9 Min reading time

6 things Scrum and rowing have in common

04. 02. 2021

Thinking about how to get through the Covid-19 winter period and staying in shape, I have decided that after 15 long years I would pick up rowing again as my weapon of choice

Author: Josip Osrecki

Thinking about how to get through the Covid-19 winter period and stay in shape, I have decided that after 15 long years, I would pick up rowing again as my weapon of choice. During one long session on a rowing machine, I realized how my arm movement, in a particular stroke, caused the next one to be below par. My coach from 20+ years ago would probably shout “Stop! Now do just the arms a thousand meters, then another thousand just your back, then another thousand just pushing the legs, and only then (!) can you do a full stroke!” For somebody looking from the side, doing just legs would look rather silly.

Immediately, I thought of numerous times when Scrum events – mainly retrospective – felt unnatural and awkward. But even more, I thought about how Scrum is often perceived more as a set of rules and less as a tool that should support certain principles and values. Long story short, I had gathered enough similarities at the end of the session to write this article. Here it goes.

1) Learning all steps as separate segments and connecting them into one effortless motion

When you start rowing for the first time, you usually spend a lot of sessions training each motion separately – hundreds and hundreds of times.

As you master all segments, you quickly notice that, when you try to view them as a separate set of motions, you fail to make the whole thing look effortless and logical, so full of grace – as is so often seen in top athletes.

The same way a rower thinks about the next stroke as (s)he finishes the current one, you should think about backlog refinement. Think about when to engage your core whilst pushing the legs – just as you would think about possible improvements and problems you faced even before sprint retrospective.

Observing how a series of events (both Scrum and non-Scrum) that occur during each sprint affect and depend on one another, but also how they affect the quality of the next sprint, is crucial in building true agility on top of the Scrum framework. Every Scrum Master should understand that without building the right culture, without continuous thinking about possible improvement, and without encouraging open communication, Scrum mechanics will yield only limited results.

2) Both the coach and your colleagues can help you improve regardless of your skill level

There are very few exceptions when a trainee does not need a coach. Even top athletes earning millions have several coaches – observers from outside the system who can move “unknown unknowns” to (at least) “known unknowns”. Even if you (ahem) achieve perfection, that does not mean there is no more work to be done with your team, inter-team collaboration, and in the end – the whole organization.

Coach or Scrum Master may not always be around, so you need to depend on your colleagues who can give you valuable insight and help you become a part of the team sooner, especially if you are new to the game. In an ideal world, everybody should be able to coach, give appropriate feedback and work on self-improvement. Or at least strive to do so.

3) Intrinsic motivation and leadership matter in the long run

During the first four years I enjoyed the sport and had a great coach, I saw improvement in my fitness and enjoyed training sessions with the rest of the team. I was a solid rower but far from a top athlete. At one point I realized I would never make a career in rowing. Around the same time, I had to recover from pneumonia and we were assigned a new coach. All of these factors contributed to my drop in motivation. Training sessions started to look repetitive and dull and nothing was driving me to pursue it further. I decided I’d opt out and pick running, which I always liked, as my new hobby.

At that time, I could not pinpoint why I perceived rowing as a burden and running as joy. But reflecting back, I remember that for the first time I was the one who decided how often I would train and how difficult training sessions would be. I could run everywhere I wanted and was restricted only by bad weather. It was not rowing that I disliked – but the fact that running gave me much more freedom in deciding how and when I trained.

Me leaving was not a big loss for my former club. But when a drop in motivation happens to companies most valuable asset – its employees – a drop in quality, lower customer satisfaction and, increase in employee turnover is imminent. With no sense of commitment, morale amongst colleagues could also plummet.

An appropriate salary, pleasant work environment, and company culture are all good foundations. Once these basic needs are met, employees’ satisfaction will grow only if they are given, if not purpose, then at least engagement in what they do. A worker that is asked to give suggestions and showcase possible solutions in the job (s)he is doing has a much higher intrinsic motivation and is, naturally, much more productive and creative. Even if employees perform repetitive tasks, give them some freedom to self-organize and find the best way to perform the job at hand.

