Software-Delivery Metaphors from Basketball

Basketball practice, circa 1925, courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

Basketball practice, circa 1925, courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives. Then, as now, the WIP limit in the game is exactly one.

March has begun, and that means March Madness, when many Americans turn their attention toward basketball, with unbridled hopes in NCAA tournament brackets and the thrills of underdog upsets. Basketball offers not only the promise of nail-biting college tilts but also some helpful metaphors for software delivery. Read on for an assist for your team!

Practice Your Free Throws

I was never a star basketball player (I made it only as far as the high-school sophomore team), so I was keenly aware of my need to practice in order to build my skills. For instance, I always found that if I were having trouble making field goals (which was not infrequent!), it helped to practice free throws. With no jumping involved and no one defending me, this allowed me to simplify my form and focus on the basics. I reasoned that, if I couldn’t hit a free throw, I had no business trying longer-range shots in complex situations. Even now, I still can’t figure out why players who take most of their shots from behind the three-point line can’t seem to reliably make free throws.

The same is true in software delivery. For instance, before you can realize the goal of continuous delivery, you need to discipline yourself in automated testing and continuous integration. Be able to reliably answer in the affirmative Jez Humble’s three questions:

  • Does everyone check into mainline (at least) once per day?
  • Do you have a suite of tests to validate your changes?
  • When the build breaks, is fixing it the team’s #1 priority?

If your team aspires to continuous delivery, you can’t keep chucking up the same code or try to do it in the midst of delivery commitments and deadlines with a bolted-on “devops team.” You need to slow down in order to speed up — take time to write tests at the proper levels and integrate continuously. If your throughput is lower to begin, so be it. It’ll be higher in the long run.

Planning Flow During the Timeout

If I had scored a point for every standup with the report-to-the-leader anti-pattern that I’ve witnessed, I’d have made varsity. I understand the accountability idea behind Scrum’s three questions, but I have rarely seen it implemented in practice in a healthy way. The standup tends to be rote, individual-oriented, low-energy and low-value, with teams sometimes abandoning them for “real work.”

Contrast this with a timeout in basketball. It’s fast, full of energy and purposeful. Why? The timeout is focused on how the team can work together in the next short period of play. That’s it. Imagine if the coach went around the circle demanding that each player describe what he had been doing:

  • “Well, coach, I missed two jumpers but made a free throw.”
  • “I’ve been guarding #18. Still plan to guard him after the timeout.”
  • “I’ve been running up and down the court. No blockers.”

Anyone who has been watching the game knows these things! Likewise, we were all in the office yesterday; we know you’ve been working. In a timeout, individuals don’t report status; the team proactively solves its main impediments to flow:

  • “They’re double-teaming me, coach. That means someone is going to be free — let’s get Christopher or James the ball more.”
  • “I can’t keep up with #18 — Chike, can you drop down and help me guard him in the low post?”

In a timeout, conversation is lively and self-organizing; no one waits to be called on. When the timeout ends, the team runs back onto the court knowing the plan. Does your software-delivery team know the plan when standup ends? Treat standup (a.k.a. daily flow planning) more like a basketball timeout, and orient your standups toward the team and flow.

A Whole-Team Approach to the 7-foot Constraint

That brings us to one last metaphor from basketball: System constraints are like a defense that you have to dynamically figure out. The Theory of Constraints tells us that every system has a constraint that governs its output. In basketball, this constraint is sometimes easy to spot, whether it’s the 7-foot dude who is blocking everyone’s shots, or your point guard who keeps turning the ball over. In basketball, both on the playground and on elite NCAA courts, teams adapt to their constraints. It happens so fast in basketball that we don’t even think about it: If the 7-foot dude blocks shots from close range, a coach may deploy a lineup of better perimeter shooters or a player who is quicker and can draw fouls from the big man. Another example is a double-team situation: The team doesn’t expect a double-defended player to try to keep scoring — no, the team comes to help him, since one player is usually free. Basketball players do this almost instinctively, because they share a common goal: Score more points than the opponent.

In knowledge work, constraints are more difficult to see, and a lack of goal-orientation inhibits whole-team approach to the constraints. For example, if a person is “free,” it’s easy for a dev to pull in new work, heedless of how busy or “double-teamed” the QA is. That’s why we use WIP limits and make our constraints visible with tools like cumulative-flow diagrams. (In basketball, the WIP limit is one: It’s called the ball. When your teammate is double-teamed and you are unguarded in the open, you don’t grab another ball from the sidelines and start playing, do you?) Whereas basketball players naturally practice the art of work leveling by constantly taking a whole-team approach to constraints, we in software development can do the same. We merely need the help of simple job aids and a shared goal, which doesn’t mean staying busy as individuals, but means finishing work.


Rules for email

My personal rules for email:

  • Turn email off
  • Zero inbox daily
  • Five-sentence replies
  • Process email inside a pomodoro no more than three times a day (morning, lunch, afternoon)
  • Set expectations (24-hour policy, out-of-office auto-reply, provide alternative contact means)
  • Use email only after exhausting other communication means, in this priority:
    1. Face-to-face conversation
    2. Video conversation
    3. Audio conversation
    4. Instant message
    5. Web-site post/comment