THE RULES OF THE GAME: THERE TO BE BROKEN?

Scrum’s Connection to Rugby

Scrum then and now, Episode 8

Paddy Corry
Jul 30 · 9 min read

When I introduce myself as a Scrum Master, the first thing people often say to me is “is that something to do with rugby?”

I am in the habit of saying no, of course, because in reality, apart from the name and a loose reference to a team working together, Scrum has nothing at all to do with rugby. Not really… right?

Except that Scrum absolutely is connected to rugby, and when I decided to investigate the connection, it turns out it is deeper than I thought.

This post is about how that connection was originally made, how it has evolved over the years, and how it hides in plain sight in the Scrum Guide.


Rugby’s origins are experimentation, adaptability

The origins of rugby (supposedly) are that the brilliantly named Englishman William Webb Ellis broke the rules of an existing game: football.

“The origin of rugby football is reputed to be an incident during a game of English school football at Rugby School in 1823, when William Webb Ellis is said to have picked up the ball and run with it.”

Source: Wikipedia

The greatest parallels can be drawn between Scrum and Rugby here: rugby itself is an evolution of an existing game, and Scrum is about adapting and learning.

In the context of this story, we could argue that the rules of stuffy old football were prescriptive (booo!) and Webb Ellis was adaptive (hurrah!).

Webb Ellis broke the rules of the game, and invented something new.

Source: Flickr.com

In rugby, a Scrum moves forward as a unit

“The traditional sequential or “relay race” approach to product development […] may conflict with the goals of maximum speed and flexibility. 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.”

Source: Takeuchi and Nonaka, (1986), “The New New Product Development Game”, Harvard Business Review

In their Harvard Business Review article from 1986, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka were attempting to describe how Product Development was evolving from the linear, phased approaches of the past to something new. Progress towards iterative, incremental product development practices was already under way.

The two researchers looked at how Japanese companies like Fuji-Xerox and Honda used this learning and experienced the benefits of different approaches to building teams. They describe how teams working in this incremental way can benefit from improved speed and flexibility, and also from the ‘softer’ benefits of shared responsibility, communication, involvement and commitment, among others.

“Like a rugby team, the core project members at Honda stay intact from beginning to end and are responsible for combining all of the phases.”

Source: Takeuchi and Nonaka, (1986), “The New New Product Development Game”, Harvard Business Review

These were visionary ideas. Takeuchi is now a Professor of Management Practice in the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School, and Nonaka is a Japanese organizational theorist and Professor Emeritus at the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy of the Hitotsubashi University.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The two men’s ideas were influential far beyond Japanese organisations. They certainly influenced Jeff Sutherland, one of the authors of the Scrum Guide. Indeed, their impact on Sutherland’s thinking started long before the two men presented at the OOPSLA conference in 1995. As Ken Schwaber says:

“Many of the ideas in Scrum were first apprehended by Jeff Sutherland as he read the writings of Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in the mid-1980s.”

Source: Schwaber, (2010), “The Origins Of Scrum’s Ideas And Techniques

Sutherland appreciated the difference between the relay-race or phased approach to product development and the incremental, iterative alternative, and he could really see the potential of the latter approach. As Ken Schwaber said above, he was aligned with Takeuchi and Nonaka’s way of thinking.

Scrum Master… is that something to do with rugby?

In a 1997 paper, Ken Schwaber named Scrum and explicitly called out the connection to Takeuchi and Nonaka:

“We call the approach the SCRUM methodology (see Takeuchi and Nonaka, 1986), after the SCRUM in rugby — a tight formation of forwards who bind together in specific positions when a scrumdown is called.”

Source: Schwaber, (1997), “The SCRUM Development Process”

In this 1997 paper, Ken Schwaber initially called Scrum a methodology, strangely, and he also made a few explicit connections between Scrum and the sport of rugby.

In this paper he presented 4 similarities.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

“The SCRUM methodology shares many characteristics with the sport of Rugby:

- The context is set by playing field (environment) and rugby rules (controls).

- The primary cycle is moving the ball forward.

- Rugby evolved from breaking soccer rules — adapting to the environment.

- The game does not end until environment dictates (business need, competition, functionality, timetable).”

Source: Schwaber, (1997), “The SCRUM Development Process”

In rugby, context is about environment and rules

We have already covered two of these similarities above (moving forward, and adapting). A third similarity is about context, and it is great to see this mentioned so prominently in the initial abstract definition of Scrum: how it works is all about context. The rules of the game are just one part of this. Environment also plays a massive part in how the game is played. Yes!

Yes, context is important for both a rugby team and a Scrum Team. Scrum is not prescriptive: it is adaptive. How it works is entirely contingent on the context in which it is applied.

