Why is Scrum called Scrum?

Sjoerd Nijland
Jan 10 · 4 min read

What does Scrum represent?

The origins of Scrum

The term ‘scrum’ itself is an abbreviation from scrummage (transferred sense of a “noisy throng”, “tumultuous crowd” or a “rabble”). Scrummage or scrimmage is an alteration of skirmish.

Scrumming is often used to describe a tightly packed disorderly crowd. But in Rugby it defines a joining together in a tight organised formation.

Photo by Quino Al

Paddy Corry shares an interesting anecdote in Scrum’s Connection to Rugby that “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.” Wikipedia

The history of the use of Scrum in product development starts in a paper published in 1986 featured in the the Harvard Business Review:

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by Ikujiro Nonaka en Hirotaka Takeuchi

Although this paper originates back over three decades it is still surprisingly actual and reading it today makes one wonder why more than thirty years later Scrum is still this controversial.

“In today’s fast-paced, fiercely competitive world of commercial new product development, speed and flexibility are essential. Companies are increasingly realizing that the old, sequential approach to developing new products simply won’t get the job done. Instead, companies in Japan and the United States are using a holistic method — as in rugby, the ball gets passed within the team as it moves as a unit up the field.” — The New New Product Development Game [emphasis added]

So, rather than passing work down in a sequential relay race, Scrum is the metaphor introduced for moving work forward as a team.

Nonaka and Takeuchi seemed particularly inspired by the definition of Rugby by John Arlott:

“The sport of rugby One of the charms of the Rugby Union game is the infinite variety of its possible tactics. Whatever tactics a team aims to adopt, the first essential is a strong and skilful [sic] pack of forwards capable of winning initial possession from the set pieces. For, with the ball in its hands, a team is in a position to dictate tactics which will make the best use of its own particular talents, at the same time probing for and exposing weaknesses in the opposing team. The ideal team has fast and clever half-backs and three-quarters who, with running, passing, and shrewd kicking, will make sure that the possession won by the forwards is employed to the maximum embarrassment of the opposing team. — From The Oxford Companion to World Sports and Games ed. John Arlott (London: Oxford University Press) 1975

“Moving the scrum downfield”

That’s the first chapter title of the publication and where we find the first and only (!) use of the term Scrum. But it’s this chapter that introduces these prerequisites to hyper-productivity:

  • Built-in instability (instability by design)
  • Self-organizing teams
  • Autonomy
  • Self-transcendence
  • Cross-fertilization
  • Overlapping development phases
  • “Multilearning”
  • Subtle control
  • Organizational transfer of learning

The Sprint

The Sprint doesn’t originate until later.

It’s in 1993 where Jeff Sutherland outlined the first rules, roles and artefacts of the Scrum framework and was influenced by concepts from Goldratt’s theory of constraints, lean manufacturing and focussed on muri, mura, and muda. (source: the scrum papers).

It’s from here on the term Scrum turned from being used as a metaphor to actually becoming synonym to “adding flexibility to product development”.

We can guess that the use of Sprint does have its roots from the New New Development Game which refers to ‘going the distance as a unit’. It’s short and explosive. Balls are played back and forth dynamically through all sorts of obstacles through quick decisive instinctive decision making.

Photo by Quino Al

“Where a team tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth-may better serve today’s competitive requirements.” — The New New Product Development Game

Scrum made its own publication in the Scrum Development Process paper at at OOPSLA in 1995 by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber where, over the years, following various adaptations it’s definition now rings:

Scrum (n): A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value.” — The Scrum Guide

As Tony Collins, a historian covering Rugby, remarks:

“Because it involves to so many variables, the scrum is impossible to regulate consistently. It is inevitable that it becomes a tangle of broken rules and roguish players.” — The Evolution of Scrum

This could be equally true for the Scrum Product Development Framework. And it pays to remember, this is instability by design! as it fosters creativity, agility and hyper-productivity.

So there you have it. If you know any more interesting trivia about the origins of the term Scrum, I hope you are willing to share them in the comments.

References used:

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Thanks to Maarten Dalmijn and Willem-Jan Ageling

Sjoerd Nijland

Written by

Scrum nerd (PSMIII, SPS, PSPOII, PSD, PSU), Agile geek (PAL), Serious Scrum founder

Serious Scrum

Content by and for Scrum Practitioners.

Sjoerd Nijland

Written by

Scrum nerd (PSMIII, SPS, PSPOII, PSD, PSU), Agile geek (PAL), Serious Scrum founder

Serious Scrum

Content by and for Scrum Practitioners.

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