Content & The Editorial Workroom: How to Begin Tracking Your Content

No Content Strategy? Try These 3 Things to Start Moving in the Right Direction.

Raise your hand if you have no content strategy.

Raise your hand if you have a partial content strategy (in the clouds around your head, somewhere…).

Raise your hand if you are a genius. All of your hands should now be in the air, ‘cause you can point your organization in the right direction towards a content strategy by starting with these small steps (and always claim to be a genius—humble brag my people).

Recently at work, in tandem with multiple fortuitous circumstances, I was able to assist in setting up some editorial management for content. It’s just a start, mind you, and rather opposite of the “ideal” methodology (business goals –> content strategy –> editorial calendar –> content creation and maintenance, #amIright?). But if you, like us, need to work with priorities that change on the fly, demanding clients no matter the validity of their requests, and a multitude of contributing teams, you might try some of these first steps we have taken.

1. Compile Task/Work Lists

Ideally every piece of content would roll up to a top-level strategy. But sometimes it’s necessary just to gain that measurement of the current state. This can be difficult, however, without a spreadsheet or task management system of some kind. In our office over the last two years, we have slowly consolidated into one main project management system, Asana.

Everyone enters their projects differently and even uses different tracking methods (my team uses complexity scores; another team relies more on time logs; yet other teams rely on output). The one thing we all do, however, is enter our content-to-be-done into Asana as tasks. Knowing that the majority of our teams enter the majority of their content as tasks into the system (or spreadsheets, which can be imported into Asana), I thought I’d take a stab at organizing it all into an editorial calendar.

List of content assets in Asana
Fig 1: All the content assets/tasks in Asana

In Asana, this meant setting up a project and literally just tagging each content task as part of the project (1 hour – that’s all it took).

Calendar view in Asana
Fig 1.5: Calendar view of content assets/tasks

You Don’t Have a Project Management System (& Heads Will Roll Before You Get One)

You don’t need a project management system to make a list, however. The good, old-fashioned spreadsheet will do just as well. It’s true that you probably can’t rely on all your content creators entering things into a spreadsheet, and that might not change, but change for good sometimes rests on the shoulders of you—the superhero in plainclothes.

Spreadsheet version of editorial calendar
Fig 2: Y’all are best pals with the spreadsheet, cheap, easy, but hopefully not that easy…

Writing things down holds people (yourself included) accountable. It’s something to measure. Lists are the best friend of measurement and tracking; they are data points in and of themselves. They are also the easiest place to start.

Generally, people just need a rallying point. It’s not that they don’t want glory, lauds, and honor, it’s just that they don’t know how to go about it. All it takes is that one person starting the process.

2. Assign Categories—Thereby Setting Up an Easy, Quantifiable Way to Show the Output You Are Creating

One thing I would add to your soon-to-be-editorial calendar is categories (tags/columns—whatever). Why? These categories will help you see what track your content is on. Who’s your audience? What type of content is being created? Categories will section your content and add that special razzle dazzle to a spreadsheet or list.

On our editorial calendar (notice it’s not a list anymore—IT’S A CALENDAR), we use these categories:

  • Audience
  • Content Type
  • Marketing Priority (if aligns with specific)
  • Service/Topic

This gives you an immediate view of what’s been done and where the majority of your time and budget commitment is going. While it doesn’t equate with the complexity of creation or the time spent on it, this data is still an easy, quantifiable way to show the output you are creating.

Fig 3: Content created for University of Utah Health during August, 2018, sorted by audience; I wish the color palette was different, but I tried to limit myself to something others would find professional.

Once again, organizing by category will tell you if what you are creating is directed at the audience you are trying to reach. You are using your list as data points, in this case to tell a story about your current state.

For example, in Figure 3 you can see we are creating content for all the inhabitants of Noah’s Ark a lot of people. While the content is pretty evenly divided along what the organization prioritizes, this graph brings up interesting questions. Should we be spending so much of our creative power on content for patients? What are we asking those patients to do when they come to our content? (More embarrassingly, do we have calls to action on our content for that particular audience?)

