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What Content Creators Can Learn from Agile Teams

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When I was five, my parents signed me up for a local T-ball league. I can still remember my black and blue Bo Jackson glove my dad bought for me. At the end of the first game, I remember wondering why the other kids all dove on each other to get the ball, letting the batter score. Now I understand that they did it for fun and they didn’t understand or care about the basics of the game. They also didn’t have a singular goal as a team.

Fast forward twenty-seven years and I’m pitching for my rec softball league team, the Gracie Lou Freebushes, in our league’s championship game. We lost our first game in the playoffs by a few runs, and we had to win the last game. During our huddles we kept reiterating the basics—making smart plays, hitting our cutoffs, waiting for a good pitch, not trying to crush the ball and just get on base, and most importantly, having fun and being good sports. It turned out getting back to the basics helped us win the championship game.

Sports Lessons Applied to Agile

The technology teams at Skyword use an agile framework called Scrum for our projects. As the Scrum Master for my teams, I tend to use a lot of sports team analogies in my coaching examples. Here are two of my favorite analogies.

  • Cross-functional teammates with a singular goal: MLB pitchers aren’t expected to hit a home run when they’re up at bat because their main role is to be a good pitcher. However, no one on their team is going to be upset with them if they end up hitting a home run that helps the team win the game. At the end of the day, they’re baseball players and getting to the World Series is the ultimate goal.
  • Performing as a team: In the movie Drumline, a gifted but cocky freshman drummer continually butts heads with a jealous upperclassman drum section leader. After a drum battle between the two drummers, the section leader admits the freshman is better and while the freshman relishes that he “won,” he’s told that it doesn’t matter because “on the field no one hears him, they hear the band. One band, one sound.”

What Is Agile?

There is a misconception that agile is just a trend or that it’s just a software team thing, since they were early adopters, and they have funny terms for their work like scrum, sprints, and pigs and chickens.

So what is agile really? Alistair Cockburn, one of the co-creators of the Agile Manifesto, describes the “Heart of Agile” in its simplest form: Collaborate, Deliver, Reflect, Improve. The basics of agile are cross-functional teams (tech, marketing, sales, etc.) working together with customers to deliver a functional product frequently, learning what works and what needs to change, and continuously improving.

agile manifesto

It’s important to remember the last part of the manifesto that states, “While there is value in the items on the right [e.g. processes and tools] we value the items on the left more [e.g. individuals and interactions].” Even though creating working software is listed, this mindset can be applied to any industry. Jeff Sutherland, one of the co-creators of the Agile Manifesto and Scrum, co-wrote an article in Harvard Business Review that explains why and how teams outside of technology are changing the ways they work to meet the demands of their industries. Sutherland then breaks down the basics of Scrum, one of the more popular agile frameworks:

Basics of Scrum

  • Small cross-functional team of three to nine full-time team members who have the necessary skills to complete the tasks and manage themselves
  • An initiative owner (or Product Owner) who works with the team and stakeholders to understand what’s needed for the backlog and prioritizes the work
  • Short time-boxed work periods, typically less than a month, to deliver the work
  • A process facilitator (Scrum Master) to coach and remove obstacles for the team
  • Transparency to other team members with a daily check-in and to customers and stakeholders with the sprint review and a prototype of the deliverable

In March of this year, I had the opportunity to attend a Product Owner course taught at Jeff Sutherland’s company, Scrum Inc., in Boston. What I enjoyed about the class was revisiting the simplicity of Scrum. I took away so much actionable information from the instructors and learned how Scrum Inc. has taught companies ranging from pharmaceutical to manufacturing to fashion to change the way they work, not only helping their companies’ bottom lines but improving the morale of their teams.

Agile for content creators

Agile for Content Creators

At the training, I received a copy of Sutherland’s book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, where he provides even more examples of how Scrum can be beneficial for any team. One particular example was the story of NPR struggling to cover the Egyptian revolution in Cairo in 2011. The team of journalists and producers weren’t able to keep up with their assignments and were failing to meet demands from their higher-ups.

