisis at hand, all elves step in to help in whatever way they can regardless of the task that is asked of

This means that every elf drops their preconceived notion of what they should be working on and lends a hand wherever they can be most useful.  Well, almost every elf.

Painter elves dive into wrapping gifts, baking elves load the sleigh, and carpentry elves drop everything they’re doing to prep and feed the reindeer.  Whatever an elf’s specialization is, when the cookies are down all that matters is getting those toys out the door.

Christmas Doesn’t Come Late

No matter how many toys are finished, how many boxes are wrapped, or how much of the sleigh is packed…Christmas comes on December 25th or not at all.  Real elves know that no matter what happens, they must ship against a hard deadline because Christmas Can Not Move.

So how do they ensure that every Christmas is a success when faced with a hard deadline?  By building the most important toys first.  Elves know that they have only a limited amount of time to create the toys for that perfect Christmas so they focus on what matters.  This means that when all of the letters to Santa start pouring in the elves focus on what’s top on each list and only work down the list once the most important toys are made.  Once December 24th rolls around what’s done is shipped and what isn’t…well, doesn’t. 

The elves take this approach because they know that even if 15 toys were originally on his list that Little Johnny really isn’t going notice if the last two toys aren’t waiting under his tree on Christmas morning.  But he will notice, however, if Christmas morning doesn’t come until December 28th.  Even though each and every one of those toys seemed incredibly important at the time Little Johnny made his list, the elves know that what matters the most is that Christmas comes on time.

Putting a Bow On It

christmas-presentSanta and his elves may be one of the most effective delivery teams ever created.  Despite deep specializations across the elf corps, each group collaborates well and prioritizes ruthlessly to ship great toys on time each and every year.  There’s a lot to be learned from watching how groups like this work together so the next time your favorite Christmas movie is on, grab a hot cup of cocoa, curl on your couch, and see what you can learn.

Want to learn more about how to help your team get the most out of Scrum? Check out my course series from Pluralsight, Using the Scrum Framework, for tips on helping Scrum Masters be more effective in their role.

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