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Delivering the W, One Game at a Time

How the New England Patriots are Winning with Scrum

2 January 2008

We know Scrum can be and is being used for software development. Well-known companies such as Yahoo! and Google are using it successfully. Scrum was even recently added to CNN’s “The 50 Who Matter Now” list. Is it possible, then, that someone might actually be using Scrum knowingly or unknowingly outside the Information Technology (IT) industry? After all, scrum is a simple inspect and adapt framework that can be deployed in any project or situation. Isn't it?
As I pondered this question, the light bulb in my head suddenly went on! Of course! I have the perfect example of Scrum’s application outside of IT: the New England Patriots (Pats). An American football team? Yes! The Pats are a prime example of an organization that is adopting and implementing this framework outside of the IT industry. How? Let's look at different aspects of how the Pats are implementing agile concepts using Scrum.
"Right now all we're thinking about is one game, and that's the Jets," said the New England Patriots coach, Bill Belichick, in a recent press conference. "We'll do the same thing we've been doing for the last however many weeks it's been. Twelve. Thirteen. Whatever it is."

Pats are notorious for their “one game at a time” approach. While the ultimate goal might be winning the Super Bowl, they focus on the current sprint (game) and how they are going to deliver the business value (the W, or win). Pats are also masters of the “inspect and adapt” aspect of Scrum—they are very adept at adapting to the changing landscape of the game. While they have a game plan, they inspect the game as it progresses and make necessary adjustments to their strategy in order to deliver the artifacts—the touchdowns (TDs) and the resulting Ws—at the end of the sprint. While this inspect and adapt mentality does not always guarantee the win, the Pats have done the best job of implementing it in the professional football arena.

In Scrum, there are only three roles: Product Owner, Scrum Master, and the Team. The Pats agree. For them, it is all about the team, not the individual members of the team. Each member is working towards the sprint goal: winning the football game. And, often, being a cross-functional team, one player plays different positions, such as Vrabel and Troy Brown playing both offense and defense as the game may require. While the team is co-located (all in one locker room), the Pats take the co-location even further, placing the lockers of quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss next to each other to promote the interaction between the two. The Pats are an empowered team with high individual interactions, as is evidenced by the fact that Tom Brady (one of the ScrumMasters) holds a meeting with his receivers and other quarterbacks on each Saturday; even the coaches are not allowed to these meetings.

The Pats also are self-organizing team. While other teams may get into the trash talk, Pats have always managed themselves professionally. This can not come just because the coach said to do so; it is a direct reflection of the fact that the team understands the value of presenting a professional face and self-organizes itself around that principle. Tom Brady is very good at removing the impediments as well. When other teams take away his receiver Moss, he goes to other receivers as is evident from games against the Cowboys, Eagles, etc.
We can also say that the Pats are running several Scrums at a time. All in all, there are seven different subteams within the Pats organization; and there are seven captains that organize and manage these individual aspects of the game. When one player goes down (due to injury, free agency, etc.), Pats have another player ready to step up and fill that gap; a good example of Pair Programming. Pats have performed well even when their so-called star players leave. This is evident from their success over the past years even when they lost Willie McGinest, David Givens, Adam Vineteri, Deion Branch, Ty Law, etc. The senior players are known to groom junior players as well (again, pair programming).
Pats are also notorious for analyzing themselves at the end of each game, looking for ways to improve (even after big wins); at the end of each game, they look at the game to find what can be improved for the future games (sprint retrospective).
It's a Patriots trait to remain intensely focused on the immediate. The moment you look too far ahead, the thinking goes, the sooner you trip and fall over the rock at your feet.
I am not saying that Pats are the only team that has implemented this framework for managing games (sprints); but we all would agree that they have implemented it in a way that provides continued business value. Above all, what matters to the Pats is delivering the artifacts and business value (the Ws and the super bowl rings)! 

Table 1. Comparison Summary
Scrum Team  Pats
Product Owner Robert Craft
(Super) ScrumMaster Bill Belichick
Scrum Master  Tom Brady (one of seven ScrumMasters)
Release  One season (nineteen games)
Product  The Lombardi Trophy, Winning the Super Bowl
Sprint  Each game
Focus on current sprint  Focus on one game at a time
Pair Programming  The senior players are known to groom junior players. When one players goes down (because of injury, free agency, etc.), Pats have another player ready to step up and fill that gap.
Individuals and Interaction The lockers of Tom Brady and Randy Moss are located next to each other to promote the interaction between the two.
Inspect and Adapt  As the game progresses, the Pats make necessary adjustments.
Empowered team    Tom Brady holds a meeting with his receivers and other quarterbacks on each Saturday; even the coaches are not allowed to these meetings. 
Collective Ownership  The team is responsible for the success or failure of the team
Sprint retrospective  Team members analyze themselves at the end of each game to find room for improvements (even after big wins) 
Continuous Integration  The Pats constantly strive to improve themselves. 

When this article was initially written, the Pats were still fighting to keep their perfect season.

After I wrote first draft of this article, I did some more research. I found even more examples of non-IT implementations of the scrum framework, most notably, NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his agile approach to managing the city. Other example is Andrew Scotland's adoption of Scrum in BBC's New Media division.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Nimesh Soni, CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 1/28/2008 9:49:09 AM
Check out this article on CIO magazine website : "Management Lessons from Bill Belichick" at
Johnny Hermann, CSM, 2/27/2008 12:43:29 PM
I like the concept of applying Scrum outside software development. Makes sense, since that is where it came from to begin with. I use it solo in my everyday life.

Perhaps someone could find an example from rugby? ;-)

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