Rugby is a Better Analogy for Agile Delivery than the Scrum

This post is partly about the game of rugby and partly about the agile method called Scrum. Although I’ve a lot of experience with Agile approaches to software development, including Scrum, I must confess that my experience of rugby is limited to watching the All Blacks during the Rugby World Cup. Despite that caveat the theme of this post is that rugby is a better analogy for agility than Scrum is.

Why is the agile method called Scrum?

If you ask the Scrum Alliance “What is Scrum?” the answer is:

When Jeff Sutherland created the scrum process in 1993, he borrowed the term “scrum” from an analogy put forth in a 1986 study by Takeuchi and Nonaka, published in the Harvard Business Review. In that study, Takeuchi and Nonaka compare high-performing, cross-functional teams to the scrum formation used by Rugby teams.

Which leads us to…

The Rugby Approach to Product Development

In 1986 Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka published an article in the Harvard Business Review called "The New New Product Development Game". This paper is cited as one of the main inspirations for the agile framework called Scrum – both on the Scrum Alliance site and in the books (Schwaber & Beedle, 2002).

Actually, Takeuchi and Nonaka (1986) don’t mention the scrum, but they do mention rugby. On the first page of their paper Takeuchi and Nonaka (1986) say:

A holistic or “rugby” approach – where a team tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth – may better serve today’s competitive requirements.

Fumiaki Tanaka in France v Japan
Later in their paper Takeuchi and Nonaka elaborated on the Rugby analogy by saying:

Under the rugby approach, the product development process emerges from the constant interaction of a hand-picked, multidisciplinary team whose members work together from start to finish. Rather than moving in defined, highly structured stages, the process is born out of the team members’ interplay.

The authors are using the rugby analogy to emphasise constant team interaction to get the work done. Individual team members all play a part and it is the creative interaction between the silled team members that enables the team to progress.

But rugby scrums are not like that.

The Scrum in Rugby

The scrum is one of the two set pieces in Rugby, the other is the lineout (RFU: Set Pieces). In a rugby scrum "each team’s eight forwards bind together and try to push the opposition eight backwards in order to gain possession". A successful rugby scrum requires skill, team work, and a lot of raw power. However it is only when the ball comes out the back of the scrum that open play resumes and the team that won the scrum can move the ball forward.

Rugby Scrum

Scrums are important in rugby as they allow one of the teams to seize the initiative. However, the process of a scrum seems, to me, like "moving in defined, highly structured stages". In fact there are the three stages of engagement for a scrum: the Crouch, the Touch, and the Engage (YouTube: Rugby Scrum Engagement Stages – check out this video if you’ve never seen a scrum in rugby). The free flowing interaction Takeuchi and Nonaka were advocating comes after the scrum.

Scrum the Agile Method versus Scrum in Rugby

I’m glad Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland were inspired by the "rugby" approach described in the "The New New Product Development Game" (Takeuchi & Nonaka, 1986) I just wish they hadn’t picked "Scrum" as the name of their method.

I believe Takeuchi and Nonaka’s “rugby” approach is a much more powerful analogy for product development with skilful and creative interaction than that offered by “scrum”. Perhaps it is just me but the word “scrum” will always suggest a formalised set piece process involving a massive power struggle with little creative interaction and where little progress is made on the real work. I’m sure this is not the image Ken and Jeff wanted to conjure up when they picked the name for their Agile method.


RFU: Set Pieces

Schwaber, K., & Beedle, M. (2002). Agile software development with Scrum. Prentice Hall.

Scrum Alliance “What is Scrum?”

Takeuchi, H., & Nonaka, I. (January-February 1986). "The New New Product Development Game" (PDF). Harvard Business Review

11 thoughts on “Rugby is a Better Analogy for Agile Delivery than the Scrum

  1. in 2013 the cadence call has changed again
    I believe the cadence call did not exist before the 1990s.