For some people, understanding what’s happening right now helps them to focus on where they need to go. Plus, people really like graphs and charts. Trust me on that one.

Graphs and charts from content report
Fig 4: Charts and graphs created in Excel showing the content lists sorted by different categories; 15 content pieces aligned with clinical marketing priorities and 14 with academic. Btw, 91 total assets was like a freaking miracle for us at U of U Health. I think we broke the bank on that one.

3. Communicate the Work That’s Been Done

Once you have compiled your list of what content has been published in the past week, month, quarter, I recommend posting it somewhere. You could:

  • post the list on an internal intranet/blog.
  • email the list to your department at large.
  • email the list to your boss.
  • email the list to other important stakeholders.

Anywhere you can communicate the work that’s been done is good. People want to be recognized and included, particularly if upstairs is impressed by your organizational and list-gathering capabilities. You might even get people to commit to—wait for it—deadlines…

Action, Information, Reaction: Feedback Loops Can Lead to Change!

What you have just done in compiling this list and emailing it out is create a feedback loop. You have taken what everyone mostly already knows and just made it available real-time. While some would write this off as so easy – then why haven’t they done it yet?* Research has shown that feedback loops help us change:

“Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors. Action, information, reaction.” —Thomas Goetz, Wired Magazine

By compiling this list, you are helping people see some organization in their work. You are showing people what was accomplished in a certain period of time and how that could possibly influence the future. You are helping people engage in—eek!—thinking about cause and effect, value, return on investment.

Those Fragile Toes We Stepped On—Change Is Hard

As change does, this will step on some toes. Even if you try to communicate when, where, why, and how what you are doing is a force for good, someone out there will claim that they never knew about it and why didn’t you tell them?^

This work-culture attitude, that change is hard, takes work. However, few things are more motivating in favor of change than these things:

  • Inclusion
  • Competition
  • Appearance
  • Demonstration of advantages

When faced with someone who hates what I’ve done, the only thing I can say is this: Sorry to tread on your toes. Please give me your feedback. I would love to involve you as your work is an important part of our content initiative.

Is it Flattery or Genuine Appreciation?

Occasionally I mention to people that I treat all my clients like they are unique and special. This includes co-workers, collaborators, and upper management. Some would call that cynical and manipulative. The difference is that I actually (99.99% of the time) mean it!

There is something to appreciate in everyone. If you can find it, you will succeed. That doesn’t mean sidestepping accountability, but appreciating what your co-workers accomplish.

Benefits of Measuring Your Current State –> The Editorial Calendar

Some may say that if you don’t have a strategy, why bother with an editorial calendar? It’s true that an editorial calendar does not replace a content strategy; however, sometimes it’s enough to start with what you have and make incremental changes in the direction you would like to go. Even little changes can lead to great waves.**

The benefits of gathering this information and putting it in one place are these:

  • Help instill a feeling of unity between content creators (technically, you are working towards the same goal).
  • Foster collaboration.
  • Gain a true appreciation of just how much work others are doing.
  • Communicate that you care about the content being produced.
  • Nudge content creators towards thinking in terms of audience-based content.

This is a simple (but often boundary pushing^^) step in the right direction. Sometimes it’s a gargantuan effort, particularly if you are working with people who don’t play well together, but often the initial act of compilation can push your team/s towards seeing the current state of things. On the path to Valhalla, we heroes must create the path. After all, nobody starts out a hero. It’s the journey that truly defines you. (See Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2007, Bloomsbury Publishing.)

P.S. You also don’t have to tell them that next up, you are going to start examining vanity metrics more closely for patterns and that you are going to point out holes in your current content assets and maybe challenges in the creation process. World domination takes time my friends.

*This is a defining concept of modern art. Just think—we could all be smearing ketchup on weird glass blocks and have a show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. But we didn’t. So we can’t.
^Quite frankly, I don’t blame them. Stress at work can lead to hair trigger tempers when it comes to change. Not that I have ever gotten upset like that…
**Sometimes only clichés can accurately capture your truth. Is that lazy writing though? A question for another day.
^^Hello paradox, my old friend. Why is it so hard sometimes to take one step forward?

