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Flyzone: Scrum Lessons From the 4x100 Relay

One of SingleStone’s Scrum coaches makes an insightful comparison between Agile and the 4x100m relay.

by Jim Garrity

I love the 4x100m relay (in the track world it is known as the 4x1). I’m slow, so they never picked me to run it, but I do love watching it. I love it because it’s fast, I love it because it looks chaotic but is highly coordinated, I love it because the fastest 4 runners are not guaranteed to win. Though I’ve never been tapped to run the 4x1, I have become a professional coach of something that looks and feels very similar (at least from the sideline), Scrum (an Agile software framework). My team are the main performers, I do what I can to help them perform; Jon Drummond 2012 US National 4x100m Relay coach helps me. Take a look at this interactive feature from the NY Times.

The relay is singular in purpose

The goal of the relay is to deliver the baton one lap around the track as fast as possible. This, in purpose, has very little to do with the runners. They are enablers of the baton, and their main measure of success is delivery of the baton. In Scrum, our main measure of success is delivery of working software. My teammates are brilliant, amazing really, but each one’s great work alone doesn’t create success for the project. “I don’t care how many people you have that run fast, if the baton doesn’t make it, the race is over!”

The team will lose if they don’t synchronize

This is where our scrum teams have really taken a cue: “Imagine if you have two cars driving on the freeway, one is driving 28mph [approaching a car in the same lane from behind] driving 19mph, at some point there is going to be a wreck! ... how do you reach this top end speed and get the baton to continue to move without stopping or breaking the speed of the incoming runner?...That is what makes the relay so intricate.” 

In the 4x1 there is something called the Flyzone. The Flyzone is a 10-meter acceleration lane in which the outgoing runner can accelerate before entering the exchange zone where the incoming runner hands off the baton. Before the race, the outgoing runner marks a trigger line on the track. When the incoming runner crosses that line, the outgoing runner will take off. If the outgoing runner isn’t flying with the baton about 15-20m later, the whole race is in jeopardy.

Listen into a daily standup on our team and you might hear the trigger word, “flyzone,” meaning something like “I’m wrapping up development, and you [tester] can expect the feature ready to be tested by the end of the day, so because there is always a bit of preparation to do, you better run!” Handoff planning and communication help our teams keep the baton flying around the track.

The race is settled at the 3rd pass

We know, and Agile tells us, that predictable delivery of working software is the primary measure of success. This honestly shows us whether we are winning or losing the race. Effort spent doesn’t really matter. In the 4x1, three great passes will differentiate the team every time. With 100 meters still remaining, the hard work is behind the team, and simple math can tell us who is going to win. In the 2012 Men's Olympic Final, when the fastest man in the world got the baton perfectly, the race was settled, and 9 seconds later it was over. The World Record was ‘dismantled’!

The first time I shared this concept with a team, the next day a baton showed up on our team table (thanks to a generous teammate with Amazon Prime). I think he got it. That team moved that baton fluidly. No longer did anyone just run, they moved the baton together.

In Agile we move as a team, we practice communication, we have a singular focus, we know we can always improve, and so can you! So find a good coach, plan out your communication strategy, declare your purpose, practice your handoffs and NEVER stop improving. Go!

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Jim Garrity
Jim Garrity
Senior Consulting
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