The Scrum Metaphor in Software Development

File:ST vs Gloucester - Match - 23.JPG
Photo by PierreSelim (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I have copied this picture of a rugby scrum from the Wikipedia article, in case it disappears at some time in the future. The caption is “Luke Burgess introduces the ball into the scrum.” Wikipedia says “A scrum (short for scrummage) is a method of restarting play in rugby that involves players packing closely together with their heads down and attempting to gain possession of the ball.

This rugby scrum is the metaphor for the software development process called Scrum (note the capitalization). It’s hard to pin down how widely Scrum is used, but according to a Harvard Business Review article “Embracing Agile”, “scrum and its derivatives are employed at least five times as often as the other techniques.” So it is prevalent.

According to Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum with Ken Schwaber, their ideas originally came from “The New New Product Development Game“, a paper by Hirotaka Takeuci and Ikujiro Nonaka in the January 1986 Harvard Business Review. The first paragraph of that paper says: “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.”

So that is the origin of the rugby idea.

But “scrum” is a crappy metaphor for software development because it seems to say that the team members must compete to gain possession of – what? The ball? What does that even mean? How could it possibly benefit software development?  Takeuci and Nonaka were interested in the cooperative aspect of a rugby team, so to name a cooperative development process after an event whose key feature is fierce competition seems peculiar to say the least.

And I doubt if most Computer Science students suspect that this is what they are signing up for.