Setting Up Your Employee to Succeed: An Astonishing Idea

I literally never heard or read of this concept until this last year, 2018. I’m not kidding! Who knew that not only was there a philosophy and school of thought RE management, but that some organizations literally structure a plan for their employees to succeed!

I am still dumbfounded by this concept in the context of a goal that leadership or management would strive to achieve. And I think it’s just that the idea is so new to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had great bosses (at least one) that gave me what I needed to succeed, but I also recognize that not every boss will intuitively understand every employee enough to do this. Each employee is unique; therefore, their way to success will be different as well.

Expectations

In the past my experiences as an employee have always been focused around figuring out what the boss likes and trying (or not) to please them. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. Never, in my life, did it occur to me that a boss could give me parameters around which I could build my own success OR that they might allow me the freedom to define my own success.

My personal cultural background operates around a concept called servant leadership.* Namely, the leader is there to make sure the employees get what they need rather than making themselves an all-knowing figurehead who directs from on high. But there is (and I have yet to meet a leader who truly practices this) an element of pride in this concept: that I, as the nominated leader, somehow know better than the team what each team member needs and will elevate them through my own personal wisdom.

This bullsh&$ is actually kind of the opposite of truly helping your employees succeed. Setting yourself up as all-knowing intermediary is a flawed approach because none of us are all-wise, and all of us are generally affected by having power over others.^

In my first management position (by title), I had 10 dressers (assistants to actors with costume changes). One day one of the young dressers asked me a question and I absolutely beamed. She had figured out that my definition of success was not that the dresser was busy every minute, but that they were available and made sure all work that needed to be completed was done.

And that was the very question she asked me: Was anything else that needed to be done? Suddenly, she gained mega points in my mental tally, simply by figuring out what my expectations were.

I realized as I thought about this later, that one aspect of helping your employees to succeed is making known your expectations. You can’t expect anyone to read your mind.

In fact I did my employees a disservice by not communicating these expectations. Whether or not they cared about “succeeding” (via my definition) in this position, I certainly didn’t help them out.

But, are our personal expectations of our employees (and ourselves) truly the measure of success? Success certainly becomes far more tangible if it is tied to an overarching goal or objective.

Tangible Goals & Strategic Objectives

How many of you know what your institution, department, and/or team goals are? Our department worked very hard to define goals and outcomes in the last couple years, but a recent leadership departure has scattered those foci out in the proverbial wind. Granted, the industry (if you can call it that) of the academic medical center certainly doesn’t help anyone out since it’s so immensely divided in strategic objectives it’s nigh impossible to meet all the expectations.**

But, defining goals and/or objectives at any level (and writing them down) will help everyone succeed. Suddenly, you have something that can be defined and measured. You can break down these end games into an achievable journey. And not only is your end game achievable, but you with your employees can customize the way you achieve these goals.

I once thought that there was only one way to do things. That is absolute rubbish. There are not only multiple ways to do things, but there are pros and cons to all of them.

There is a difference, however, between skills and methodology. Skills are like facts, the building blocks of specialty, craft, or trade.

When you sew a seam in a costume, there are techniques to achieve quality. Once you have learned the basic techniques and skills of your specialty area, then you can explore methodologies. Another example: There are different methodologies of project management; however, they are all based around certain skills:

  • Time management
  • Resource management
  • People management

The way you approach those can define your success.

True employee success comes however, I believe, when your employee feels empowered to take their individual skill set and map out a way to achieve the overall goal themselves.

Simple Steps to Prime Your Employees to Succeed

As Steve Jobs said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Your employees should be skilled people in their specialties. You, as their manager, may have some of these skills, but you will be most successful yourself if your skill set is in good management. (But more about that some other time.)

Here are some simple steps to prime your employees to succeed:

  • Know and communicate the endgame
  • Tie in team and employee goals to the endgame
  • Clearly communicate your expectations
  • Allow your employee the freedom to work as suits them best
  • Hold your employee accountable; review and check in as needed

Of course, now that I write that, I realize none of those steps are really simple. Each one involves skill sets that are difficult to master in and off themselves—communication; candid conversations about difficult topics; a modicum of self-mastery so that you don’t project your own emotions on your employees; the ability to accept failures and move on; and, perhaps most important, the ability to listen.

