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Want to Succeed in Agile? Learn from Rugby!

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One recurring theme in recent conversations with CIOs has been their increasing interest in DevOps and their recognition of the importance of having the right culture. In fact, three C words: Culture, Collaboration, Communication. The general feeling is that if Agile is difficult, distributed Agile is challenging – and DevOps requires organizational rethinking. But, they agree, the benefits of moving to a DevOps environment far outweigh these challenges, in particular in delivering, at pace, the software needed for organizations to provide quality digital services that meet ever-changing business and user needs.

We are now approaching the end of the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup, which has 20 teams from across the world competing in this glorious sport. Teams from nations such as the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Japan, as well as established Tier 1 rugby nations such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Ireland and Wales (poor England; for the first time in the history of the Rugby World Cup, the host nation will not survive the pool stage).

Rugby provides a great exemplar of what is needed for agile-enabled DevOps to succeed. I have outlined the analogy to a number of CIOs: all have been in agreement, if initially somewhat bemused.

So what can rugby teach the IT services market about an agile, continuous delivery approach to product development?

Let me count the ways….

  1. A great coach: in rugby, the driving force behind the team’s motivation and behaviors, as well as identifying and making sure that all necessary training and skills development is provided to team members. A great coach and scrum master will always have a short, mid and long term strategy in mind and a specific game plan for each match. They also take the heat off the players when there is pressure
  2. Multi-function, multi-skilled team: take a look at the height and weight of some of the players in the World Cup teams and you will see huge variations: some teams have players ranging from 1.75m to 2.08m in height, and from under 80kg up to 126kgs in weight. This diversity reflects the very different skill sets possessed: for example, by a flanker and the fly half, or a wing and the hooker (just to be clear, the hooker is the guy who “hooks” the ball when it enters a scrum!)
  3. A great captain, who demonstrates leadership on and off the field, combined with a self-organized team that has been empowered through training and cultural affiliation
  4. Collaboration, communication and sharing: essential for a team to succeed in rugby. Rugby tries are usually scored after a number of brilliantly executed (and oft-practiced) moves involving multiple players. The World Cup has featured some memorable tries where one player, having made a huge effort and nearly on the try line, passes the ball to a team-mate to ensure that the try is secured. There is no room in rugby for players looking for personal glory - success is very much a team effort. In the same way, collaboration, communication and sharing is also the bedrock of Agile development, in the analysis, design, development, and QA functions, and in DevOps, between development, QA, and IT operations.
  5. Passion/common mindset/alignment to the game plan, with a clear view of the match (business) requirements: also essential for a team to succeed
  6. Discipline and professionalism in approach: as well as passion, rigor and discipline are as key in agile development and in DevOps environments as they are in rugby
  7. Scrums (which is where my analogy was born). Rugby law requires players in the scrum to drive straight-forward and square, a focused, disciplined approach that is also best practice for Agile. A successful scrum in rugby makes progress; an unsuccessful scrum collapses
  8. Short sprints: often in rugby (not always) coming after a set piece such as a scrum 
  9. Incremental progress/move fast: most of the time, a rugby player will advance just a few meters before they must pass or offload the ball. The team’s progress to the opposing try-line tends to be incremental and iterative in nature (the intercept and glorious long run to the try-line is a rare thing)
  10. Fail fast/learn fast/recover fast: events during a match may require a slight adjustment to the planned game tactics. The best teams learn quickly, recover and adapt when planned tactics are not working. Teams that stick rigidly in these circumstances to planned tactics fail. Communication between team members (which may include new suggestions from the coach, relayed by a replacement coming onto the field) is critical for this level of adaptability
  11. Post-mortems/continuous improvement: key to ongoing improvement, by identifying areas in need of improvement. Some teams have turned up at this World Cup clearly better in specific areas than they were even six months ago. And some teams have made progress from match to match
  12. Automation: obviously key in DevOps environments, which heavily use tools, e.g. for release management, provisioning, configuration management, monitoring, and testing, But what about rugby? Well, each of the players is monitored closely during matches (each carries a sensor on their back). And the coach depends heavily on analytics (from training, of matches, of individual player performance, of competitors, etc.) when developing a game plan. Any other ideas for automation in rugby?

So there we are: the Rugby World Cup provides us with a template for agile and for thinking about moving to a DevOps environment. What do you think? Any more we can squeeze out of this analogy (perhaps on Transparency, or minimizing hand-offs, or the concept of the minimum viable product?)

I am, sadly, not too familiar with American Football, but there are some obvious similarities, and I imagine this might also be an exemplar. And with distributed agile often involving delivery from India, perhaps India should consider taking up rugby as a national sport!

P.S. In case you're interested, the team I am supporting is through to the quarter finals, but who will win the World Cup this time? Well, just to hedge my bets, I’ve got some Kiwi accessories and can claim family there.

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