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Agile Content Strategy: Scrum Favors Generalists

May 16, 2011

Last week I attended Scrum training in New York, led by Rob Purdie, our Agile methods coach on the Digital Strategy team. The session opened the eyes of everyone on the team, who have tried to be more agile, but have not seen the benefits of the methods for whatever reason. Primarily, the methods have been difficult to implement in our highly distributed environment, where specialists work on a lot of different projects at the same time. Agile methods were developed in part to solve these problems, but they only work if you embrace them together as one package, rather than taking bits and pieces and otherwise not changing the environment that prevents them from working.

One of the features of Scrum that is difficult for us to implement relates to specialization. We are indoctrinated to focus our talents on one primary field or specialty. When specialists work as a team, they contribute their unique work at the prescribed phase of a project and otherwise they sit on the sidelines and watch the progress. While they’re on the bench, they might as well work on other projects. So it is not uncommon for one person to be involved in a dozen or more projects with the hope that the timing will align and they can do their part when needed in all of them. Of course, it rarely works that way. Project plans overlap. So specialists typically vacillate between crazy overtime and burnout.

For example, I am often called upon to offer my unique work as an SEO specialist. Traditionally, I have been brought in to clean up web pages that search engines can’t find or display to the target audience because the code prevents search crawlers from finding and indexing the content. When I have worked on content teams, I have typically been hushed when I attempted to influence other parts of the content process, despite the fact that I have deep editorial knowledge and long experience as a web editor. “That’s not your job,” is the message I have often received. Indeed I have spent most of my relatively short career as an SEO specialist arguing that search work needs to be integrated into all web processes, not just the code. I even co-authored a book on the subject.

Agile methods discourage specialization. Ideally, a scrum team is made up of around seven generalists who can work on any aspect of a project at any time. They self organize around what needs to be done in the time frame it needs to be done. This is a radical concept, especially in corporate America. And it is not always implemented with generalists as much as specialists who can dabble in related fields. But I personally embrace the change because I see myself as a generalist, who learned his skill set primarily by identifying organizational needs and filling them whether I was totally qualified or not.

This is how I developed my SEO specialization. As editor in chief of, I helped people develop more clear, concise and compelling content for the web, much of which never met the eyes of the audience because they couldn’t find it. I thought this was a huge waste of effort and opportunity, so I set about training the whole company to make their content more available through search. In short, I developed my expertise as I went.

It occurs to me that this is how most content strategists developed their skills. So I thought perhaps there is something about agile methods that give an inherent advantage to content strategists in our future agile world. If you’re interested in this point of view, please read on.

The Rugby Scrum Metaphor
Though I embrace the change to agile, I was still skeptical about transforming the culture that favors specialization as I made my way from the training to my gate at JFK. I was very early for my flight and it was dinner time, so I stopped at an Irish pub near my gate and ordered a pint of Smithwick’s Ale with fish and chips. The pub had great Irish punk music on the sound system and the Irish championship Rugby match between Leinster and Ulster on the TV. So I spent a most enjoyable hour eating, drinking and consuming compelling content. I had never sat down and watched a Rugby match before, and it was riveting. It is like American football without protective equipment. Teams score by advancing an oblong ball down a field (or pitch) and across the goal line. They also get points by kicking the ball through goal posts.

As similar as it might seem to American football, there are two important differences. The most obvious thing is that there are no forward passes in Rugby. Less obvious is about ball possession. In American football, the worst thing you can do when you run with the ball is to drop it or fumble it. When you do this, the other team will gain possession of the ball simply by falling on it. In Rugby, fumbling is encouraged. If you are tackled and unable to let go of the ball before you are ruled down, the other team gets possession of the ball. The ideal is to lateral the ball back when you are about to get tackled, but guys often just fumble it backwards as they are going down, hoping their teammates pick it up and run with it or pitch it backwards to other teammates.

This difference in rules has a profound impact on the way Rugby games go. American football is highly specialized. Lineman are big slow guys who block for the backs. Receivers are small and fleet of foot. Backs are somewhere in between: Fast enough to advance the ball but strong enough to hold onto it when they get tackled.

In Rugby, everyone has to be able to pick up the ball and run with it. And everybody has to recognize when they can’t go any further without giving the ball to one of their teammates. There are bigger guys who form the front line with the actual scrums. And there are really fast, shifty guys who try to get past the defense and score (known as a try for some odd reason). But the best teams are not as specialized as in football, where guys are running in and out on every play because they do one thing particularly well. In the Ulster/Leinster match, between a scrum and a try, almost everyone on Leinster picked up the ball and advanced it at least a little bit.

Jeff Sutherland, the father of Scrum methods, adopted the scrum metaphor from Takeuchi and Nonaka for a reason. It aptly describes how good teams work. Team members come in different shapes and sizes, different skills and experiences, but they all need to work together to get the work done. If that means that an SEO specialist such as myself needs to write some copy, I can and will do that. If it means our information architect needs to do some keyword research, so be it. People will get stretched and need to develop skills as they go. But the work will get done faster and better if teams are organized like Rugby teams rather than football teams.

Content Strategy: A Field of Generalists
In truth, I am not an SEO specialist. I am a content strategist. “SEO specialist” is just the role I have often taken on teams because there is a lot of need within our company for people who can do it. I recently attended Confab 2011, the first conference dedicated to the content strategy discipline. (Other conferences have had a similar focus, like  Web Content 2010 , where Purdie spoke, but didn’t call it content strategy.) There was a lot of talk in and around the conference about what the discipline of content strategy is. I wrote a blog post about this, one of the main points of which is that content strategists are generalists by nature. They come to the discipline  from information architecture, web editorial, information design, human factors, usability, analytics and other fields related to web development.

Content strategists often describe their jobs as doing what needs to get done to improve the user experience of a web property in order to accomplish business goals. They might emphasize the skills they took to the job, but they quickly learn the other necessary skills to get the job done. As more web development is done using agile methods, it seems to me teams will be composed of seven plus or minus two content strategists, who might come to the discipline from their original fields, but adapt to the needs of their web development teams.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2011 12:42 am

    Interesting perspective. What do you think matrixed or SILOed work environments can do to reap the benefits of agile methods?

    • jamesmathewson permalink
      May 17, 2011 2:17 am

      We have had some success at distributed scrum. But it is challenging. It’s hard politically for people to go against the pervasive culture of waterfall processes and specialization. But if they can manage it, it is definitely worth it.

      I just think people work better when they have fewer things to focus on. They have uninterrupted blocks of time to do their work. They take more pride in work that is self organizing. And they surely have better work/life balance with the absence of overtime. The numbers consistently show tremendous productivity and creativity gains from agile methods. I look forward to seeing those gains and being able to demonstrate results without feeling like I’m perpetually behind and stressed out.

  2. May 31, 2011 9:12 pm

    … an English game that is very similar to football in rugby they use a slightly different shaped ball and less padding also there are some different rules involved.

  3. September 19, 2014 10:49 am

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