Scrum… and the Rugby World Cup

I've been working with Scrum, an agile development methodology, since 2013. As the 2019 Rugby Union World Cup kicks off, I couldn’t help ask myself: what has ‘Scrum’ got to do with rugby?

The 2019 Rugby Union World Cup kicks off today. I've been working with Scrum, an agile development methodology, since 2013. As a rugby fan and a product nerd, I couldn’t help ask myself: what has ‘Scrum’ got to do with rugby? 

Firstly, what is a scrum in rugby? It's just a method of restarting play with players packing down and shoving against each other to get possession of the ball. It requires close coordination in real-time for a single purpose — sounds like agile development, right? Let’s stretch that analogy!

The players have different roles in the scrum, again just like the agile development team:

  • The Props’ main role is to provide stability at the scrum and support the Hooker in quickly winning the ball. “Scrum Masters” in agile do something similar. They provide the environment for a development team to be successful through coaching, minimising distractions, and removing blockers. 
  • The Hooker goes between the Props. They "strike" the ball with their heel to get the ball to their team. Something like a development team accepting requirements from a prioritised list.
  • The Second Row players are the engine room providing all the pushing power in the scrum. These are the developers in Scrum (though they might not thank me for saying that when you see some of the fine specimens that have played this position).
  • The Back Row provides a bit of extra shove in the scrum but also controls the ball if it squirts out the side and keeps it safe for the scrum-Half. Think QA and Dev Ops making sure the feature comes out the right way, safely.
  • The Scrum-Half feeds the ball into the scrum and then passes it out. They are the link between the forwards that make up the scrum (the “piano movers”) and the backs (the “piano players”) just as a Product Manager is a link between the development team and the rest of the business.

But I think you can stretch the analogy even further still!

AAs a player in rugby, your objective is to touch the ball down over the try line (5 points) under the posts (to kick the extra 2 points easily). Scoring a try is like a feature, or set of features, that gets adoption by your target users. Scoring under the posts is like a feature that totally nails the customer need and sees explosive, viral growth. In either case, the forwards in rugby play their part in more scenarios than just a scrum.

If you've already worked up the pitch, sometimes you can shove the other side back over the line in a scrum and ground the ball to score like this...

...this would be like grinding your way forward, feature after feature, without engaging sales and marketing until finally, you work it out. Yep, this doesn't happen often.

In rugby, you get the ball out of the scrum and pass it to the backs for their fancy footwork. Sometimes they get it just right, cut through the opposition and score like this...

...it's like sales and marketing totally nailing it with the product you've given them, first time. Yep, this doesn't happen very often either!

What’s more normal is that the backs run into trouble and get held up. Maybe the game gets a bit scrappy. Maybe you get pinned back near your own try line. You get bogged down. But in a moment of genius, everything can suddenly click with backs and forwards breaking loose.

Like this (bear with the grainy image and slow build up for, probably, the greatest try ever)...

You know when Product, Sales and Marketing suddenly come together to understand the situation in front of them, adjust quickly, and move on through? This is the beautiful game.

Sometimes though, it's a real slog. You think you're nearly there, right on the line but you... just... can't... quite... get... over... it. Like this (8 minutes of your life you will never get back)...

...it's like being in a market with customers telling you they’re “interested, but” then not buying it so you have to build a little bit more functionality and they tell you they’re still “interested, but” and on it goes. We've all been there!

If you’re really unlucky, you just get totally smashed in the middle of the park. Like this…

…it’s like you’re happily trying your product with customers, take a bit of a risk, and then BOSH you find out that your product has no hope, never had any hope, and was probably just a feature for Google (now), or Microsoft (20+ years ago), or IBM (40+ years ago). It takes a big effort to get back up from that.

So let's enjoy the real rugby and spare a thought for all the bruises, disappointment and joy along the way. Just like agile Scrum development. 

Oh, and I'm sure Scotland are going to win…

20 September 2019

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By Doug Conely