And celebrate your successes!

If you are constantly focusing on where you need to go without appreciating the work that’s been done, how will your employees ever feel successful?

So, it turns out that while I could teach skill sets and I have some good management skills, there is still much to learn. And I can help my employees to succeed if only by acknowledging their expertise and specialty level and not assuming my methodologies are the only way. I can also help them to define (alongside myself) a set of clear achievable goals towards our endgame.^^

And I’m wicked good at throwing celebrations…

 

*Very Christian actually
^And if you think you don’t favor a particular employee, you’re lying. Every manager has a favorite or one they listen to more than others.
**Patient care, research, and education. Those are three wildly difficult areas to define success measures for, so in an institution that has them all squished together—welcome the woes of too many masters.
^^It’s true that the institutional endgame might not be defined or be somewhat nebulous, but you work with what you have…

Website Redesign

Audit, Rework, Edit, Do ALL THE THINGS

Get Ready image courtesy of “How to Win in Pacman” https://www.wikihow.com/Win-in-Pac-Man

There’s nothing that makes the web team tetchier than when a client says: “We need a complete website redesign.” Want to know why? It’s ‘cause there are so many possible meanings rolled up into that phrase. We need a few more specifics.

Are you talking about actual design—colors, fonts, images? Or do you mean you want to rework content? Are you concerned about navigation? Is there a feature you think everyone would use that doesn’t currently exist?

I often find that people have a hard time identifying what’s not working; they just have an idea about how it’s “supposed” to work and they want it “fixed” yesterday.

To help you all with that, we’ve come up with an outline of our ideal website audit and rework process, because it involves multiple things. While you can break some of these down into smaller projects themselves, if you don’t keep the first step in mind, you are losing the trees for the weeds.

STEP 1: DISCOVER/DEFINE

Pac Man and a few fellows: ghosts, food, surely some accessories will come along as well…

The discovery process helps us define what we want to accomplish as well as who our users are and what they need. Most major flaws in website design and structure occur because this first initial step is skipped. You also need to focus on your largest audience.

  1. What is the purpose of the site, desired outcomes, or success measures?
  2. Who are our audiences? Who is our largest audience?
  3. What are our audiences’ top tasks? When they visit the site, what are the most important things they are hoping to do?
  4. What is the overall timeline?

Once again, it’s easy to become overly focused on tactics—replacing images, adding content, moving widgets—as opposed to actually defining what the measure of success is for your website.

STEP 2: RESEARCH

All the Pac Man characters you may encounter in the game; image courtesy of common domain; find original on http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Ghosts_(Pac-Man)

Now you figure out how people are interacting with your current site, more specific behaviors your users have, and maybe some dirt on your competitors. Some of these steps can be streamlined however. Use your time judiciously!

  1. Do some user/UX testing to see how your current site is performing. This can help you identify problem areas.
  2. Review existing analytics to see what users are doing on your site and what pages they consider most important.
  3. Review existing web content, including a content audit. We are happy to assist with this.
  4. Create some user stories/jobs-to-be-done. Think through what a user needs to accomplish when they come to your website. Try to pick a few different users/tasks to represent your audience/s.
  5. OPTIONAL: Review your biggest competitors.*
  6. OPTIONAL: Review what sets you apart from your competitors.*

Keep this other thing in mind as well: Just because someone else is doing it, doesn’t mean it’s working for their users.

People often want what they like and have to have what they think is best. That’s nice and all, but this site isn’t about us; it’s about our users. (I know—it’s depressing. It’s like film actors and screenwriters, whose favorite scenes end up on the cutting room floor, or writers, whose best bits get edited out of the action.)

STEP 3: OUTLINE

Multiple different versions or levels of the Pac Man game; image courtesy of common domain masonicGITpacman game https://github.com/masonicGIT/pacman

This step complements the research you have previously done and helps you create a true map of user flows, content hierarchy, and priorities.

