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Agile Athletes: Part 1

The Agile mindset within sports

27 June 2017

Christopher Lewis
Albert Christopher Solutions

In the world of Agile, there are many real-world examples of how Agile thinking is being performed. One of these real-world examples is in the realm of professional sports. Sports is a perfect topic to relate to Agile due to the dynamic nature and fast pace in which sports teams make decisions to win. This article will explore the many areas in which teams demonstrate being Agile within a competitive professional sports industry, as well as how organizations can mimic the same methods.

Player acquisition and scope estimation and planning

It starts with problem areas that a team needs to address and the personnel or players it must acquire to fulfill the needs in those areas. Sports teams assess problem areas (i.e., poor defense or a lack of offensive production) and actively scout for players entering the draft or for free agents leaving existing professional teams. This assessment is how a team determines the players it needs to solve its problem areas.

Scouting and recognizing exactly which players are needed allows professional teams to reduce wasted time. Money is also a huge factor in properly identifying players for a sports team. These budget decisions are often made based on what each player is predicted or estimated to accomplish.

Within an organization, this relates to project scope and resource allocation, which are needed to fix an organization’s problem areas. Reduction in wasted effort benefits organizations that establish a predefined scope prior to the development within a project, so insignificant product features or technical capabilities are not erroneously assigned resources. In addition to proper resource allocation, project budget also affects project scope and resource allocation to execute the features within the scope of work.

Why do projects struggle with scope and project time lines? Projects often do not establish initial scope based on estimation (initial is a key word, since the scope could change later in the future). Therefore, decision making is disjointed and budgets are consistently mishandled. Agile projects must establish a project scope by properly estimating what the allocated resources can deliver, not by arbitrarily setting a release date. Sports teams would not expect to lead the league in rebounding and acquire nothing but players under six feet tall! The organization’s resources’ abilities must guide the establishment of an accurate project time line to address the problem areas, not vice versa.

Team chemistry and team structure

Upon establishing a roster of players, a team must learn how to play together as one. If every sports team with talented players could be a champion, then every team would be a champion, because in professional sports all the players within a given league are “the best in the world.” But the salient factor to becoming a champion is team chemistry. A sports team must watch game films, execute practice drills, participate in team scrimmages, and play together in games against opponents in order to develop team chemistry. Team chemistry does not happen instantly but over time. With the guidance of a competent coach, the team can develop into a confident, self-managed team. Sports teams and projects operate best when team members hold each other accountable for their individual responsibilities and work together toward a common goal.

Organizations’ projects have a maturation period like that of sports teams. Tuckman’s stages of group development have become a cliché, but even after more than 50 years the stages are still relevant: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. These stages should be welcomed but facilitated by a defined team structure. Project management, product management, design, technical architecture, development, and testing must all be aligned to develop the best product or customer experience. Cross-functional teams, comprised of team members from different disciplines, will naturally encounter each development stage due to the unique experiences and skills that each team member contributes to the project. A competent manager (product owner, ScrumMaster, etc.) will be able to guide the team members through each stage, eventually to a point where the team governs itself within an overarching and defined set of project guidelines. With multiple different team members, establishing a communication plan and cadence and a team structure to support the strategy is key to a project’s success.

Changes in team lineups and changes in market preferences

Changes in a team’s starting lineup or substitution rotation occur continuously throughout a season. Basketball coaches often switch up starting lineups based on team chemistry and productivity. Baseball managers switch the batting order to put the best hitters in the best position to put people on base. These changes are based on matchups — players or strategies the other team presents within a game to counter the opponent’s players or strategies. The team’s ability to adapt and alter its initial plan is key to its success and is a sign of leadership not being rigid. Famous economists John Maynard Keynes and Paul Samuelson are famously quoted as saying, in so many words, “When the events and information change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

It is significant that projects adapt and pivot at any point within a project to meet evolving market and customer preference changes. The aforementioned quote with its ending question should be understood and used by every project team, especially by project leaders in the position to make definitive decisions. Not adapting is potentially perilous to organizations, because projects that fail to change based on significant competitor or customer actions can lead to product or feature offerings that add little value to customers. In a constantly changing world, organizations’ project teams must be willing to pivot when additional information is present. The “matchups” dictate what is needed, not the initial plan.

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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