Sutherland goes on to describe how his son, J. J. Sutherland, who also works at Scrum Inc. and has a background as a war producer and correspondent, was sent in to help the NPR team.

Jeff Sutherland says, “One of the key concepts in Scrum is that the team members decide themselves how they’re going to do the work. It’s management’s responsibility to set the strategic goals, but it’s the team’s job to decide how to reach those goals.”

J.J. Sutherland coached the NPR team to answer three questions that are from Scrum’s Daily Stand Up—What did you do since the last time we talked? What are you going to do before we talk again? What is getting in your way? Having the team communicate with each other with these questions in mind kept everyone on the same page. This allowed for impediments such as finding drivers, translators, and secure hotel accommodations to be resolved so they could work more safely and efficiently. Sutherland then describes how the NPR team was able to produce more coverage with a higher quality than their competitors and even resulted in them winning awards for their journalism.

He ends the story by stating, “It was a feat that wouldn’t have been accomplished had the team not been imbued with a sense of purpose (to tell one of the biggest stories of their careers) and not possessed autonomy (the ability to decide for themselves how to produce the many threads of that story overall). Sutherland goes on to say that NPR uses Scrum throughout the entire company as a result of this success and that teams at the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Washington Post, and ProPublica also use Scrum.

NPR’s example could be applied to any team of content producers. Imagine the head of content as the product owner, directing priorities by selecting what content to produce, while a scrum master enables her editors, writers, and designers to work autonomously by addressing obstacles as they appear, then allowing them to deliver the content through whatever process works best for them. The monthly editorial calendar becomes the time-boxed work period, and monthly content performance reports form the basis of the sprint review.

Start with stickies

First Steps

There’s a lot of information and tools available to get started with Scrum. Where do you start? I’ve found that it’s been extremely helpful for me to attend trainings and to read books and articles from those in the industry, like Jeff Sutherland, Lyssa Adkins, Esther Derby, Mike Cohn, and many others. I agree with Jeremy Jarrell, who says to keep it simple and “start with stickies.”

During my first few weeks at Skyword, one of the technology teams asked for help applying Scrum to their work. I remember them being surprised that I didn’t want to focus on their existing electronic board and instead asked them to write down what type of tickets they work on and how they get from “to do” to “done” before we put everything on the whiteboard. Through this discussion, we found that we needed to adjust the electronic board and have further conversations with the other teams we work with on how work flows through the team.

In his article, Jarrell says, “Use your team’s Scrum adoption as an opportunity to press the reset button and take the chance to discover the process that works best for them, rather than simply jumping into the process prescribed by the tool that demos the best. You’ll find that the long-term result is a team that’s much more confident, happier, and effective in how they work. Because, at the end of the day, your tool should support your process . . . not the other way around.”

To get the most out of scrum, you will need to:

  • Establish a motivated cross-functional team who wants to learn and try Scrum
  • Break up the work into smaller chunks that can be delivered in iterations
  • Visualize the work on a board with sticky notes and discuss as a team
  • Get regular feedback from customers and stakeholders on the product
  • Take time as a team to reflect on the iteration, what went well, and what should change
  • Make adjustments and improve

Sutherland’s quote about watching an incredible play between two teammates during a soccer match at a friend’s house sticks with me. He says, “It’s not only the elites and athletes and special people who can do this. It’s about setting up the right framework with the right incentives and giving people the freedom, respect, and authority to do things themselves. Greatness can’t be imposed; it has to come from within. But it does live within all of us.”

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Featured image attribution: Olga Guryanova

Teresa Shine is the Director of Agile Processes at Skyword, where she is the Scrum Master and Agile Coach for the Technology team. Teresa's project management experience includes working for the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and HM Health Solutions. She has a B.A. in History & Art History from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.S. in Communications & Information Systems from Robert Morris University.

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