  1. Do some card sorting or tree testing or other types of testing to explore terminology, labeling, and the best navigation structure. It doesn’t have to be really fancy actually, you can do some on-the-fly testing with friends and neighbors that will tell you a lot, just by watching them complete some tasks.
  2. Define goals for each website page type (examples include education, about, news, and the like).
  3. Determine what content needs to be pruned out and archived.
  4. Determine what additional content is needed. Once again, USE CAUTION. It’s best to get a product out quickly even if it’s minimal and then add onto it.
  5. Build a sitemap with appropriate content hierarchies. This sounds difficult, but it’s about prioritizing what content is the most important for your users and featuring it up front or highest up in folder structure.

Priorities are SO WICKED IMPORTANT. If your site is perfect when you publish it, it’s too late. Everyone else will either have moved on or that thing you spent hours and hours perfecting will be out of date by the time you publish.

STEP 4: IMPLEMENT

Pacman and ghosts cross-stitched
Cross stitched by yours truly. I may have to make some more…

The pitfalls in this step mainly involve coddling the perfectionists. You will be most successful if you emphasize the need to produce a minimum viable product or, in other words, get the simplest version out there right away and add to it (iterate). This way you won’t be held up by others’ caveats.

  1. Assign writers to write/rewrite/edit content.
  2. Rework page structures. (Carefully! There are some pitfalls to this, especially when working on a timed roll-out plan with a live site.)
  3. Get sign-offs from stakeholders on changes/website pages in the test environment. (If you have a test environment open only to certain users. If not, no sweat!)
  4. Schedule redirects from pages to be archived to newly structured folders/pages. Using redirects tells Google where you have moved content on your site relevant to your users. It helps you retain link equity that previous content has earned (SEO optimization tool).
  5. Publish live!! And throw a party!
  6. Run spell checks and broken link checks.

CONGRATS!!! But—it doesn’t actually end here. Just FYI. There’s maintenance, content guidelines and editorial processes to determine (governance), workflows to figure out, and so much more. It gets out of hand so quickly! Like a child with a set of permanent markers or a cat who finds where you hid the treat bag…

Here’s wishing you the best of luck!

 

*This process can be very time consuming and can take precedence over everything else. Do NOT let it overwhelm what you need to accomplish.

**Extra byline for Mike Rockwood here who threw his hands up and said “I’ll outline it for you!” at least, metaphorically.

^Initially published on University of Utah Health’s intranet Pulse

Content Strategists, SEO Analysts, UX Experts, Oh My!

A Musing on the Age-Old Question: Who Does What, When, & With Whom?

Question for you: What’s your job title? And now next question: What do you actually do? I find navigating the area of job roles and responsibilities rather interesting. In a recent conversation with my colleague about what constitutes the SEO’s responsibilities as opposed to the content strategist’s, we were both a little stymied—there was a lot of overlap!

Where does your yellow brick road go compared to mine?

Who’s responsible for what, when, and with whom? And where does your yellow brick road go compared to mine? I’m gonna’ dig into this a little deeper and see if I can find any answers (preferably ones I like…).

The Who

Content Strategists: Front-End & Back End

A content strategist, in the words of strategist Ann Rockley writing for the Content Marketing Institute, “come[s] in two main types: front-end and back-end.”* The front-end strategists “typically have a love for the content and the customer experience. They make recommendations about the content itself.”

According to Rockley, this could include answering questions like these (paraphrased):

  • Who’s our target audience?
  • What content do they need most?
  • How well do we meet those needs and how can we do it better?

Back-end strategists “have a love for structure, scalability, and technology.”

They answer questions like these (paraphrased):

  • How is content organized and delivered (what is the taxonomy)?
  • What content governance processes do we use so that our content is not duplicate or redundant?
  • How do we customize this content modularly to best match the user’s needs?

One of the things I love best about content is the structuring, organizing, delivering, and processes. Who doesn’t want to make sure it’s all structured beautifully (also called information architecture^) and that it’s sorted in the most effective way?

