An article in Business Week made me think about sports movies as a metaphor for agile methodologies.


To me, Scrum is like the 1986 film Hoosiers. Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, takes over a small-town basketball team. The group is undisciplined; Dale dismissed two of the original seven players because they weren’t paying attention. Dale spends a lot of time drilling basketball basics into the team, without scrimmages. Dale’s methods are unpopular and his is almost ousted as coach. Results are slow in coming, but as Dale’s team adjusts to this new style of play, they begin to show signs of success, win games, and – well, it’s a sports movie.

I like this movie because while the plot is about a basketball team, the heart of the movie is about Dale and the transformation the characters undergo together. Hackman is outstanding as Coach Dale, and manages to make a complex character come to life. Historical inaccuracies aside, Hoosiers is worth watching.

I think scrum masters would empathize with some of the challenges Dale faced. The townspeople were unsupported of Dale’s harshness with the town’s star players, who was kicked off the team in the beginning of the film for not paying attention. As a scrum master, I’ve encountered departments and managers who exhibited a similar lack of support for agile methods.

Dale’s conservative, defensive style of play was not exciting to watch, and the team struggled with it in the beginning. I think teams struggle with Scrum at first, especially with some of the technical practices that facilitate Scrum like pair programming, test-first development (TDD) and behavior-driven development (BDD). A successful Scrum team is careful to commit to workloads they know they can accomplish, knowing that as they develop a cadence, they will gather speed.


By contrast, I think Kanban is more like Moneyball. Last week’s Business Week article called Extreme Moneyball: The Houston Astros Go All In on Data Analysis is a sequel of sorts. It talks about how the Astros, like the Oakland A’s in the film, have started aggressively analyzing baseball data and exploiting new strategies to win. The article goes into good detail about how Moneyball might apply to modern business, so I won’t repeat that here.

Looking over the metrics of a Kanban team feels a lot like being Jonah Hill’s character Peter Brand, who uses that in-game statistical analysis, that Sabermetrics approach to selecting undervalued talent and signing them. I’m not alone in that thought: the book that the movie is based on, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, is popular in business circles. Despite the reservations of most everyone, that A’s team of seemingly average players goes on to be wildly successful.

I’m pouring over my Kanban team’s metrics to see if I can find some commonality with features and stories that are causing my team trouble. There are some features that move through the system like clockwork. There are others that slow during development and gum up the works. For example, if I can determine that one component features prominently in those stories, I’ll know that those stories need special handling.

I think a good Kanban team lead needs a little of Coach Dale as well as a little Peter Brand in them. Heart plus smarts for the win.