    So when Takeuchi and Nonaka mentioned rugby in 1986, the scrum was different. When I played rugby in the 1990s there was more creativity and plays on the fly that there is today. But rugby is nothing like american football.

  2. Tom, The article you cite on the evolution of the scrum does nothing to suggest that the Scrum was very different in the 90’s (he’s talking about Rugby League for part of the article as well – just to confuse the topic more – whereas what you played was almost certainly Rugby Union).

    Certainly, Steve’s observations about rubgy being a better metaphor for an agile team in action than the scrum itself is still valid. Thanks, Steve, for the article – it all makes much more sense. And yes, I agree, Scrum wasn’t the best choice of name once you see the history of the idea.

    • Yes I realize now that the article did talk about rugby league. Rugby league splintered from Rugby Union. Even more confusing to the non rugger: Tom Brown went to the Rugby School in the town of Rugby England. They have an account of the game of rugby football. (basically the variation of European Football (American Soccer) played at the rugby school). FYI American Football came from Rugby Union Football which came from European Football.

      This wiki article talks about the history of the rugby union scrum

  3. Steven,
    You wrote that “…Takeuchi and Nonaka (1986) don’t mention the scrum…”.
    Actually they do mention, but just once. There is a section in their paper titled “Moving the Scrum Downfield”.
    And probably this is what would have been the thought process of Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber to use “Scrum” as a metaphor.
    “Moving the Scrum Downfield” is all about advancing the Scrum (i.e. incrementing the product) working as a team to score points against their opponents (i.e. business , technical, organizational challenges) to win the game (i.e. release the product).

    • Gopinath, thanks for highlighting the heading “Moving the Scrum Downfield”. I missed that. Of course, the section itself doesn’t mention “Scrum” outside the title.

      I agree with you that incrementing the product and working as a team to score points against their opponents (i.e. business , technical, organizational challenges) to win the game (i.e. release the product). My problem is that the Scrum in the game of Rugby is not the way to do this. The Scrum is a rather static method for seizing the initiative but does not move the ball significantly or score by itself. So the analogy from product development to Scrum is poor. It is the team work outside the Scrum that leads to scoring and winning.

      • Quite right. I suppose if you look at the scrum as the starting point for the movement, you could see how they might have picked that metaphor rather than some more obscure rugby term such as “second phase play” or something mundane like “moving the ball forward”.

        When you think of the daily huddle, the scrum, as being the starting point for the forward movement and points being scored, it makes sense, but being faithful to how rugby is played, you could have equally chosen the “lineout” for this, or the “Garryowen” or the “free kick” as these can all initiate forward movement of the ball and the team, and the scoring of points.

        Out of those terms, when you think about agile practices, the “scrum” starts to look like the best choice after all.

        • All good points Alistair. However it seems to reinforce the case that Rugby is more than the Scrum. And it is the wider game that is a better metaphor for product development than the single technique.

          • Completely agree. I guess no metaphor or label is perfect!

      • I don’t know much about Rugby since I live in India where it is hardly played. But if the Scrum huddles in Rugby keep moving towards the opponent’s goal posts as the game progresses, then the analogy is not too bad.
        In the training I conduct I use Basketball as an analogy which the folks here understand better. And while discussing Generalizing Specialists in the team I compare them to All-rounders in Cricket.

  4. This is a great piece. As a former rugby player and someone who has worked in scrum teams, I’ve always had a resistance to the name. Now that I see the roots of where it came from I understand it better. Thanks Steven.

    Actually, I always though “Ruck”, would have been a better name than Scrum, as this play/set piece is much more dynamic and involves a concerted team action.

    • Paul, thanks for popping in. When I wrote the article I thought about mentioning a “Ruck”. Like you, I see the dynamic ruck as having a better fit to product development than the formulaic, and grunty, scrum. But I decided I wouldn’t confuse the issue with yet another Rugby term.

      Ultimately I still think Rugby in general, and its tight interplay between highly skilled specialists, that is the best analogy to product development.

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