Interestingly, this differs slightly from the description of a content specialist. After perusing job descriptions for a content specialist, I found these main defining points:

  • Create written content for web
  • Optimize that content for SEO
  • Research keywords and apply to content
  • Write blog/articles, do site updates, post content
  • Provide/research marketplace competitive analysis
  • Organize and structure content (information architecture)
  • Do other tasks related to content development

Next up, those search engine optimizers.

SEO Analysts

A search engine optimization analyst or specialist or consultant, or just plain SEO, “analyzes and reviews websites and their incoming links in order to provide expert advice, guidance, and recommendations…seeking to earn more natural search engine traffic and higher ranking positions.”** This involves things like:

  • Web page optimization
  • Keyword research and analysis
  • Keyword mapping
  • Focus on user experience
  • Diagnosing technical SEO issues
  • Auditing websites
  • Optimizing sites for local search
  • Completing online competitive analysis
  • Writing effective headlines, subheadings, title tags, meta descriptions, and the like
  • Improving existing website content
  • Creating the sitemap
  • Numerous other things

What I see here, and what I’ve experienced, is that an SEO has a keener understanding of the data surrounding web metrics and how to interpret this data. They also understand information architecture, competitive analysis (obviously), and technical website function in order to improve the quality of websites.

UX Experts

The descriptions I have found for this specialty are, interestingly, the most nebulous. Here is a great definition I found from UX Designer:

“…the term UX designer describes a wide ranging responsibility to ensure that an end product achieves its core (often business) objectives whilst providing its users with the most effective, efficient and enjoyable experience as possible.”

The definition of a UX expert is the most nebulous.

More granularly, this might break down to skills defined by these roles:

  • UX Researcher (user analysis & profiling plus other insight gathering and planning activities)
  • Information architect (page/content groupings, hierarchy, placement)
  • Interaction designer or UI designer (related but not the same interface creation focused roles)
  • Visual designer (brings the interfaces to life from an aesthetic/brand/creative perspective; some overlap with UI designer)
  • Usability testing expert (ideally provides a continuous user feedback loop allowing timely updates to design thinking)^^

The blog post What is UX Design? 15 User Experience Experts Weigh In on User Testing Blog has some interesting thoughts from several user experience experts.

Of course, if you want to get real-time with this, you can also examine the more recent rush to list positions for UX writers. UX Booth has this article showing job listings from Amazon, Dropbox, and Paypal (all the cool kids are doing it…).

If you made it through all those job descriptions, I’m impressed! Now in this who’s-doing-it, let’s examine how everything works together—or if it does.

The What

Now that we’ve got all the players, let’s take a look at the cross-overs between responsibilities. I’ve created this nifty Venn diagram to illustrate the patterns I’m seeing:

Venn diagram showing the skills that overlap between the rolls of a UX expert, SEO analyst, and content specialist

That’s a lottttttttt of overlap. And I don’t think any one area ultimately owns any one of the shared tasks.

The When

So when do these experts work together, and do you need all of them on your yellow brick road? I think it all depends on what you are trying to achieve and the skill sets you have on your team. From my experience, collaboration between job roles is the best way to achieve a great product (or perhaps it’s just my preferred working method?).

The overlap between content, SEO, and UX is considerable.

There must be a product owner who represents the user (and there’s another wrench to throw into the mix…), but the product owner should not dictate the methods or tactics used by the experts/specialists (and this includes all of the above: content strategist and specialists, the SEOs, and the UX peeps). This leaves the experts to think about and analyze user needs and craft a product to meet those needs.

The best thing you can do for your experts and specialists, IMO, is to clearly define roles. I work pretty amicably with my co-workers, and many of our skill sets overlap, but sometimes it helps to understand who is handling what, if only for organization’s sake.

As Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman write in their book First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, the key to having happy employees, successful employees is (in part) ensuring they know the answers to these questions:

  • Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  • At work do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?***

I also recommend spending time actually trying to understand what your employees do before either hiring more people or assuming you know the extent of their work. It’s possible they are already doing things you aren’t even aware of that match the skill sets you think you need. It’s equally possible to give an employee the chance to get training and grow to fulfill a need you think you have.