‘The game’ does not end until environment dictates

With this last rule, my Serious Scrum colleague Sjoerd Nijland likes a similarity that Scrum Teams work together, just like rugby teams. We don’t just have a Scrum Team for a single game. The team needs to train, learn and live for longer than that. I 100% agree that this brings real benefits, just like Takeuchi and Nonaka saw at Honda back in the 1980’s, and I agree with Sjoerd that Ken is alluding to that here.

I also think this comparison gives us a little insight into how Ken compares the operation of a Scrum Team to a ‘game’. Don’t interpret ‘the game’ as just one rugby match, or just one Sprint. A Scrum Team will indeed live as long as the environment within which they operate dictates. ‘The game’ in this sense is the environment.

Eventually the ‘game’ will intervene on the team: business needs change or new competitors emerge. Many things can impact the narrower context of a Scrum Team. Teams should live long and prosper, but this won’t last forever!

Scrum Teams don’t go on forever

Rugby players use Scrum ‘Meetings’

In another paper in 1998, Schwaber and Sutherland collaborated with Mike Beedle, Martine Devos and Yonat Sharon to publish another paper where the rugby comparison was invoked.

“A rugby team also uses Scrum Meetings”

Source: Beedle, Devos, Sharon, Schwaber, Sutherland, (1998), “SCRUM: An extension pattern language for hyperproductive software development”

This would is a new one on me about rugby, but I guess it is a slightly lateral way of describing how, at different points in a game, a rugby team will meet in a Scrum, where they bind together and work to move the ball forward.

Scrum Teams use meetings for a variety of reasons, and in the current Scrum Guide, these are now known as events (not ceremonies :)

Rugby has ‘phases’

“Under the sequential or relay race approach, a project goes through several phases in a step-by- step fashion, moving from one phase to the next only after all the requirements of the preceding phase are satisfied. […] Under the holistic or rugby approach, the phases overlap considerably, which enables the group to absorb the vibration or “noise” generated throughout the development process.”

Source: Takeuchi and Nonaka, (1986), “The New New Product Development Game”, Harvard Business Review

In the above quote, Takeuchi and Nonaka refer to phases in a project. The notion of a phase also exists in rugby, and involves the whole team working together, until they are forced to stop, and try again one more time.

To explain: in rugby, play continues until something called the ‘breakdown’, where a player is tackled or goes to ground with the ball, and the ball must be ‘recycled’. This means the ball must be picked up by a team-mate, and the team start again in a new play. We count ‘phases’ of play as a team moves forward, and the phases continue until the game stops, either because there is a score, a penalty, or the ball goes out of play.

In rugby, the whole team is involved in each phase of play, and sometimes players operate out of their normal role or position as the needs of the game demand and the moment ‘in play’ requires. Another striking similarity with Scrum’s self-organising, cross-functional teams.


Scrum Guide — ‘The Rules of the Game’

Fast forward to 2010, and the first iteration of the Scrum Guide was published by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland. After that, there isn’t a single direct mention of rugby in the guide.

However… there might just be a little clue about the connection to William Webb Ellis’s experiment that created the game in the first place. That clue appears in plain sight, right on the cover of the Scrum Guide.

Remember how William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and immediately changed things?

“The Rules of the Game.” Is this an ever-so-subtle invitation to experiment with the rules and ‘pick up the ball’ in our own context to create something new and emergent?

Is this the actual connection to Rugby that Sutherland and Schwaber continue to evoke with the name ‘Scrum’?


Conclusion

Sutherland and Schwaber were influenced by Takeuchi and Nonaka when they began experimenting with the methodology that would become the Scrum framework.

The Japanese authors used the metaphor of a ‘rugby approach’ for a team moving together to contrast with a sequential approach, characterised by a ‘relay race’ or series of baton passes.

This diptych of images represent the shift in product development approaches from phased to incremental and iterative.

Takeuchi and Nonaka strongly influenced Sutherland and Schwaber, and the name of Scrum is no coincidence with this metaphor in mind.

But there is more to it than that. In rugby teams, players of different skills work together in short cycles to move a ball forward. Context is critically important to how the game is played by teams. Occasional, focussed meetings such as a Daily Scrum can give coherence to the team’s activities, just like how events progress on a Rugby pitch.

Rugby originated through adaptation, emergence and experimentation with the rules of one particular game. The opening page of the Scrum Guide invites everyone to look at the rules of the game and, you know, maybe break them… if that works for you. Who knows, you might create something new!

In these ways, Scrum really is similar to rugby.

I guess you learn something every day!

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Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

Thanks to Sjoerd Nijland and Daniel Westermayr

Paddy Corry

Written by

Scrum Master, world traveller, language learner, bloke.

Serious Scrum

Content by and for serious scrum practitioners.

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