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.
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.
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.
Schwaber, K., & Beedle, M. (2002). Agile software development with Scrum. Prentice Hall.
Takeuchi, H., & Nonaka, I. (January-February 1986). "The New New Product Development Game" (PDF). Harvard Business Review