What publishers can learn from the game of rugby

By Geoff Tan

Singapore Press Holdings Limited



In the game of rugby, a scrum is a method of restarting play. It involves an ordered formation of players packed close together with their heads down, pushing forward against a similar group from the opposing side, with both sides trying to gain possession of the ball.

If you are wondering what this has to do with helping us through the challenges the publishing industry faces today, the operative word you must remember is “scrum.”

The rugby term "scrum" can also be applied to the publishing industry.
The rugby term "scrum" can also be applied to the publishing industry.

Influenced by its meaning within the sport, scrum also refers to a software development model based on multiple teams working in an intensive and independent manner. Invented by Dr. Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber in the early 1990s, scrum is a simple organisational framework based on three ideas:

  1. Divide and conquer.

  2. Inspect and adapt. 

  3. Create transparency.

Based on the same principles of how scrum has helped the software industry, it can also give those of us in the publishing trade a leg up.

1. Divide and conquer: This talks about how we should turn complex processes into simple moves. Instead of looking at a massive project as a daunting monolithic structure, scrum teaches us to break complicated stuff into simple, easily digestible bites.

And instead of looking at a long timeline for the task to be fully completed, it is more palatable to break it up into short and less-intimidating cycles, launch an initial model, and then deliver new iterations as we progress along.

Treat it as a journey instead of a destination.

2. Inspect and adapt: This is all about reviewing your processes and plans regularly with the objective of optimising the value delivered by your product. And because things change so quickly these days, revisiting your strategy and intent continually will accord you the best chance of success.

3. Create transparency: The more information one has, the better the decisions can be. There is every reason for you to show your cards so stakeholders are aware of everything in order to collectively determine the most appropriate next steps to take.

Scrum involves the initial appointment of a project manager called the “scrum master” defining and prioritising tasks that need to be done, planning sessions for each task, and holding daily meetings for teams.

It also involves:

  • The identification and evaluation of potential project risks and process pitfalls.

  • Execution of projects in brief, high-intensity, frequent work sessions.

  • Reviews of progress.

  • Evaluations of completed projects.

The team must also be open to constructive criticism and keen to explore ideas for improvement.

Following scrum, these two founders then collaborated with 15 other like-minded professionals and established the Agile Manifesto in 2001 with four value statements. We should also be mindful of this when streamlining the way we work, especially in legacy organisations.

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

The key here is to value your people, and not just focus on methods and technology. The old adage of “a fool with a tool is still a fool” still holds true today. There is nothing like assembling the right talents and have them pool their collective intelligence and experience to crack a case.

2. Working software over comprehensive documentation.

Target the solution and get things moving fast toward the end goal rather than be fixated on producing a flawless operating manual.

3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

I cannot overemphasise the need to be customer centric. It is only when we work closely with our clients that we are fully sensitive to and cognisant of the challenges they are facing.

Constant needs analyses and validation are par for the course. Contracts are necessary but not at the expense of warm professional touch-points and relationships.

4. Responding to change over following a plan.

Recognising that change is the only constant in this day and age, we must be flexible in allowing room for modifications and adjustments to be made. There is every reason for publishers to start acting like start-ups and internalise for themselves a culture that is innovative, iterative, and nimble.

Succeeding in today’s world is all about defining preferences. The common practice of saying one thing and doing another has got to stop. For example, stop saying that on one hand, your employees are your most important asset, and yet, on the other hand, treat them as replaceable assets via a compliance process.

Practitioners of scrum and Agile do what they say and say what they do. Are you ready for a game of rugby?

About Geoff Tan

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