Where does your yellow brick road go and with whom? Who do you all work with to craft your products? What are their titles compared with their roles and how do they overlap? Do your experts know where they are going?

Lemme’ know if you’d care to. I’d love to hear more about how these skill sets work together in other organizations and what you think the essence of each role is.

 

*Why You Need Two Types of Content Strategist https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2016/02/types-content-strategist/

^”Information architecture (IA) focuses on organizing, structuring, and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way.” It also involves these things:

  • Organization Schemes and Structures: How you categorize and structure information
  • Labeling Systems: How you represent information
  • Navigation Systems: How users browse or move through information
  • Search Systems: How users look for information

Source: Information Architecture Basics https://www.usability.gov/what-and-why/information-architecture.html

**What Does An SEO Consultant Do? http://www.contentmarketingspot.com/search-engine-optimization/what-does-an-seo-consultant-do/ via @seoincolorado

^^ Also from UX Designer http://www.userexperiencedesigner.co.uk/new-what-is-ux-designer-ia.htm

***There are 10 more of these Qs, but I think you get the gist. And read the book. It’s not half bad.

A Is for Agile—Or Is It? The “Birth” of Agile Project Management

First There Was Common Sense (C)

I’ll admit—when I was first required to learn a “new” project management methodology, I was less than pleased. In my mind project management = common sense, something every organizational fiend pretty much has in hand. But seeing that the tide was not going my way, I determined to hop the band wagon. (I could always offer sarcastic comments a la mode.)

Come to find out, much to the chagrin of others, Agile methodology training was the most validating thing EVER. I MEAN EVAH EVAH.

First of all, these people embrace a principle that every project manager is wedded to: The art of saying no. Here are a few other things we definitely believe in common:

  • Good project management starts with budget and timeline at top of mind rather than designing the perfect project to build.
  • Specialists, and the team, should determine the best way to achieve a desired outcome rather than the person “in charge”.
  • The product owner (or account manager or marketing manager) is the main spokesperson for the product/project/client.
  • Team members can participate in multiple sprints related to multiple projects.
  • Scrum is not the only Agile way to manage projects.
  • More people can be involved than the product/project owner, scrum master, and scrum team—in Scrum they are called the technical analyst, the business analyst, and the functional analyst.

Agile training was like nirvana for geeks experienced in real-life management. (Shout out to the Agile Dad company whose foundations training in Agile is outstanding.)

Agile Helps With Hang-Ups Project Managers Face

Project management can get hung up on all sorts of stuff and Agile methodologies do offer some common-sense ways to cut through the noise. Here are some examples:

Processes & Checklists

As a certified PMP, I can attest to the number of processes attributed to “traditional” project management.* They frequently involve lists and lists of lists. Agile posits that if something has been in a backlog forever without getting done, maybe it should just be removed from that backlog, ‘cause how important is it really?

Agile also suggests making processes work for you. If your team likes a process that is less Agile-based and more team-based, as in makes more sense to the team as a way to do things, then your team’s ideas should be prioritized over codified processes. We value people over processes. (Find this in the 12 principles of the original Agile Manifesto.)

Deadlines

Deadlines can create all sorts of stressors, particularly if you are working with a difficult sponsor who refuses to stay in scope. I have worked with numerous stakeholders that are impulse driven. They personally function much better at the last minute. Unfortunately, I have never seen anything come about through this method that couldn’t be done during reasonable work hours with proper planning. (The theater is rife with this sort of mismanagement.)

Unreasonable hours and expectations also lead to burnout and dissatisfaction. Simply put, the stakeholder’s need for a high rarely results in a better functioning or higher quality product. Production under these methods also frequently leads to a lot of time and resource waste, because impulsive decisions beget fractured vision and lower quality work.

Agile suggests literally completing the simplest foundation for the product or service first that can reasonably be presented and then adding to it over upcoming periods. While this may take the wind out of some ego-sails (who shouldn’t be managing the project anyway), it will result in a higher quality product built through sustainable practices.

Pop Art Exhibit at SFMOMA

Aside: In a recent visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I was reminded that the pop-culture artists subscribed to a similar theory—rather than wear their valued selves out as a commodity, these big names started studios where they delegated the production of their work (this might be likened to automation in Agile).

