Lessons from Scrum: A more agile approach to thought leadership

Rob Mitchell

In the early 1990s, former fighter pilot turned IT developer Jeff Sutherland and the software developer Ken Schwaber devised Scrum, a new way of managing complex software projects to make them more efficient, timely and agile.

There are three basic principles to Scrum. First, that complex projects and teams need to be broken down into more manageable components. Second, that teams need to iterate continually and improve their processes. And third, that teams should manage projects in a highly transparent way to ensure they’re accountable and have access to all the relevant information they need.

Although initially devised for IT software development, Scrum is now being used across a wide range of sectors. And we believe it has applications in thought leadership, too.

Like software development, thought leadership campaigns can be complex, multi-stakeholder projects that need to be broken down into several smaller components. Proponents of Scrum say it helps firms to:

  • Complete projects more quickly and effectively;
  • Provide higher-quality products to clients with the features they really want; and
  • Enable teams working on projects to unlock their full potential.

Who wouldn’t want their thought leadership management to benefit in these ways?

So here are a few lessons from Scrum that we think could help you to optimise your large-scale thought leadership projects.

The spirit of kaizen

Scrum borrows heavily from the concept of kaizen, or incremental improvement. There’s a strong focus on continual dialogue about what went well, what could have gone better, and what could be more effective next time around.

We see this as an important discipline in the creation of thought leadership: looking at each stage of the process – from managing a survey to conducting stakeholder interviews or consolidating feedback – and applying scrutiny to how each can be improved.

The sprint

A core component of Scrum is the ‘sprint’ – a period of between one and four weeks that enables larger projects to be broken into manageable chunks. At the start of the sprint, the team forecasts how much work can be completed during that period based on its track record (known as its velocity). Daily meetings are held to track progress towards completing work in the sprint.

The lesson here? Most thought leadership campaigns are planned out in their entirety, but Scrum suggests that this kind of long-term planning using complex Gantt charts is, all too often, fantasy rather than reality. Splitting thought leadership campaigns into shorter sprints can help to keep them on track and maintain momentum over the course of the campaign.

The Scrum board

Scrum says that work progress should be visible and transparent. Companies that implement Scrum use a ‘Scrum board’ on the wall that breaks down tasks into three columns: ‘To do’; ‘Doing’; and ‘Done’. Post-it notes represent each work item, and are moved across the board as they’re completed. Progress is tracked by a ‘Scrum master’, whose role is to coordinate the teams and ensure that any barriers to progress are eliminated.

For a complex thought leadership project, Scrum boards can be a very useful way of tracking progress, identifying bottlenecks and ensuring an even allocation of work across a large, multidisciplinary team.

The team

In Scrum, the performance of the team matters more than the performance of the individual. To perform at the highest level, teams need to have a sense of purpose, be self-organising and self-managing, and be cross-functional. A good team on a thought leadership project also shares these characteristics.

A major campaign requires a combination of many different skillsets, and there must be a clear objective in mind, as well as a strong sense of accountability. Teams must also be of a manageable size: as anyone who has worked in a team of more than 20 people knows, it can be very difficult to coordinate the team and keep everyone aligned. Scrum teams usually consist of around seven people.

As thought leadership becomes more mature, campaigns are becoming more complex. Keeping them on track, and ensuring that the team accomplishes as much as it can in the shortest possible time, are important objectives – particularly when your competitors are also seeking to go to market with similar topics. The principles of Scrum – and agile project management more generally – could be an important way of maintaining momentum and helping you to differentiate your thought leadership from competitors.

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About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

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