Agile Lessons from the World of Roller Derby : Rules, Rules, Rules

I love roller derby.  For any of you who aren’t sure what it is here’s a quick summary.

Given that there are only 10 players on the track at any one time (5 from each team) it may surprise you to learn that there are 11 referees.  Why on earth would there need to be more referees than there are players?


The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) has a rule book which is 74 pages long.  It is full of sections and sub-sections, each of which has multiple sub-clauses.  The rules are highly complex and try as you might imagine you are highly likely to break one of them during a game as it is so fast moving that it’s easy to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The large number of referees are needed to determine when someone has scored in addition to ensuring that no rules are broken.  They will give out a 30 second penalty to anyone found breaking the rules.  7 penalties and you’re out of the game.

Most of the rules in roller derby are there to keep people safe.  You’re not allowed to hit someone in the middle of their back for example and you’re also not allowed to trip them up.  You can perfectly legally hit them off the track with your shoulder slamming into their’s so it’s not quite as calm as it might have sounded up to that point…

As time goes on I see more and more companies having agile methodologies which include a large number of ‘rules’.  For example, one organisation I worked with used Scrum and they would always do 2 week Sprints (irrespective of the type of work).  At the end of each Sprint they would have a whole day of meetings.  This allowed time for the demo, the retrospective and Sprint planning.  That’s 10% of everyone’s time spent in those meetings.  At every retrospective I attended people complained that they spent too much time in meetings and at every retrospective they would be told “that’s the process”.

One of the beautiful things about agile is that the process is subject to continuous improvement.  It’s a self adapting system which allows the team to adjust the way they do things to best fit the people and the work.  When did that turn into blindly following the rules?  It is essential that people understand why the practices are there and then they can choose, through the retrospective, to try a change in approach.  For example, if the team is co-located, including the business, and all sit around one desk bank and communicate well throughout the day then a daily stand-up may not add anything.  In these circumstances the team could decide to not have the daily meetings.  They can then consider how well that worked for them at the next retrospective.  The important thing is that the team understands why the practice is there and makes a decision on the back of that.

In the example I gave above an alternative to saying “that’s the process” would have been to look at the demo, retrospective and Sprint planning meetings and consider:

  1. What is the meeting giving us and is it valuable?
  2. Is there any other way of achieving the same result?
  3. Could the meeting be made quicker without losing value?
  4. Are the right people in the meeting?
  5. Could meetings be combined without losing value?

It could be that the team would decide to continue with a whole day of meetings, but if so it would be because they were adding value and the team would have made the decision, rather than having no choice in the matter.

In summary – the rules in roller derby are important for safety – the ‘rules’ in agile methodologies are actually only guidelines which should be adapted through continuous improvement.  (Perhaps I could argue the continuous improvement point next time I get called for a roller derby penalty?  Likely to lead to a further penalty for insubordination I think…)

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About IvanaTheTerrorBull

Techie skater and agile craftswoman with a passion for learning @IvanaTerrorBull