How Scrum is like American Football

Scrum really is a team sport. We don’t win the game by individual contributions. We win the game by playing well together, much like in American football. In fact, Scrum is so similar in many ways to this sport, so let’s take a closer look.

The Huddle is Like the Daily Scrum

When a football team huddles together, they’re strategizing about their next play. They may say something like, “We need to make sure that defense is covered, who’s got that weak spot?” and Tony answers, saying, “Hey, I can cover that area.”

The huddle is all about collaboration, because let’s face it—if every player just went off and did their own thing they would never win a game.

All too often a Scrum team gets more worried about showing how busy each person was than how they’re going to collaborate to play the game, which in this case is winning at their sprint commitment. They easily fall into the boring trap of answering the three questions in monotone or sharing everything they’re doing to look busy. “Well, I read my email for 67 minutes and then I blah, blah, blah…”

As a Scrum Master, helping your team visualize the Daily Scrum like a football huddle can be very effective. You may even want to try experimenting with some alternative questions from the standard ones. How about, “What did you do today to meet our team’s sprint goal?” That way you’re bringing the focus back to the team and the goal rather than the individual contributor.

When Scrum teams start to really work as a team, they’re able to focus on outcomes rather than outputs, which is what our customers really need from us. Our customers don’t care how much ‘stuff’ we worked on. They care about having a product or service that they can use.

In football, fans really don’t care a whole lot about what goes on behind the scenes—they care about their team winning!

Players are Cross-Functional in Both Football and Scrum

In both football and Scrum, players ideally take on more than one role. Sure, there’s Tom Brady the all star quarterback and you probably won’t see him doing any other roles, but that’s not true for the entire team. There are many players that step in for special teams, or rotate between offense and defense. The team needs enough flexibility that the coach can determine what’s going to achieve the best outcome at any given point in time.

The same thing holds true for a Scrum team. A few specialized roles are fine—there may be that one rock star data team member that is in high demand, you know, the Brady of your Scrum team. However, not everyone can be a specialist or you end up creating bottlenecks on your team. Some roles should be more generalized and most people should at minimum be able to step out of their role and help out a team member in need.

A Football Coach is Like a Scrum Master

If you’ve ever listened to a football coach, their role isn’t to play the game or to micro-manage players. A coach inspires, motivates and builds up the skillsets of the people on the team. A coach makes sure the team has the right combination of people, provides clear direction on the big picture and generally keeps the team awesome.

Well Scrum Masters—you’re a lot like a football coach. You’re a fearless leader, a motivator of people, you help keep them focused on the sprint goal. You make sure they understand the framework and have everything they need to succeed at their jobs.

If you are a new Scrum Master and your team is just not getting it, try using the football analogies we described here and see if that light bulb goes off. Building professional teams is a key ingredient to being agile.

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