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An Agile Framework by Any Other Name

Reflections on the name “Scrum”

29 May 2015


I recently attended a Certified ScrumMaster® course. I have been aware of the Scrum framework since early in the millennium. I have led and participated in teams that have used some adaptation of Scrum since then. Finding myself between jobs, I decided it was finally time for formal training and certification. I have to be honest, I wasn't really expecting much from this class. The Scrum Guide describes Scrum as simple and lightweight. What could we do for two days that would further illuminate what is essentially contained in a 12-page document? However, the guide also states that Scrum is difficult to master, and our instructor, Dhaval Panchal from agile42, did a great job of allowing the class to experience this difficulty firsthand. The training was well worth the time, and I would heartily recommend it to all Scrum practitioners. I should have done it sooner.

But this article isn't about Scrum training per se. Rather, it centers around a question that is raised at every Scrum basic training course: "Where did the name 'Scrum' come from?" Usually, the simple answer is some folksy anecdote about the game of rugby.

I played rugby for a few semesters in college. I played the hooker position, which is the guy smack in the middle of the scrum. It never occurred to me that the name for an Agile process framework could have come from rugby's scrum. The chief reason for this disassociation is that the scrum is performed by the rugby team's forwards, who come together to form the pack. The forwards are generally some of the slowest members of the team. The guys who "have wheels" play the back positions, and they form a line behind the scrum as they wait for the ball to come out.

Beyond this simple observation, there are other reasons why I do not think that scrum within the game of rugby is a particularly good metaphor for Scrum, the Agile framework. Scrum is one of the most dangerous aspects of the rugby game. A great number of rugby fatalities occur when the hooker's head pops out of the scrum. From what I was told when I played, the cervical spine at C1 is essentially driven into the brain stem, causing instant death. This may or may not be an accurate representation of what happens biologically, but it is what I've been told, and it paints a picture. I personally don't like to think that anyone on my development team could be killed or even injured simply because their head wasn't in the Scrum.

A scrum in rugby represents a point in time when there is a stalemate in game play. It allows play to continue but has little relevance to the ongoing play. Finally, rugby scrum is oppositional in nature and pits one team's largest and most stout players against the other team's analog. For all these reasons, I would prefer that Scrum be called something else, but it isn't. So if I inspect a bit further, maybe I can find some things that will allow me to adapt my way of thinking.

As I mentioned earlier, the scrum is performed by the rugby team's forwards when they come together to form the "pack." They are a subteam within the larger team. They are self-forming, and they come together only for the goal of maintaining possession of the ball. Each member of the pack plays a specific position that is largely defined by body type. As they come together, they are tightly bound to each other so that they don't break apart when they engage with the other team's pack. There is some redundancy in the pack, and there are some who play a unique position. The scrum breaks a stalemate and allows play to continue only after a decision is made. In my view, these observations resonate with the Scrum framework.

The best article I found on the origin of the name Scrum is "Scrum is not an acronym" by Gunther Verheyen. According to the article, "scrum" was used to stress the importance of teams in complex product development. Even though I prefer a better name, when I combine these observations with Gunther's genesis story, "Scrum" makes a lot more sense to me.

What do you think?


Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.



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Comments

Ben Morel, CSM, 5/29/2015 4:12:09 AM
As someone who's a big rugby fan and played in their youth (winger, for those interested) I'm afraid I have to disagree with the issues you mention with the scrum and giving that name to an Agile framework. I think it's a highly appropriate name.

As you note, the scrum pack is self-forming, which is an important part of the analogy. But a scrum pack is also cross-functional: you have the hooker trying to get the ball out, two props driving forward and giving stability, second rows supporting them, flankers to turn the scrum into an offensive move at the right time, the number 8 directing, and the scrum half feeding the ball in. No single player is more important than the other: they all lean on each other (very literally) and work together toward a single goal: getting the ball back and starting to run again. In other words the pack is everything a Scrum team should be.

They're also essential to the overall team's success - no strong rugby team has a weak pack - and plenty of players can cover other positions if they need to.

Also, if you think a scrum is a stalemate you've not seen the Welsh, Kiwi, or Irish packs recently! Those guys don't just aim to get the ball out as fast as possible and off to the runners, they work together to drive forwards and push the things impeding them - the opposition pack - backwards as far as they can before getting the ball out. Again, that driving forwards is an apt metaphor for what a Scrum team should be doing in their work.

In all, I think it would be pretty difficult to find a more apt metaphor for an Agile team than the Scrum pack.

As to the dangers, you're much more likely to be hurt while jumping for the ball at the same time as another player - concussion is the big worry there - while running - ankle sprains account for 1 in 7 of all injuries - or in the tackle than in the scrum.

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