The SFMOMA’s curator summarized it thus:

Such arrangements shifted the emphasis from the creators to the means of production and provoked a dialogue about the nature of art and its position within American culture.^

So did the Agile management philosophies question the traditional project management school of thought.

Scoping & Complexity

Any and all estimates are guestimates. You can scope a project down to the very tiniest details, but there are so many variables that scoping can be truly a time suck. In the particular corners of Agile I explored, the practitioners recommended what they called story points (features or tasks scored by points). The tasks or features could be measured through likening T-shirt sizes to tasks or estimating complexity through planning poker.

I say, just straight up, rate tasks by complexity, which could be defined by:

  • number of entities you engage with,
  • difficulty of task,
  • skill-level, and
  • the like.**

It may be a hard concept for some team members to grasp as it’s a method of taking abstract or unknown quantities and quantifying them, but I believe everyone can learn it to some extent. (And grappling with playing poker cards based on the Fibonacci sequence, which on the cards go up to 400 pts, can give you a brain fart on an equivalent scale.)

Complexity scoring is also a guestimate, just like every other measure of scoping. There is no perfect equation; HOWEVER, if you have a project manager who has worked with a team for awhile, her gut guesses will most likely ring true. (Or maybe just mine have over the last year or two.) This is because the person engaging with the team’s actual work on a regular basis will have a good understanding of team capabilities and work that can be accomplished.

Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder engagement is really so very individuated per product and project, it’s almost impossible to quantify. Agile tries to simplify it by having one product owner who is the speaker for the stakeholders or at most a product owner assisted by analysts. Agile also makes some recommendations for project delivery: Must-haves and then should-haves followed by could-haves and would-likes (MoSCoW acronym as delivered by those Agile Dad peeps).

Personally, I find that getting the foundations of a project done and then delivering something desired (but probably unnecessary) is the key to most stakeholders’ hearts. Appease the revenue makers, but then deliver some frosting on top—find a political goldmine that’s relatively simple and make good on that.

While we (project managers) can’t be the heroes, magically rescuing our stakeholders from bad situations they find themselves in, we can still make ourselves look good if we manage it right. Substance delivered with a little style…

Power to the Vocab

The most fabulous thing about Agile is being able to explain the methodologies to other people. Somehow the vocabulary impresses people. You could have run multiple amazing projects and accomplished feats not truly understood, but until you can also spout industry vocab, you will always be second place.

Agile: I don not think that word means what you think it means...

True Agile aficionados may claim that Agile was born at Snowbird in Utah with the release of the Agile Manifesto in 2001,^^ but the rest of us know that before the alphabet (as we know it)  was introduced, other systems and processes have been continuously evolving. (Let me tell you sometime about management processes in the theater. I swear I learned everything I know from working in the theater.)

I do believe that everyone can find significant value in formal training in Agile methodologies, but I also know that practical common sense is an undervalued commodity in business today. And don’t forget the layer that experience adds to the mix. All the training in the world can’t compete with real life experience and/or familiarity with the type of work being done.

So, A may be for Agile and B for its Birth, but C is most definitely for Common Sense.

 

*Quotes courtesy of the fact that while there is a codified project management philosophy, many of us use combinations of common sense processes that might be classified as the old school way to manage projects, but which are really processes streamlined through experience that use techniques from the whatever-works-best school of thought.
^Taken from curatorial notes at SFMOMA about the pop art exhibit. Feel free to contact me if you want a photo of the text as I took a picture of the exhibit description on the wall!
**Complexity scores were something I learned about via a project management team in the healthcare organization I work in. They are also a measure of common sense. For example, if you are at the grocery store looking for the shortest line, making a judgement based on which line appears to be moving fastest ain’t going to cut it. The interaction between cashier and customer generally takes longer than actually scanning merchandise. Although, really, even self-check out can take just as long…
What’s Up With That: Why You Always Seem to Choose the Slowest Line https://www.wired.com/2014/07/whats-up-with-the-other-line-is-always-faster/ via @WIRED
^^https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agile_software_development