Monday, October 11, 2010

Games People Plan and Lessons Gleaned From Them

My fellow Scrum Trainer and Coach, Bob Sarni, and I recently watched a US college football (American style football, not real football) game up close. Bob and I live in the same town and I invited him to work the sidelines with me at an Illinois State University game. That meant that we would maintain the location of a couple of the field markers (i.e. the auxillary down box and the line-to-gain marker) on the home team sideline during the game. It isn't difficult work, though it can get a bit dangerous when plays occur on the sideline near where we stand (we move up and down the field as the play moves.)

We talked before the game about how various sports, including US football, seem to emulate the inspect and adapt pattern of Scrum projects. Bob mentioned that each of the 2 teams does a quick stand up between every play, though there isn't enough time for all 11 players to report on what they did the play before, what they intend to do on the next play, and what impediments they have. Some of that happens spontaneously, of course, (as in "Hey, I was open on that post route to the wide side," etc.), but mostly the players listen to the quarterback call the play or repeat the play that a substitute has brought in from the sideline. Everyone is generally quiet and thinks about what they have to do on the next play. Of course, the quarterback can change the play with an "audible" - code speak that everyone on the team understands (or hopefully understands.) Likewise, the defense has a similar process except the coaches often relay the defensive tactic from the sideline with the use of various hand signals.

As we walked up and down the sideline, Bob and I observed various instances of mis-communications and other mistakes by each team. Teams who practice regularly make mistakes and even really good players make mistakes. But the team has to constantly work together and its "chemistry" has to come together for the chaos of play to take on some kind of beneficial order. That is, the team must work hard for the play to become "chaordic." Really good teams do not lean on any one person too much - everyone must perform well enough in his position so that the team can make order out of chaos. When a player fails at something seemingly insignificant, the entire process can break down and plays fail to the advantage of the opposing team. Teams that consistently perform better than the their opponents will win much more often - gee, that sounds familiar in the world of work!!

Some teams try to play without the between plays huddle (a process called naturally enough the "hurry up offense.") But teams can only run a limited number of plays in this process and there is a greater chance that one or more players will make an error. Because an opponent is involved, such errors can be very costly as they can squelch opportunities for the team and/or present the other team with opportunities.

In my Scrum classes, I often speak about how project teams cannot rely on one appointed or emergent leader. That places too much burden and risk on the success or failure of that person's performance and like a football team that relied upon the QB to "do it all," the project team likely would soon find itself underperforming. The team must accept and leverage that its collective strengths and abilities are much more formidable than a single person or even small group of people and everyone brings some strengths with them that the team has to discover and appreciate. Sometimes these strengths are even hidden in the recesses of unchallenged skills, etc.

So, the next time you watch a game, whether it is US football, "real" football, rugby, etc. you might think about how the 2 teams are faring through optimizing their process of play. It is a process, of course, often times charted out in sophisticated diagrams showing where players should go or be in designed play. But, if you watch carefully, especially with 2 teams that are fairly evenly matched in size, strength, and speed, you will see that leaders of all sorts emerge at different times during the game and the good and great teams inspect and adapt their play continuously in much the same ways that occur in strong agile teams.

And look for people on the sidelines that seemingly have nothing to do with the game itself but are doing some mundane work like taking photos, collecting sound, or simply helping the teams and officials know where important points are on the field (ocassionally these people even get run over by players - that is a risk of the work!) I bet they often spend time observing the nuances of the game - perhaps even how teams apply agile principles in their play.