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Guest Post: Triangle Offense and Scrum Mania

NOTE: The following is a guest post by anonymous blogger GeekMBA360, author of the blog by the same name.  If you feel inspired to write a guest post of your own, click here to find out how to submit it to us.

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Phil Jackson has won more NBA championships than any other coach in history. He won six championships with the Chicago Bulls, and then won another four championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.

If you’re a basketball fan like myself, you probably know that Phil Jackson utilizes a unique offensive system called the Triangle Offense.

The Triangle Offense has been around for a long time. According to Wikipedia:

“the triangle offense’s most important feature is the sideline triangle created between the center, who stands at the low post; the forward, at the wing, and the guard at the corner. The team’s other guard stands at the top of the key and the weak-side forward is on the weak-side high post — together forming the “two-man game”.

The goal of the offense is to fill those five spots, which creates good spacing between players and allows each one to pass to four teammates. Every pass and cut has a purpose and everything is dictated by the defense.”

I’d like to make a few observations about Phil Jackson’s success and his use of the Triangle Offense.

First, Triangle Offense is neither sufficient nor necessary for winning a championship. It’s true that both the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers had great successes with the system. However, there are also many other teams who had been very successful by employing other offensive systems.

For example, the San Antonio Spurs has won four championships between 1999 and 2007 (the most in the NBA during that period) by having a totally different system. Other championship teams such as the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rocket also had very different offensive systems.

A good team implements whatever system fits it the best. It doesn’t try to impose a system on a group of players.

Second, triangle offense requires the right combination of players. Because it is such a fluid system, it requires the players to be very flexible. For example, the systems prefers a big-man center who can pass the ball well, and a small forward who can defend and shoot the 3-pointer. It’s a complex system. The players must have the patience to learn and practice in order to play effectively in the system.

It’s not a system that could be retrofitted to any team. Some players are simply not good fit for the system.

Third, Triangle Offense requires an excellent personnel manager and a solid X’s & O’s guy. According to this ESPN article:

“Being a great NBA coach is about managing egos, earning your players’ respect, developing team chemistry, making (in-game and off-day) adjustments, and emphasizing the right things. And no one’s ever done all that better than Jackson.”

Phil Jackson has Tex Winter as his assistant coach. Tex Winter literally wrote the textbook on triangle offense, and is an expert in teaching the X’s and O’s of Triangle Offense. Clearly having the right supporting cast is incredibly important.

The relationship to Product Management

Now, let’s move to our professional world of product management and software development.

In the past few years, I think our industry has had a “Scrum mania” — there are armies of consultants and trainers who tout the merits of the Scrum methodology. Company executives send people to get “Scrum Master” training and assume that their products would be shipped on-time.

An example from real life

I worked for a start-up company that provided a hosted data mining product. It had about 30 clients. Each client had a separate instance of the application.

Because of the amount of customization for each client and complexity of the software, it would take a couple of weeks to deploy a new version of the software since the new software had to be tested for each client. The deployment process was a little bit different for each client due to customized settings and configurations.

The development team had been doing a good job. But, one day, the big boss attended a seminar on Scrum. He wanted the company to adopt Scrum methodology. He sent two Program Managers to get certified.

He even brought in a trainer to give all of the developers a one-day Scrum training session. His rationale is that instead of shipping a new release every three months, we’ll get something done and ship product every month.

It was a disaster.

Most developers on the team used to work for large packaged software companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, etc. They were excellent developers who were used to the waterfall development model. And most of them had been working at this start-up for a long time.

They rebelled against the Scrum process. Instead of daily Scrum updates, they’d much prefered spending the time on design and coding. They also hated to update their tasks using the Scrum software.

Because of the complexity of the software, each developer got very little done during each 3-week scrum cycle. And then they have to attend another several hours of scrum planning. It became very inefficient.

The morale was low. Scrum Masters and developers spent hours debating the right way to do Scrum during each Scrum planning session.

You could argue that this company implemented Scrum incorrectly. There is nothing wrong with Scrum itself.

However, I think this is an example of a company that probably should not have implemented Scrum at first place. Just like the Triangle Offense, Scrum is a methodology, a system.

Scrum is neither sufficient nor necessary for running successful software projects.

Scrum requires the right combination of personnel: Developers must buy into the new systems, and be willing to adapt. In this example, the company had a group of very experienced, senior developers who were used to a waterfall development model that had worked well in the past. It was very hard to get their buy-ins, especially given the nature of the products they were building.

Running successful Scrum requires a excellent personnel manager and a solid X’s & O’s guy. In this particular company, the Scrum Masters were well trained. However, the development manager and senior management team didn’t fully understand the cultural and organizational challenges of implementing a new system. And this was what led to the downfall.

Are you thinking about putting a new system in place? Think and plan carefully. You want to put in the best system for your organization. Simply adopting systems used by other organizations won’t work.

GeekMBA360 is a product management executive with over a decade of experience in e-commerce, online advertising and enterprise software. His blog,  GeekMBA360.com, offers career insights at the intersection of business and technology. He also publishes the popular Great Depression 2.0 Survival Guide for High Tech Professionals.