What Agile project management taught me about content development

mm by Claire Podulka on May 10, 2017

Back in the old days, when I started my career as a project manager at a textbook publisher, creating content was a waterfall process. Requirements were locked far in advance, including a hard deadline by which you had to ship all of the content at once to the printer.

When I — and the rest of the publishing industry — made the switch to digital, we pretty much just replicated the same waterfall process we used for print. Yes, digital publishing removes a lot of the old constraints and opens up possibilities for creating content faster and more flexibly. But those possibilities came with volatility and uncertainty. Most people stuck with what they knew.

Software development has faced these same challenges and proposed one potential solution: Agile. The Agile Manifesto states, “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” Swap in content for software, and you’ve described the goal of successful content creators.

As an Agile project manager, I spent four years running the editorial team at an ed-tech startup, and I now run Agile projects at Table XI, a custom software company in Chicago. In that time, I’ve applied many aspects of Agile software practices to content development. Here are some of the ones that stuck.

Keep your audience at the center

The basis of Agile software development is the user story. User stories describe what a user can do with a certain feature. For example, one user story for Instagram could be, “As a user, I can share a photo.”

This focus on the user — or the audience — is equally essential for content development. You can’t create effective content unless you know how to meet the needs of the specific audience you’re trying to reach. When I was managing content development for an education company, that could mean anything from an elementary-school student to the funder of an education grant. To tailor content to one segment of that wide range, I’d ask myself the following questions:

  • What does my audience already know?
  • What questions will my audience have?
  • What does my audience want to do with this information?

One way to ensure this audience focus is to actively involve audience stakeholders in your content creation process. I’ve done this in a variety of ways: checking in with a community manager who’s internalized the audience; recruiting an audience advisory board to consult on content planning and development; and drawing content creators directly from the audience. Seeking out your audience’s thoughts will make sure that you’re actually hitting the mark, not just assuming you are.

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Two heads are better than one

Pair programming, or two developers working side by side on the same code, is standard practice in Agile software development. It allows developers to learn from each other, get different perspectives when solving problems, and act as a second pair of eyes to catch errors faster.

The basic concept of working with a partner is built in to content development; great writers often have great editors to thank. Traditionally, writers and editors hand off work: one writes, the other edits, the first revises, and so on. But I’ve found that pairing synchronously makes it easier to understand feedback and strengthens the relationship between content creator and content reviewer.

You can pair on content in high- or low-tech ways:

  • Embed real-time collaboration features in your content management system.
  • Share a Google Doc and give your collaborator Suggesting access.
  • Sit next to your colleague with the content in front of you and red pens in hand.

Pairing is essential early in a creator-reviewer relationship, because it builds trust and a mutual understanding of expectations and preferences. Any time I start working with a new writer, I set a meeting with them in person or via video conference in which we walk through my feedback together and discuss until we we’ve got a mutual understanding of where the piece needs to go.

Even if you and your content creator have worked together for years, it’s still valuable to pair at the outset of a new project. Otherwise, you wind up relying on old — and possibly incorrect — assumptions from the last time you worked together, and you don’t get the advantage of what you’ve both learned recently.

Talk constantly

To do Agile right — moving fast and adjusting on the fly — your team has to be in constant communication. Are you meeting once a week? That’s not enough; so much can change in a week. Agile software teams talk every day, both in scheduled stand-ups (quick team check-in meetings) and ad-hoc sessions to bounce ideas around or ask clarifying questions. And it’s not just the developers who are talking with one another. Project managers, business/product owners, and customers should all be part of the ongoing conversation.

Because content creation requires a lot of heads-down “thinking and doing” time, it’s helpful to have multiple ways to communicate. Mixing asynchronous messaging with real-time conversations helps people get more comfortable with the amount of talking that’s needed. It’s also great if you have remote people or freelancers on your team. Having collaborated with editorial team members based in every timezone across the United States — even one who was living on a boat sailing around the Caribbean — I’ve found several successful techniques for bringing remote content teams together.

  • Create an editorial Slack channel. The casual nature of Slack helps people get to know one another better in addition to providing answers more quickly than email.
  • Schedule regular stand-ups via Google Hangouts or another video-call service. The video part is important: seeing your team’s faces and getting a snapshot of their lives (if only the rectangle of their office behind their heads) helps build rapport and trust.
  • Be willing to pick up the phone. Because so much of the communication of and around content happens in writing, it’s easy to forget the value of actually having an out-loud conversation.

Applying Agile strategies to content development doesn’t just give you better content that’s more aligned with what your users want; it also helps you more easily work alongside developers and designers. When you’re writing website copy or building out an interactive feature, matching the process of the people you’re working with will make the whole project run easier.

Content is increasingly digital. Rather than trying to fit old print processes to the new reality, it makes sense to learn from digital processes and apply them to the way we create content.

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