When scrums aren’t scrums

One reality of the old-fashioned boarding school was that academic teachers coached games. A colleague of mine could break your heart with his cricket stories: he just could not go on watching small boys failing to bowl half the distance between wickets, then walking forward at last to pick up the ball for them. Cricket made my colleague too sad. He had to leave the school.

So when I switched career I was horrified at first to learn that scrums might be a feature of my new working life as well. I’d escaped cricket early on by the simple ruse of umpiring extremely badly on an away match, but my problem used to be that I was built more like a rugby player. A bit of rugby coaching was inescapable. Boys — no co-ed sport at my places, by the way; boys are bigger than they were when I had to play that game, so you’d have to say today that I’m a bit like a mini-prop-forward. But I knew what scrums would be like.

I was very glad to hear that there would be no waterfalls. Another school that employed me had us going out in the wilds, and everyone loves a waterfall in principle but I am also nervous of heights. I have no idea if another old soldier/teacher’s story was true, of the time that gusts of wind had caught one of his boys under an old-fashioned metal-frame rucksack and inflated him like a kite so that the pupil flew away and had to be brought down. Even a non-academic teacher might have found that hard to deal with.*

Still, I’d rather be in a scrum than waterfall, glide or freefall, so I was ready and willing for Agile. Mind: a friend’s first brush with it ran into siloes. There the Agile-managed people were, ready to launch, but unfortunately no one else knew. The email informing everybody else detonated like a subterranean bio-bomb. It took a bit of old-school project management to put Humpty back together again.

It occurred to me, therefore, that a few pointers from the actual pitch of schoolboy rugby might help.

1. Pass the ball iteratively and incrementally down the line.

2. Remember: your scrumdown phases are your burndown chart.

3. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools, as long as the ref doesn’t see.

4. Kanban gives you the element of surprise.

5. Scrum Mastery is servant leadership in the spirit of the Sandhurst manual, Serve to Lead, or indeed, the Gospels.

6. LeSS is maul.

7. DAD is the daddy.

8. No ceremonies on the field.

9. Oranges are encouraged at half-time — or you could eat them from home in These Strange Times.

10. ‘Creative refereeing’ is a sort of DevOps for schools. If you stopped the game every time it wasn’t being played properly (safety permitting), at this level, you’d never get going.

As you know, Bruce Tuckman’s four-stage group-development model (1965) can be compared to the four that my driving instructor taught me: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence, are not unlike forming, storming, norming and performing. These in turn are not wholly unlike the Donald Rumsfeld Trio, with the slightly unnerving caveat that scrums storm with the known knowns, norm with the known unknowns, and perform with unknown unknowns. There’s also Bloom’s Taxonomy in teaching and Edward de Bono’s six lateral thinking hats, but that’s all we have time for.

Power and status get assigned in the storming stage, which is when the scrum collapses. It may also be useful to remember how the commands have changed over the years 2007, 2012, 2013 and quite possibly on other occasions since I stopped coaching:

Crouch and hold / Crouch / Crouch / Crouch / Sprint planning

(none) / Touch / Touch / Bind /Daily scrum

(none) / Pause / (none) / (none) / Sprint review

Engage / Engage / Set / Set / Sprint retrospective

And above all, remember: standing together in the corner is not being a scrum.

Of course, my experience is drawn from bottom teams. The cadence of a bottom team goes on a remarkably low note, and I expect you’ll be able to add finesse to your scrum. But I offer this Agile Schoolmastery for what it may be worth.

*It is vital to understand that all anecdotes belong to the generation of teachers before current regulations and are probably entirely untrue.

Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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