Agile in the Age of Hyperspecialization

Starting the start of the industrial revolution in 18th century, there has been a trend of increasing specialization. Rather than workers being involved in all aspects of creating a product, workers began to produce smaller and smaller subsets of the product. By the time Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, pin-making had become specialized to the point where it could involve eighteen different specialists. Smith wrote that, "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head..."

Not only has this trend continued through the present day, it is likely accelerating. A recent article in Harvard Business Review, "The Age of Hyperspecialization", claims that as work becomes more knowledge-based and as communication technology improves, it is easier to split work into smaller and smaller pieces. The article talks about about a number of companies and business models. But, in particular, presents a site called TopCoder, which allows companies to present development work that needs to be done.

The work is then bid on and completed by hyperspecialists all over the world: a designer in the US, an analyst in Kiev, an architect in Bangalore, a programmer in Beijing, and so on. These individuals do not work together as a team. Rather they have very specific artifacts to produce. The artifacts are defined in a very sequential ("waterfall") process. It is interesting to think about a grand, sweeping trend like the one toward hyperspecialization in contrast to agile development.

Agile does not at all require individuals to be generalists, but individuals are expected to work together as a team. The handoff-driven model created by hyperspecialization and used on sites like TopCoder are anything but agile. So where does this go? Is agile at odds with a 300-year trend? It could be. Or, perhaps teams will evolve more agile ways of working within the trend toward hyperspcialization.

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Mike Cohn

About the Author

Mike Cohn specializes in helping companies adopt and improve their use of agile processes and techniques to build extremely high-performance teams. He is the author of User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development, Agile Estimating and Planning, and Succeeding with Agile as well as the Better User Stories video course. Mike is a founding member of the Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance and can be reached at If you want to succeed with agile, you can also have Mike email you a short tip each week.