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Agile is not just about speed

04.23.2009
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Without doubt, Scrum has become a household name in Software Development arenas. Scrum as we all know it today, is not an acronym but derives from the game of rugby. A Scrum in Rugby is a loose formation of forwards designed to bring the rugby ball back into play. It was Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in their revolutionizing article The New New Product Development Game for the Harvard Business Review who first used Rugby as the best analogy to describe new product development. Although at the time I am sure they did not realize how much of an impact their research would have on new Software development.

It is interesting to try to understand why Takeuchi and Nonaka picked Rugby as the best analogy for describing the characteristics of competitive companies engaged in new product development. 

In my opinion, it wasn't for the "scrum" or the "sprint" terminology which most people tend to accept, but rather because of a Rugby team's ability to self organize and adapt on the fly as the game play changes from second to second. And as a self organized team be able to move the play forward effectively and efficiently without a predetermined plan. 

This is evidenced in Nonaka and Takeuchi's paper that reads: 

"Instead, 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."(See Footnote 1) and that "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"(See Footnote 2)

This incidentally also represents the source for the concept of cross-functional teams required to build complex software products.

Further, comparing traditional waterfall processes to an agile process is like comparing American Football to the game of Rugby. In American Football, game-play is predetermined, and players execute a carefully crafted plan to outwit the opposition. Rugby on the other hand may have some overarching plan, but the play itself really determines the outcome. Players need to figure out how to outwit the opponent as the game proceeds. Rugby players think on their feet.

Scrum founders Ken Schwabber and Jeff Sutherland most likely chose to continue the Rugby analogy as they adapted and applied the learnings from this paper to new software development. I am sure a lot of thought went into choosing the Scrum terminology and here's my take on it.


The Sprint in my opinion was chosen for two reasons:

1. To denote UN-INTERRUPTED time for the team to focus on getting the job done. The Sprint is the phase in the game of Rugby where the team is left to their own devices to get "the ball" to the goal line.

I have seen many software projects fail in my 20 year career in software development, and in most cases it was because of the continuous churn. Developers not given the time to devote their attention to detail, to technical excellence and to get something done. Typically these projects are so chaotic that it's almost impossible for any forward momentum. The Sprint in Scrum is designed to give software development teams this time to shape the software and bake the architecture for the for future iterations. In this way, Scrum helps to contain the chaos that surrounds the Sprint.

2. To denote agility. When Rugby teams sprint for the goal line they have to execute multiple phases, sometimes going from side to side but constantly figuring out how to outwit the opponent and move the ball forward.

It is this characteristic of agility that I believe gives teams the greatest chance for success. Being agile allows teams to be flexible and adaptable. After all, this is the real world - technology is constantly changing, competitors are constantly breathing down our necks releasing new product, employees leave and new ones start.

Many of my colleagues however mistakenly think that the reason the "Sprint" was chosen to denote an iteration is because of speed. 

My belief however is that yes, speed is an important consideration but it's not the bee-all and end-all. One must not fall into the trap that Sprint = Speed  and therefore adopting Agile means you'll ship faster, as this will surely lead to failure.

Continuing the Rugby analogy then, what is the significance of the Scrum?

The Scrum in my opinion signifies the notion of servant leadership where the team decides the course of action, not the coach. A Scrum is a relatively loosely coupled temporary formation of players during which the team bands together to form a coherent single thrust of energy focused toward one goal - getting the ball back. Scrum teams once in the groove build up significant forward momentum where the total output of the team is much greater than the sum of each individuals output. I call this being in the zone. Scrum guru's refer to this as hyper-productivity.
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1. Takeuchi, H. and I. Nonaka, The New New Product Development Game. Harvard Business Review, 1986(January-February): 2.
2. Takeuchi, H. and I. Nonaka, The New New Product Development Game. Harvard Business Review, 1986(January-February): 3.

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Jack Milunsky.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)