The Agile Mindset Blog

Scrum, Rugby and Teamwork

Scrum, Rugby and Teamwork

With the recent popularity of the film “Invictus” and its inclusion as an Olympic sport coming in the 2016 games, many Americans are being exposed to rugby for the first time. Those of us who engage in agile software development practices know that the term “scrum” has its origins in rugby and that Scrum, the agile software development framework, is based on principles inherent to the game. For most people, that is where the understanding of the metaphor stops.

But the connection between Scrum, the framework, and rugby is actually much deeper than many people understand. The game of rugby and the culture behind the sport create a unique kind of teamwork. And it was that spirit of teamwork that induced people to draw parallels between a successful rugby team and a similarly effective software development team.

The origins of the rugby metaphor are generally credited to Professors Takeuchi and Nonaka, authors of “The New, New Product Development Game”. In the findings from their study, published in 1986 in the Harvard Business Review, they draw comparisons between two approaches to product development. The old, less effective way they refer to as a “relay race” approach, where each team member was a specialist and the work progressed sequentially. Instead, they suggest (and give real-world examples of) a more effective “rugby-style” approach, in which a cross-functional team with self-managed roles work together to create a product. The flexibility and creativity of such a team proved vastly more effective in creating successful new product lines.

The premise sounds simple enough. But simple is not the same as easy. Many organizations attempting to use Scrum found the emphasis on team empowerment and lack of up front planning to be in direct conflict with their command-and-control, predictive management styles. This is where a better understanding of the rugby metaphor comes in handy. Scrum is not “Wild West coding”, people doing whatever they feel like, skipping documentation forevermore or any of the other many misconceptions about the framework. Rather, Scrum is about discipline, commitment and the ability to adapt. Good Scrum teams, like a good rugby team, use the following techniques to deliver the products that make their organizations successful.

It’s About “We”, not “Me”

Rugby has one simple rule which defines gameplay more than any other: there is no forward passing. In order to work the ball down the field, it must be passed many times from player to player, as the team attempts to push through their opponent’s defense and score. For this reason, a rugby team moves down the field as a unit, much like a wave. No one player, no matter how skilled, can score without the support of the rest of the team.

Likewise, a good Scrum team learns quickly that they must organize themselves to pass work easily from one person to another. There is no place on a Scrum team for the “superstar” who works alone, without input from or with the team. A key opportunity for coordination of the team’s work happens in the Daily Scrum. That is why doing Daily Scrums effectively and being committed to transparency is so important. It is a primary opportunity for the team to coordinate their effort, expose impediments and plan for the coming work day.

Many Skill Sets, One Team

A standard rugby team has 15 players and each position requires a slightly different body type and skill set. Short, tall, slow but powerful, quick and fast, good hands, kicking ability – not only is there room for all skill types on the field but this blending makes the resulting team much more effective than a similar group of people with identical skills sets. Regardless of position, each player uses their abilities, whatever they are, to further the team goal.

Scrum teams are very similar. They are a cross-functional group with self-managed roles. This means team members decide amongst themselves how best to divide and approach the work. Scrum teams do not need a ScrumMaster or anyone else to assign work to them. It is recognized that the team itself, rather than a manager or lead engineer, are in the best position to decide how to approach the work which they have committed to deliver.

Team members may also choose to “flex” from their specialty as it makes sense. On a Scrum team, one developer may pair with another to facilitate cross-training. A business analyst may help with testing. A tester may help with documentation. Rather than being stuck in rigid roles, the Scrum team adapts to get the work completed.

Being Adaptable

Unlike American football, rugby does not rely on pre-defined plays. A team may have a strategy they hope to use but that can quickly be put aside by an unexpected interception or blocked kick. Coupled with the fact that the ball generally stays in play much longer than a typical football play, this means a rugby team must constantly be ready to adapt. They must work as a unit and use their judgment on a moment-by-moment basis to weigh risks and opportunities in an effort to outmaneuver their opponents.

Scrum teams, likewise, do not start work with elaborate project plans nor thick requirement documents. Instead, they begin with some key information given to them by the Product Owner, namely a Project Goal—a high level, desired end state-- and a few high-priority requirements. The Product Owner then continues to work with stakeholders to create the Product Backlog—a list of prioritized requirements, constantly reprioritizing to get the maximum value for the business. The Scrum team knows the Product Backlog can and probably will be reprioritized each sprint, so they keep their design and technical approach flexible. They focus their attention on getting detailed requirements for items near the top of the backlog, knowing there will be time later to get more information about lower priority requests.

Team Culture

With apologies to soccer fans, every rugby player knows this tongue-in-cheek saying:

“Soccer is a gentlemen’s sport, played by hooligans. But rugby is a hooligan’s sport, played by gentlemen.”

To new fans, the action on the rugby field often seems violent and chaotic, even uncontrolled. But there is actually a strong code of ethics that governs players’ behavior both on and off the field. The Rugby Football Union, governing body of the sport in England, defines rugby core values as “teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship”. These values permeate the game, from the players to the fans, and create a unique international sporting experience.

Scrum promotes a set of values as well, which are “commitment, focus, openness, respect and courage.” As in rugby, these values shape the behaviors of Scrum team members. They encourage them to make commitments as a team, work together to fulfill those commitments, overcome obstacles in productive ways, and approach work with a kind of fearless courage that is “gritty, not glorious”. This is what is truly meant by the term “self-managed team”. Rather than being the disorganized free-for-all that some managers fear, a self-managed team has fully internalized the Scrum values and uses them to their best ability to deliver value to the organization.


The parallels between Scrum teams and their rugby counterparts are many. Both use their collective abilities in an effective, yet flexible way. Both organize work dynamically to achieve a common goal. And, as with rugby, a Scrum team with such flexibility becomes a powerful competitive advantage:

“One of the charms of the Rugby Union game is the infinite variety of its possible tactics…with the ball in its hands, a team is in the best 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.”

Scrum teams, self-organizing and adaptable, are in the best position possible to help their organizations capitalize on and succeed in a changing business climate.




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