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News & Press: Amnet Thought Leader Series

Can Scrum Work for Publishers?

Thursday, December 6, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Pat Pagano

There is an increasing interest among publishers of how agile methodologies, and specifically Scrum, can be used to create or improve products and services. This overview aims to give publishers a better understanding of Scrum and to identify areas within their companies that can benefit from this approach.

Scrum was originated by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland in 1995 with their publication The Scrum Guide. This is their definition:

Scrum (n): A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value. Scrum is: lightweight; simple to understand; and difficult to master.

So, what exactly is it? Scrum is a series of short development cycles completed by a small team to deliver a working feature known as a “shippable product.” It starts with a defined list of features collected in the product backlog. The product backlog is a living entity. As existing items are brought into the development cycle, new items are added as they are discovered. The cycles, known as sprints, are anywhere from a week to a month long during which time the team works on items selected from the product backlog.

The Scrum Team is composed of:

  • Scrum master: Not to be confused with a project manager, the Scrum master manages the Scrum process and provides checks and balances between the product owner and the development team. Scrum masters are servant leaders, meaning they enable the team by eliminating distractions and removing obstacles, and evangelists for Scrum values throughout the organization.
  • Product owner: The product owner is responsible for representing the business stakeholders. The PO is an individual, not a committee, and is solely responsible for identifying the product being built. The PO owns and prioritizes the product backlog.
  • Development team: Consisting of 3 to 9 people, the development team (or “Dev”) has all of the skills necessary to complete the sprint. The team is self-organized and produces the shippable product.

The Scrum Events are:

  • Sprint planning: This is the meeting where the development team decides which backlog items will be included in the upcoming sprint, and the Scrum Team then decides what will be the sprint goal. Essentially the team decides on the what and the how. A sprint always produces a shippable product that meets the “definition of done.” This definition is an unambiguous checklist of steps (coding, testing, acceptance testing, documentation) required for completing the sprint.
  • Daily Scrum: The development team meets every day at the same time for a 15-minute meeting where they individually discuss what was accomplished the previous day, what will be accomplished today, and any obstacles they have encountered.
  • Sprint review: At the end of the sprint the Scrum team meets with key stakeholders to discuss the goal of that sprint. There is a demonstration of the product increment and feedback is given to the team.
  • Sprint retrospective: The sprint concludes with a meeting of the Scrum team to discuss what went well and what didn’t. It is an opportunity to review and improve the process for the next sprint.

The three pillars of Scrum are transparency, inspection, and adaptation. Transparency occurs in the sprint review when there is a demonstration of the shippable product that has met the “definition of done.” Inspection and adaptation occur throughout the sprint, especially in the sprint planning meeting, the daily Scrums, and the sprint retrospective. Examples of adaptation are continuing the momentum for processes that work, creating alternative solutions for processes that do not work, refining the product backlog, and possibly evolving the definition of “done” (i.e., initial estimations of the sprint efforts might be overreaching and the definition is then pared back by the team).

Tech companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook have used agile methodologies to remain flexible and quickly react to customer and marketplace needs. Instead of waiting a full year to release a major upgrade, they instead release frequent updates to fix bugs, improve the user experience, and add functionality. Barnes & Noble, for example, uses agile approaches and Scrum throughout the organization and they have proven to be effective tools for website, digital reader, and mobile app development. Scrum is also used to develop and improve core business tools.

How can a team of 9 or fewer members be effective on a large project? The solution is not to increase the size of the team, but to increase the number of Scrum teams. This requires coordination of effort and Scrum has additional methodologies to accomplish this.

Publishers reading this will ask themselves how Scrum can be applied to their processes. Most organizations employ a plan-driven process that proceeds through a number of phases: business and needs analysis, design, coding of some kind, user acceptance testing, and final release. This waterfall-style process might look like this:

  1. Manuscript acquisition
  2. Editing
  3. Design
  4. Prepress
  5. Shipping

This works well when the challenge is predictable and static, meaning all of the up-front planning is accurate and there are few or no surprises as you near the end of the project. When you have a complex challenge, Scrum can be the better choice because it is an incremental development process. The product is continually reexamined and refined as more is understood. Scrum is capable of developing just enough and just in time.

Publishers have been using digital technology to produce print books for decades. Now their product line can include websites, digital books, audio books, videos, and interactive applications. Due to their complexity, these digital products are good candidates for using Scrum teams. The Scrum roles are relatively simple compared to traditional project management teams and most of this expertise already exists within a publishing organization.

Managing editors, production editors, and product managers can become excellent product owners as they already interact with other departments, track developmental progress, and understand the end-product requirements. To be effective in this role, they need to be empowered so they can list and prioritize requirements and mediate between stakeholders and the development team.

The development team can be sourced from the roles currently associated with those doing the work, such as copyeditors, proofreaders, designers, compositors, web coders, and so on. The team is self-organizing and should have all of the necessary skills to complete the work. Once formed, development teams should continue with the same members as they will constantly inspect and adapt their work and become more successful.

Project managers can be trained as Scrum masters and it is easier if they already have a working knowledge of agile principles. There are several differences between the two roles. Traditionally, project managers are responsible for all facets of a project, but in Scrum most responsibilities are distributed among members of the team. For example, project scope is shared by the product owner and the development teams, and communications is shared by the entire team. In order to become an excellent Scrum master, project managers need to get beyond micromanagement and learn to be servant leaders by practicing community building, listening, and giving priority to the Scrum team.

Agile practices and Scrum are not exclusive to tech companies and application development. The Scrum framework is flexible enough to be incorporated in diverse workflows. The sprint cycle allows for frequent review and improvement and can shorten the time to market, allowing publishers to deliver quality products quickly. More information on Scrum can be found on the Scrum Alliance website.

This article is brought to you through a partnership with Amnet, a technology-led provider of services and solutions, catering to the needs of businesses for content transformation, design, and accessibility. The points of view expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of Amnet or of BISG.

Pat Pagano is a publishing professional with many years’ experience in content and media. He earned his bachelor of science degree in communication/journalism from Syracuse University and started his career as a type designer at Linotype. His work experience includes production and technology positions on magazines (Rolling Stone, US, Elle, W, New York Magazine), newspapers (Village Voice, Women’s Wear Daily, The Daily Deal), and print and digital books at Harper Collins. His latest engagement was at working on digital operations for NOOK, maintaining their e-book library.


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