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How Scrum is like Soccer: Efficiency

As I described yesterday, this is the second part of my little Christmas series, in which I compare scrum to modern soccer. Today I focus on the efficiency in either discipline and tomorrow I will discuss cross-functional teams.

When you want to look back in time and see how soccer was played in its beginning (say, 150 years ago) that’s easy to achieve. Just visit a game of your local kindergarten team. The squad size may vary, but there’s always one keeper and the rest of the team is chasing the ball. Like crazy. Each of the kids desperately wants to have the ball. If it wasn’t for those cute little jerseys, you could barely recognize who plays for which team. The whole match seems a tiny little bit chaotic.

And while the fight for the ball is happening on the pitch, the parents are standing outside and watch it. There are all sorts of different feelings involved, but whenever one of the children takes a break from running after the ball, for whatever reason, you can count on one of the parents yelling at them: “Move!”

Even though it is obvious that the constant ball chase is highly inefficient, parents seem to appreciate any movement higher than none.

Over the time people noticed that it was more efficient for the team, if there is one guy with a special job. Supporting the keeper. Let’s call that person a defender. The first defenders were yelled at in the stadiums of the world just as kids are today. These guys are lazy, they said. They don’t support the team, they said.
But their teams became more successful.

In fact, the teams became so much superior, that soon people thought to have another one of these defenders. And later a third one. And eventually a fourth. Also, there could be players between those that play and those that are lazy. Let’s call them midfielders.

This way the whole game became more and more defensive, which reached its peak in an Italian trademark: The catenaccio. It does not contain any offensive players at all. Even today, you still see this system every once in a while. However, the international soccer audience is very happy that it was not the final mark of the football tactics evolution.

In soccer, people realized that it is not the most efficient way to just chase the ball. Instead, it makes sense to have members of the team that are not utterly active and yet play an important role for the team. The key term here is positional play.

In traditional software project management a team member, who is not fully busy, is considered inefficient. Scrum follows a different approach. It is considered to be more important to have a team that can act as a unit and can be productive as such. Efficiency is only valued on the team as a whole and not on individuals. Just like in modern soccer, the team and the product (ball and score) is the focus, not the individual team members. Individuals are difficult to value from outsiders; plain busyness is clearly not a good measure…

Tomorrow, I will post a discussion about cross-functional teams in modern soccer and how it reflects scrum teams. Until then, enjoy your Christmas holidays.

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