The Scrum approach to delivery has produced the greatest team in the world. And the elements behind the team’s success are repeatable, meaning your team could be next in becoming the greatest team in the world. (That sure has a nice ring to it.)

 

The team I’m talking about is the All Blacks, which retained its Rugby World Cup crown recently—the first team to do so since the tournament started almost 30 years ago. In case you’re not familiar with the All Blacks, in the past four years the team has only lost three of its 54 matches and the last time it lost consecutive games was in 2011. In fact, the All Blacks hasn’t lost on its home turf since 1994, before some of its current players were born. Yet their captain is from tiny Kurow, New Zealand (population 339), the coach is a former policeman and none of the players has the letters MBA after their names or got on the team through family connections. The team also comes from a country with a much smaller population and lower GDP than its next few rivals, so they’re not the biggest or the richest.

How does a country with more sheep than people produce a team recognized as the world’s greatest, and what does this have to do with Scrum?

Indeed, why are we referencing a sports team when most of us work in teams in urban offices where we chase paper and deadlines rather than an oval-shaped ball? Because high-performing teams, no matter what their domain, share many commonalities. And it’s a happy coincidence that the All Blacks practice the sport that gave the Scrum approach to product delivery its name.  (Very briefly: for those who have just joined us, two Japanese researchers of high-performing teams in 1980s workplaces came up with the term “Scrum” as a good fit for the characteristics associated with high performance, including speed, flexibility and handling uncertainty.)  

Let’s examine a few of the characteristics of the greatest team in the world to better understand how our own teams can become ultra high-performing. Given that rugby in New Zealand/Aotearoa is our metaphor here for high performance, I’ll be introducing a few new words into your vocabulary.

Principle 1:  Be Your Role

People on high-performing teams know their roles inside-out. Knowing your role doesn’t just relate to the bullet points in your job description: It means intrinsically knowing how your skills influence your teammates and how you collectively use these skills to succeed.

 

For All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, who has an impressive win rate of around 90 percent from his 140 caps, this meant sitting down with his uncle when he was a teenager and identifying on a scrap of paper what he needed to do to become a “G.A.B.”—a Great All Black—then taping it to his bathroom mirror so he could see it every day. In other words, visual management. Sound familiar?  

On your team, what’s the difference between a developer and a great developer, or a product owner and a great product owner? What about for your own role? These probably aren't characteristics that were bulleted in your job description.

Knowing your role means sticking to the basics, even when things are difficult, and trusting your team to do the same. For example, if you’re leading 8–7 in a tense final against your bogey team (France) you should focus on solidly executing the fundamentals, again and again. Nothing fancy, just K.I.S.S. This is where your 10,000 hours of purposeful practice pays off. Several past and present All Blacks sprint fast enough to compete in the early rounds of the Olympics 100 meters event. They’ve completed years of purposeful practice in order to deliver effectively under pressure.  Keep executing the drills you have practiced in training. Don’t skip your planning sessions or retrospectives because “you’re too busy” or “there’s a deadline.”

Once you know your role, the next step is to elevate it, redefine it and be your role. For example, number 10 for the All Blacks, Dan Carter, has arguably redefined the role of first-five eighth (relax, that’s as technical as we’ll get with rugby). In Japanese martial arts, this aligns to the concept of shu-ha-ri. While many of his contemporaries are content to score points through kicking, Carter is sufficiently cross-functional to play well outside his role and carry the ball across the line, rather than pass it to another player. Given that several players oin the All Blacks are similarly cross-functional, that makes for a powerful advantage over mono-functional teams.

Principle 2:  Be Cross-functional

Fundamental to Scrum is the cross-functional team, which means there are multiple paths for work to reach the “done” state. This complements, rather than contradicts, the principle of knowing your role. On a rugby team there are 15 players, each with a specific role. However, a player’s role is superseded by the team’s overall goal of delivering the ball across the try line (or goal posts). This means that a player like Dan Carter, whose primary role is to score points through kicking, has also scored 29 tries (similar to a touchdown) in international rugby because he is T-shaped. Unlike many of his rivals, his jersey is just as dirty at the end of the game as the rest of the team.

 

When we talk about “T-shaped people” in agile it means people whose deep technical knowledge is complemented by a breadth of skills. This counters situations where a person becomes a single point of failure or a bottleneck, as is so well demonstrated in the agile cult classic book, The Phoenix Project. Teams in the workplace can incrementally increase their cross-functionality over time by creating a simple skills matrix and allocating a few hours per week to upskilling. After three to six months, the team will be quantifiably stronger and have reduced its dependence on a single individual.

As a team member your versatility makes you more valuable to the organization, and that’s something to bear in mind for challenging times.

Cross-functionality goes hand in hand with diversity and high performance. The All Blacks are arguably the most diverse team at the Rugby World Cup, and it’s no accident that in recent decades, as the team has embraced more diversity, it has won more games. Players come from several different cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds. Harnessed to a strong vision (discussed in the next section), this diversity creates open-mindedness around trying new ideas and synergies that enable team members to be authentic and bring their whole selves to the team.

Research confirms that team diversity leads to increased creativity, better decisions and harder-working teams.

Your team may be more diverse than you realize. Many workplaces lose their human touch and it’s easy to get caught up in “doing” our work at the expense of building high-performing teams and getting to know the person behind the job title. A half-day investment in effective team-building activities a couple of times per year (which needn’t involve blindfolds, high wires or singing Kumbaya) will pay dividends, create “ba” and directly improve team performance.

Principle 3:  Be United Around a Vision

“We are the most dominant team in the history of the world.” Pretty audacious, huh? Perhaps not. The All Blacks created this vision before other teams started calling them “the world’s greatest team.” However audacious it is, it would be much harder to become the world’s most dominant team with a watered-down vision that exudes mediocrity, or with no vision at all. There’s no doubt about what this team wants to achieve.

So, back to our teams in the workplace: what’s your team’s vision?

 

We’ve already talked about being your role and being cross-functional. Perhaps it’s no surprise how well the All Blacks embody teamwork and uniting around a collective vision, given the strong influence of Maori and Polynesian cultures on the team.

As the cliche goes, “there is no 'I' in team.”

Just as Japanese culture embodies Lean principles, Maori and Polynesian cultures elevate the importance of the team (or family, collective or other group of people) over the importance of the individual. Western cultures, by contrast, often elevate the individual over the team (e.g. individual performance targets) which can lead to local optimization at the expense of the overall system’s performance. Focusing on team performance as the unit of success has a dramatic impact on how the team plays.  

Scrum and SAFe® require a sprint goal and product vision, respectively. Build on that in your workplace and establish a vision for your team. What are its values, goals and outcomes? This fosters a team that is united, focused and aligned, rather than a group of people who “happen” to work together.

Next Steps

Several All Blacks are expected to retire in the coming months. The good news is that there’s now an opportunity for another team to be the world’s greatest. Maybe it will be a team in your organization. How can you elevate your team’s performance so it exhibits the same traits as the world’s greatest team?

  1. Help your team move from doing their role to being their role
  2. Make cross-functionality and T-shaped team members the norm through purposeful practice
  3. Create a compelling vision with your team that encourages high performance

There’s a Maori phrase that concisely sums up these themes:

Ko ahau te kapa, ko te kapa ahau – I am the team and the team is me."

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