Content teams often think that the best way to create a content strategy is to follow a relatively linear process. Although there are advantages to using a traditional waterfall approach, I’ve found that applying agile and lean principles can improve the work.
In this post, I’d like to bring together some ideas from Corey Vilhauer on small content strategy, Melissa Breker and Kathy Wagner on content governance and workflow, Lisa Welchman on digital governance, and Dimagi on organizational readiness for technology systems.
I’ll also share some ideas from my own work, including a four-step process that uses agile and lean principles to improve governance and workflow.
But first, what do I mean by waterfall, agile, and lean in this context, and what are some advantages and disadvantages of each?
A waterfall approach to content strategy and governance
Here’s an abbreviated example of a typical content strategy process:
- Identify business needs
- Review background materials
- Conduct stakeholder interviews
- Gather business requirements
- Learn about your users, your content, and your competition
- Conduct surveys, interviews, and card sorts
- Observe users’ behavior
- Review data from analytics
- Develop personas and user requirements
- Audit your content
- Conduct comparative reviews
- Work with stakeholders to design a strategy
- Draft a core strategy statement and functional requirements
- Create a message architecture, information architecture, and content model
- Design wireframes and templates
- Plan for editorial calendars, style guides, and standards
- Clarify governance and workflow
- Implement and refine the strategy
- Collaborate with designers and developers
- Create prototypes and test them with users
- Conduct workshops with stakeholders
- Support change-makers within the organization
This progression is similar to a waterfall approach. The content strategist conducts research, facilitates the creation of a strategy, and then transitions to a supporting role as other team members implement the strategy.
Some advantages and disadvantages
I’ve found that content strategists often prefer this way of working. It gives them time to reach an in-depth understanding of business needs and user needs. It uses research to guide stakeholders toward a logical strategy. And it produces a standard set of deliverables that can be written into contracts and itemized on invoices.
But this approach is not always practical for “undercover” content strategists who work within the organizations that they’re trying to change. It’s rare for these folks to have the authority, funding, staffing, or time to do this work in such a linear manner.
In addition, most content strategists—undercover or not—lack the formal authority to change governance and workflow arrangements. In these situations, they typically have only a few options:
- Convince the right leaders within the organization to adopt recommendations
- Build consensus among stakeholders in middle management to change current processes
- Focus on making small changes that require no additional authority to implement
These options aren’t very appealing. It often takes a combination of approaches—and weeks, if not months, of persuasion—to make progress, especially in large, complex organizations.
If you’re using a waterfall approach to content strategy and governance and it’s working, then congratulations! That’s fantastic news. But if it’s not practical to work this way in your situation, then you might want to consider experimenting with agile and lean principles.
Agile and lean approaches
Instead of putting the emphasis on creating and executing a plan to meet fixed requirements, agile and lean approaches emphasize creating prototypes, testing the prototypes with users, and learning from these experiments to improve products through rapid iteration.
Agile and lean approaches come in many flavors, but they are based on similar ideas (many of which they share with human-centered design, also known as user-centered design and design thinking):
- In general, agile and lean teams should be cross-functional and deeply collaborative.
- Teams should build something small and then test it with the intended users right away.
- Teams should pay attention to what users say and what they do.
- Teams should strive to “fail quickly” so they can learn how to better meet their users’ needs as soon as possible.
- Stakeholders should expect that requirements and solutions may evolve in ways that take the team in unexpected directions.
- By giving up the illusion of control that a detailed plan provides, participants free themselves to learn as they go, so products can benefit from continual experimentation.
Some advantages and disadvantages
These ideas have resonated with many startups, software developers, and designers, whose skills and experiences emphasize the value of experimentation, adaptation, and iteration. Agile and lean approaches can generate quick progress and user-centered breakthroughs that disrupt entire industries.
But these approaches pose challenges for content-heavy projects. Building and testing an interface might only take two weeks, but conducting a thoughtful content audit of hundreds or thousands of pieces of content can take much longer. Likewise, creating a content model before you’ve reached a robust understanding of user needs can be extremely inefficient. And arguably any project is at risk unless clients, team members, and stakeholders share a realistic understanding of how the project aligns with the organization’s overall strategy.
Improving content strategy with agile and lean principles
I’ve been thinking about how content strategists might incorporate more experimentation and iteration in their work while preserving space for foundational research and strategic planning.
I am part of a small team at a decentralized international NGO. We have a responsibility to improve how the organization communicates with its donors, partners, and participants, but we have little formal authority to do so. To make progress, we’ve found bottom-up, iterative ways to improve the organization’s content strategy and digital governance.
Small content strategy
Corey Vilhauer spoke at Confab Central 2015 about how small businesses and nonprofits can use “small content strategy” to their advantage. I’d argue that most organizations could benefit from this approach:
Small content strategy begins by recognizing that content strategy is an ongoing process, not a collection of one-time deliverables. Small content strategy asks, “What is a minimum viable approach for making important changes happen right now?” The idea is to identify a minimum viable approach, execute the approach within a relatively short period of time, evaluate your progress, and then repeat the cycle.
Instead of attempting to develop a comprehensive content strategy through one waterfall process, you could perform a subset of these tasks to make short-term progress while keeping your eye on a long-term goal.
