I have never really understood why the Scrum framework calls itself “Scrum”.   And it bothered me, as it must any right-thinking person with their priorities straight.

A rugby scrum. CC License from http://budak.blogs.com/the_annotated_budak/2006/03/page/2/

The scrum in rugby is where the two teams form opposing battlements and push against each other, a ball is introduced to the tunnel formed in the middle and they madly scrabble for control of the ball to slip it out the back; there are fixed roles in the scrum.

  • In Rugby (Union), which is the front row has a hooker to get the ball and two props, behind them are two locks and two flankers, and behind them  is the number 8 who, in the exciting event that all goes to plan, will be passed the ball and do something brilliant.  So a 3+5+1 formation. The front lines form a tunnel into which the ball is fed. The scrum is done by the team members who are designated forwards and are often the heavyweights while the backs specialize in the ball in play and defense: all the team is on the field, there is not a defensive team and an offensive team who swap in and out. A scrum is held to restart a game after a minor infringement. There can be spontaneous kinds of pushing formations formed after a tackle, called a ruck too.  The line-out where players line up and may jump high up to catch a ball thrown in from the edge is not a scrum.
  • In Rugby League there is a 3+2+1 formation and the ball is fed into the second row, so the scrum doesn’t really provide a contest for the ball, if forces a concentration of players into an area and depletion of players elsewhere.
  • Australian Rules, Soccer, Touch Football and Gallic football don’t have scrums.

So there seems to be no connection between real scrums (partial teams meet, contending teams, rigid individual specialization), and the approach of the Scrum Framework. So what gives?

Sutherland and Schaber developed the Scrum Framework after reading a 1986 Harvard Business Review article by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka called New New Product Development Game. You can read it online.  They contrast three styles of manufacturing:

  • sequential or relay-race where the baton is passed in strict order,
  • overlapping like sashimi pieces each one partially overlapping the next
  • holistic or rugby where the ball gets passed within the team as it moves as a unit up the field.

The only mention of scrum in Takeuchi and Nonaka is in a heading Moving the Scrum Downfield which is the general strategic objective of rugby. (Rugby is played in Japan and appreciated as a sport for stockier guys: size-matched sport of course being traditional. They seem to be fans.)

So in terms of rugby, the choice of “Scrum” is pretty confusing: that Sutherland’s website and slides show the more spectacular formation of the line-up is perhaps a sign that the framework is not really concerned with an analogy of the detailed operation of actual scrums. But trying to look at rugby scrums from the viewpoint of an American coming in from gridiron, I can see that different aspects would be latched onto.

The nature of a scrum is:

  • to periodically interrupt the game in a way that allows progress to be checkpointed
  • to allow a reset of play when things are going wrong: order is restored fast
  • the reset occurs by people getting together in a fast huddle which brings the team together and determines the next direction of the ball
  • to provide points where tactical formations can be established, outside the heat of the moment
  • there is a referee (scrum manager) and a ball feeder (product manager)
  • scrums are done by just one team that plays the whole game, not multiple specialist teams who play the game sequentially.

So I can get the use of “scrum” as an effective analogy for people don’t come from rugby playing countries, but ineffective for those of us who do.  When introducing Scrum Framework to people from rubgy-playing countries, perhaps bringing it back to the original relay versus rugby analogy would be helpful.  (I think line-up would be been just as suitable a term as scrum though, hmmm, line-up would not necessarily imply rugby.  Maybe a more exact analogy would be the Australian Rules six tackle rule where each side has a certain number of tackles before scoring until the ball will be given to the other side: not quite time-boxing, but fixed cycles.)