Jan 01 2012

Scrum is Chess, Part II

Category: For the Record,Scrum and AgileGary Pedretti @ 1:52 PM

In my previous post, I mentioned that I’ve been getting a fair number of questions lately that go like this:

What does Scrum say about [[ something that Scrum does not prescribe anything for ]]??

Questions are always good. I think I’m dealing with some clients who are a bit more self-aware, who desire to “do Scrum correctly,” and who perhaps are apprehensive about doing it correctly because of some things my colleagues and I have said to them.

If Scrum prescribes something for the subject at hand, great, let’s start there and try it. If not, I’ll tell you so, and let’s just try something. Preferably, something that thought leaders or the community have proposed and/or come to a consensus on (e.g. Larman’s excellent guidance on scaling Scrum and agile, which I also mentioned in the previous post).

But here’s what I don’t want to do: immediately assume something Scrum prescribes won’t work, doesn’t apply to us, is insufficient, or otherwise must be changed. The rules of Scrum have emerged, empirically, over the past twenty years.

My colleague Chad Albrecht has a great analogy: a white belt n00b doesn’t come in to Karate class and suggest he or she knows better than the black belts, much less the masters who developed the system and practices over many centuries. He or she doesn’t show the teacher how to perform a kick; in fact, it’s the other way around…as it should be.

And here’s another place where Ken Schwaber’s chess analogy is excellent.

In the comments of Ken’s post, Chad says,

If…we don’t follow the rules of chess because our culture dictates that we don’t use pawns, we can create an odd dependency on environment. While this seems crazy and pointless to do in chess, it is what organizations do when they choose to not follow the rules of Scrum. Environments that prevent teams from using Scrum completely are as dysfunctional as not using pawns in chess.

So following the analogy, when might it make sense to modify the rules of chess?

I have personal experience with this, actually. As a very young kid who was trying to learn chess, I first learned how the various pieces moved. I didn’t yet understand the concepts of check and checkmate; I hadn’t gotten that far in the World Book Encyclopedia entry. But I taught one of my sisters how the pieces moved too…and then played a more complex form of checkers which I called “chess!!!” To win my “chess,” you just had to capture all of your opponents pieces – just clear the board, as in checkers. Not only were check and checkmate gone, but the relative value of the pieces in chess was out the window, too. In retrospect it is silly, but perhaps understandable in the sense of learning something incrementally, without a mentor.

A more legitimate case of modifying the rules of chess would be Bobby Fischer’s Random Chess, A.K.A. Chess960. Fischer was dissatisfied with the lack of creativity and unreasonable advantage that rote memorization of chess openings had brought to the game. He proceeded to introduce a variant of Shuffle Chess (which had been played as early as the 1800s) that preserved castling and the opposite colored diagonal placements of the bishops, but otherwise randomized the starting position of pieces along the home rank just like Shuffle Chess. This made opening memorization impractical, if not impossible, and forced the player to think creatively from the beginning – not just during the middle game. The game takes its name from the fact that there are 960 possible starting positions. Two important things to note here: a) the game is called Fischer Random Chess or Chess960, it is not called chess, and b) Fischer introduced his game in 1996, 38 years after becoming the youngest U.S. Champion ever, and 24 years after becoming the 11th World Champion.

To make the analogies I’m drawing here completely explicit: people have modified the rules of chess a) out of ignorance and b) out of a deep, storied understanding of the game and its modern shortcomings – more often for the former than the latter, I’m sure. I imagine people modify Scrum for these same reasons, with the same relative frequencies. And as my silly grade school version of chess and Chess960 are not “chess,” we shouldn’t call someone’s (oftentimes silly) variations on Schwaber and Sutherland’s framework “Scrum,” either.

Did I hurt myself or anything else by playing my silly version of chess? No. I suppose it made me more familiar with how each piece moves in (real) chess. But it is also important to note that I didn’t cling to it when I found out I didn’t have the whole story (whole story = additional sections in that same World Book Encyclopedia entry for “chess”). I never justified playing my silly way, nor played it that way, ever again. I didn’t argue that check, checkmate, castling, etc. “won’t work for grade school boys in Wisconsin.” I didn’t argue that a Knight was actually more valuable than a King, even though I lived on a farm with a pony and under a government that was not a monarchy.

One Response to “Scrum is Chess, Part II”

  1. Damon Payne says:

    I started attending tae kwon do with my daughter a few months ago and the black belt analogy made me smile. I really do think a lot of people think that way, though. They think “Big Shot at My Company” == “Big Shot. Period.” I get a lot less of this vibe when I travel, possibly just a grass-is-greener effect.

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