I worked in Belgium for about an year or so, and that is where I saw my first rugby game. It was in a bar full of english and french fans, and during the game a friend of mine asked me why the term scrum was used in agile. In rugby, scrum refers to the locking of heads between two teams where each one is trying to stop the other from making progress; this is what it looks like for those of you who don’t know what he was talking about.
As you may well imagine – this is the opposite of what you want to achieve with Agile. This question was posed to me a few years ago, and until recently I didn’t know the right answer to it.
That changed when I started reading Jeff Sutherland’s – Scrum – The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.
The book itself is excellent, and I highly recommend it, and also, since Jeff Sutherland developed the Agile approach – it makes sense that I would find the answer here.
Jeff Sutherland based his Agile methodology on a paper written by two Japanese professors – Hirotaka Tageuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka called The New New Product Development Game. This paper was published in the Harvard Business Review in 1986, and it forms the basis of Sutherland’s Agile methodology.
This paper refers to the ‘Rugby Approach’, and reading it explains why the term scrum was used.
Relay Race versus Rugby
The authors drew two analogies in the paper – the first one was that traditional product development as espoused by NASA with their PPP (Phased Program Planning) system was like a relay race.
Each team does its work, and then hands it over to the next team after their checkpoint is met. In this relay race each team is made of specialists, and there is no overlapping of phases. Design should be completed before development begins, and development should be completed before testing can begin, and so on and so forth.
In contrast to this the authors were recommending a rugby approach where the whole team is made of specialists, phases overlap, and team members work together to take the ball forward. One of the most remarkable rules of rugby is that you cannot pass the ball forward! You have to pass the ball behind you and run forward with it.
They called these two different ways of thinking the linear approach versus the integrated approach, and the process itself was called the overlapping development process.
In the paper, they write about moving the Scrum downfield, and this is where the term scrum is used.
So, when the term scrum is used – it is not literally referring to the scrum rugby players engage in, but rather the process of passing the ball back and forth, and working as a unit to take the ball down-field.
The Sashimi Analogy
Another interesting expression used in the paper is the Sashimi style of product development. This was in fact the name of the system used by Fuji Xerox when it changed their PPP system that they inherited that from their parent organization to a more overlapping system.
Sashimi itself is when you place raw fish with a slight overlap on each other, and it made sense that they used this analogy in Japan.
Another interesting thing about the naming was that the authors were very careful not to use the word Lean anywhere as it had a strong connotation with the system produced by Toyota, and they didn’t want their message to be obfuscated with Toyota’s methodology.
The principal idea that the authors were trying to convey, and that Sutherland adopted was to contrast the traditional waterfall way of doing things of moving from one phase to another to one where all phases overlapped, and a team was formed of people with diverse skills.
They used two very memorable analogies to state this – the relay team versus the rugby team, and scrum was a natural way for them to describe this. It doesn’t literally refer to the scrum that rugby players get into but rather refers to the interplay between various players who work as a unit to move the ball down the field, and work together to that end.