If you want to transform from being just a manager to being a leader, you need to have an empowered team you can lead. And high intrinsic motivation is important if you want to build one. I often see cases where a sense of purpose has been systematically crushed for years, even decades. People working in such conditions for a long period of time usually have zero intrinsic motivation, and sometimes it is as difficult to build it as is to grow crops in Sahara Desert. When you explain to them that they have become empowered, that “agile” has freed them from lower and middle management “oppression”, they sometimes feel lost.

So make sure you hire and keep(!) people who care about the work they do. Otherwise, you might be left with unmotivated employees that do not care about the value they bring to the company each day.

Regardless of the type of work people do, a sport they train or hobby they take – satisfying internal needs, giving autonomy, and allowing people to set their own goals will have a positive effect on productivity, commitment, morale, and ultimately – the willingness to stay with the company.

4) The quality of your input is as important as speed

It is often said that you are what you eat. To reach his/her full potential, an athlete must keep in mind the quality of food (s)he consumes – what ingredients to buy and how to store them, how to prepare it and when to consume it. Because no matter how hard you train, how many kilometers you do, how many weights you lift – you will not reach your true potential if you eat fast food every day.

Overloading a fridge and cooking vast amounts of food in advance usually leads to excessive waste and/or a bitter aftertaste after eating the same thing 3 days in a row.

Changing your mind whilst cooking and deciding to cook something completely different would be irresponsible and again lead to waste, right?

It does not make sense to plan what to eat a year in advance, but once groceries are bought, one should stick with dishes (s)he can cook with them.

All of this makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Yet many organizations fail to find the balance and ingredients needed to nourish the organism that is supposed to win that gold medal – happy workers and the highest customer satisfaction amongst the competition. They try to utilize each minute of their workday to produce more, build up requirements and detailed plans a year in advance, but at the same time, they cannot prioritize what to produce, interrupt work in progress, drop project mid-way and often assign high-performing teams with work that does not hold significant business value.

No matter how many high-performing teams there are in an organization, it will not matter much if the company does not prioritize its portfolio on the highest level. This is where the most potential for waste removal lies.

5) An increase in (delivery) speed should come as a result of good technique

Let’s say you were an avid runner who just switched to rowing. Or any other sport for that matter. You were in top form and the top 10% of runners. Does that mean you will also be as good at rowing? Well, there is a good chance, if you train hard and smart. Does that mean simply rowing as fast as you can? Or is it smarter to sacrifice building muscle in favor of working on your technique first?

You do not want to get in a situation where, after a year, you still struggle with the basics. Putting an emphasis on speed and building muscle mass first may yield better short term results, but you will be sacrificing long term progress. To master your technique, you need to lower your stroke rate. It will give you time to reflect on each of your strokes in order to improve the next. Sounds familiar?

One of the main reasons organizations are “implementing” Scrum is because somebody heard it is “faster”. This is true – but probably not for the reasons they think. Asking the team to show results after a couple of sprints and pushing more work their way, hoping this would somehow make them produce value faster, will ultimately create an aversion to Scrum, agile, the company, and worst of all – change in general.

Give some extra space and time to your already stressed team. They need to take a breather and slow down to process and understand what agile methodology is all about. Time invested in this pays high dividends in the long run. If you choose to focus on speed when “implementing” Scrum and agile and you have already taken the wrong path.

6) Scrum (or rowing) are not your only options

At the very beginning, I did not know that variation in training sessions is needed to build different muscle groups. I simply did what my coach had told me. It later became obvious why we also ran, lifted weights, or did interval training. To increase performance, it makes sense to focus on an aspect of fitness that has the most potential to be improved. For instance, if a rower had great technique but was very skinny, he would focus on building muscle mass for a while.

So, when your team becomes a part of agile transformation, think a lot about what you want to achieve with Scrum. Are you building your team from scratch? Scrum (Master) could be the catalyst you need to speed up the team forming phase. Maybe your experienced team has great communication but also has long lead times? You could use the Kanban system to detect problems in the delivery process. If deployment cycles are too long or the product is not properly tested, maybe you will need to think about implementing DevOps practices.

XP, portfolio management, inter-team communication, building and sharing good practices, feature prototyping, detecting value stream, or removing waste from the process – all of these are things an organization should use to complement Scrum. Just as running, biking, weight lifting or yoga can complement rowing. If an organization wants to achieve balance and improve end to end delivery process, it needs to optimize every segment. Scrum will improve how your team collaborates but not your portfolio the same way biking will strengthen your legs and not your arms.


Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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