For example, during one cycle, you could interview stakeholders and site visitors, develop a message architecture, draft a style guide, and host a lunchtime presentation to share your work and invite input. During the next cycle, you could begin a rolling content audit, do a top tasks exercise, and begin drafting a site map. One cycle leads to the next, which builds on the cycles that came before it.
Small content strategy should always include research, but the research doesn’t need to be time-consuming or comprehensive in order to be helpful. The point is to help the organization begin learning about its users right away while converting this research into immediate progress.
Most change at organizations happens in increments rather than all at once. An iterative approach to content strategy embraces this dynamic. In my own work, I’ve seen how an iterative approach can give organizations time to digest research a few bites at a time while inviting stakeholders to participate in the process.
This can also allow you to lead change regardless of your title or position in the organization. By conducting small research projects and quickly converting them into results, you can demonstrate success and build momentum for further research and additional progress.
Improving governance and workflow with agile and lean principles
It can be much more difficult to change an organization’s approach to governance and workflow. I mentioned a few obstacles and some common tactics earlier in this post.
Governance and workflow problems often stem from an organization’s structure, culture, internal politics, and lack of digital maturity. Although these problems can seem insurmountable, an iterative approach can create change, even if you are an undercover content strategist with little formal authority.
Step 1: Identify your organization’s maturity level
Before making plans, take a close look at your organization’s current governance and workflow. What’s working? What needs improvement?
There are a number of models that can help you determine your organization’s maturity level—but you’ll need to find a model that matches the scope of the change that you hope to create.
Here are three models as examples:
Content Maturity Model
The model identifies five levels of content maturity:
- Ad Hoc
- Organized and Repeatable
- Managed and Sustainable
As the model indicates, each level is the result of the organization’s governance and workflow arrangements (or lack thereof). The model also suggests ways to advance from one level to the next. It’s usually not realistic to expect that an organization can skip from level 1 to level 5 overnight. It’s better to make steady progress one step at a time so the improvements will be sustainable.
Digital Governance Maturity Curve
In Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, Lisa Welchman offers a model that is even broader. There are three components of digital governance in her model: digital strategy, digital policy, and digital standards.
- Organic Growth
- Basic Management
I highly recommend reading Managing Chaos before using this model in your work. For an excellent overview of the book, see Erik Hartman’s review “‘Managing Chaos’: The Long, Winding Road to Digital Governance.”
Dimagi’s Maturity Model
Dimagi created a maturity model for organizations to use before designing and implementing a technology system. The model looks at six areas that contribute to success and maps them to five stages of digital maturity:
Each model serves a different purpose. You might need to combine elements from various models in order to build a model that fits your needs.
Step 2: Define a minimum viable approach for a given cycle
Look at where your organization fits in the maturity model that you selected or created. Ask yourself, “How can we move up one level within a relatively short period of time?”
Your answer to this question is your minimum viable approach. Treat it as a hypothesis. Decide how you’ll know whether your hypothesis worked.
Estimate how much time you will need to implement the approach. The cycle’s duration should be long enough to make progress given your constraints but short enough to feel like a sprint. If the cycle is too long, it will lack a sense of urgency. This might prevent you from interacting with stakeholders and users as often as you should. If the cycle feels too short, then consider whether to make your objectives slightly less ambitious for subsequent cycles.
Work with your colleagues and stakeholders to create your minimum viable approach. Ideally, your work should align with their schedules and priorities. If it doesn’t, think about how you might better align your efforts to take advantage of everyone’s knowledge and skills. Define the type of collaboration that you’re seeking, and be willing to change your approach based on feedback from your potential collaborators.
Step 3: Implement your minimum viable approach
If you are using Breker and Wagner’s model, then you are likely focusing on strengthening some or all of the five pillars of content governance:
- Success metrics
- Decision making and support
- Information systems
If you are using Welchman’s model, then you’re likely working to identify who should make decisions and who should provide input about digital strategy, digital policy, or digital standards.
If you’re using Dimagi’s model, you’re probably working to strengthen the organization in one or more areas for improved digital readiness:
- Program (i.e., product or service) design
- Data-driven management
- Technical support
- Training and implementation
- Sustainability and strategic alignment
Remember to seek input from your collaborators. Have face-to-face conversations if possible. Test your ideas with users. Keep an open mind about the problem that you’re trying to solve and your approach to solving the problem. Hold yourself to your deadline, even if you aren’t able to meet your objectives by the end of the cycle.
Step 4: Learn from the sprint and repeat the cycle
Once you reach your deadline, share the results with your collaborators. As a group, discuss what worked, what didn’t work, and why. Ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute thoughts and observations.
Celebrate what you’ve achieved, and think about what you could do differently next time.
Don’t worry if the cycle disproved your hypothesis, but do consider whether it seems that you’re on the right track. If it feels like you’re heading toward a dead end, then reevaluate your approach. You might need to redefine your problem or adopt a different approach.
Repeat the cycle. Go back to step 1 and decide whether your maturity model is still useful or whether you should modify it based on what you’ve learned. Then define a new minimum viable approach (step 2), implement the approach (step 3), and learn from the cycle (step 4).
Your thoughts and experiences
Have you tried applying agile or lean principles in your content strategy or governance work? If so, please consider sharing your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. Agile and lean approaches are still relatively new. We can help them to mature by sharing what we learn.
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