I love the analogy of scrum in agile thinking.  A team of 8 players holding each other in a tight-knitted group ready to make a successful play. 

Having grown up in Wales and lived in New Zealand for many years, rugby is well ingrained into my thinking.  I do understand what a scrum is and how a well trained, well disciplined unit can gain a tremendous advantage.  There is that discipline, the order in which things happen: Crouch, Bind, Set; each member knows what happens at each call.  These are the rules of engagement. When two big packs come together it looks impressive and controlled; the ball goes in one side and comes neatly out the back.

I’d like to think the scrum teams I’ve been a part of, and those I’ve coached are like a well disciplined forward pack going into a scrum.  Everything working to order – stories in at one end, value come out the other.

In practice however, even a long way into the game, our scrums more often resemble a rolling-maul.

If you don’t understand the rules of rugby (and to be fair, many people who play the game don’t…), a rolling-maul occurs not from a set play but in open play when a player is tackled but stays on his/her feet and holds onto the ball.  A mass of players seem to converge towards the ball, with much pushing and shoving. To avoid being caught offside, players peel off the front of the maul and re-join at the back.

Compared to a scrum it looks chaotic and unstructured.

And that is how some teams appear.  Chaotic and unstructured. We want the discipline of a set play, but things are happening all around – people come and go, disruptive elements tackle us from the side, waterfall governance seems to hit us like a prop forward front on.

Yes, a rolling-maul might be a better description.

A rolling-maul is a legitimate part of the game of rugby, used well it can be a powerful weapon.  The challenge is to keep it moving forward or the referee will blow his whistle and the opposition get a penalty.

So, how do we ensure in our agile world that we can still keep moving forward in our version of the rolling-maul; how can we turn this into an advantage?

It’s hard to coach the unpredictable, but if you are prepared, resilient, flexible, adaptable – then you are more likely to cope with the messy, unstructured world that is often ours.  The retrospective is rather like a time-out is a rugby game – a short time in the middle of the action to reflect and see what small changes we can introduce that might just be game-changing.  I really recommend using these sessions to discuss how as a team we can cope with these influences, often external, that can help provide some structure even in the midst of what may appear to be chaos.  

Look carefully at the next rolling-maul you see in a game of rugby – you might be surprised at how much discipline and structure there actually is amongst the chaos.   Your agile team is likely to display more discipline and structure than perhaps might appear on the surface.

What tips do you have to help your agile teams in a rolling-maul?

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