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Scrum - Accelerating Team Performance

Scrum Team

When implementing Scrum into our workflow we don’t often think about the meaning of the word Scrum. Where did it come from? What does it stand for? Most people seem to think it’s an acronym for something. Jeff Sutherland created the framework in 1993 and he borrowed the term “Scrum” from professors Takeuchi and Nonaka’s publication in the Harvard Business Review “The New New Product Development Game” wherein they compared high performing teams to a rugby team.

“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.” (Nonaka, 1986)

In case you aren’t familiar with Rugby, a scrum is generally used to restart play in an organized fashion. It shares some similarities with a jump-ball in basketball in that in some cases it can be used to restart play, while at the same time deciding ball possession when there is some doubt. There are additional complexities involved which I won’t get in to, but suffice it to say that both teams come together to resume play in formation, they all work together to regain control of the ball so they can move it down the field to score a goal. The team works together to push into the opposition to achieve the common goal of recovering possession of the ball. A scrum can generate as much as 3000 lbs of force, which would be like giving a large rhinoceros a piggy back ride.

When teams work together, greatness can be achieved. In his book Scrum, The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Jeff Sutherland describes transcendent, autonomous, cross-functional teams that can do great things. A scrum in Rugby is just a group of people all pushing towards a common goal. In Scrum, we strive to do the same thing and focus on improving team performance to increase our velocity and achieve greatness.

But why focus so heavily on the team and the process around them? Because that is where we can find the greatest improvements in productivity. In his book, Jeff Sutherland describes the difference in time required for the fastest individual vs the slowest individual to complete a task was about 10:1 between the fastest and the slowest. Ten times faster. He goes on to describe a similar study which looked at team performance and the difference between the best and the worst was much larger. 2000:1. The best teams are 2000 times faster than the worst teams. So we can see the greatest improvements in productivity by increasing our team’s performance. This is what all the ceremony and process of Scrum is intended to do, increase the performance, communication, transparency, autonomy, and synergy of the team.

A Scrum team is ideally made of 7 people, ±2. Not too big and not too small. The daily stand-up is one of the keys ways we identify things that are slowing down the team so they can be removed. It facilitates communication between team members where they can offer each other assistance and fosters accountability and transparency. The team is informed of blockers early so they can be dealt with, and escalated by the Scrum Master if necessary. We can do this effectively in 15 minutes or less by allowing each team member to answer 3 key questions: 1.) What did you do work on yesterday to complete the sprint? 2.) What are you doing today to complete the sprint? 3.) What is preventing you from completing your commitments in this sprint?

Another key tenant of a Scrum team is to empower that team to deliver the product from beginning to end. They must have all the necessary skills to get things done from beginning to end. In rugby, the same players that retrieve the ball in the scrum will run the ball towards the goal. Handoffs between teams cause delay and introduce additional potential for mistakes. There is a blink of an eye where miscommunication can happen and the ball can be dropped. Putting the right people on each team to deliver the full product increment minimizes the risk for this kind of delay.

The Sprint Retrospective is another way that Scrum fosters communication in the team and keep us all pushing towards a common goal. At the end of every Sprint, we meet with the team to discuss the process. What is going well? What can be better? What needs to stop? Who did something excellent to accelerate the team, or help a team mate? The team chooses one or two things to improve in the next sprint and we commit to making it better with an actionable task. By regularly discussing ways to improve the process we can get those incremental improvements which move a team from mediocre to great.

Scrum is simply a way to organize our efforts to get the most out of them. By organizing ourselves so that we are all pushing together towards a common goal, like a scrum in rugby, we can do far more than we would ever be able to achieve alone.

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