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.

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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 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.

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:

“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.

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Photo by Quino Al

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:


As Tony Collins, a historian covering Rugby, remarks:

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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