I recently received an email which asked:
Since my career seems to be following a path broadly similar to yours … I’d love to know what your experience was and any lessons learned.
Specifically Mark, who sent the email, asked a few questions:
- How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?
- How do you get better management buy-in (promise cheaper or faster docs?)?
- What are the first activities you should do (content audit, benchmarking?)?
- How soon is *not* too soon to start changing things?
I’ll break each question out into a new post, so without further ado, onto question #3.
What are the first activities you should do (content audit, benchmarking?)?
First things first, make yourself a coffee. In all seriousness, fitting into the culture of your office and colleagues is crucial, and one of the best places to get a handle on that is the approach to coffee/drinks breaks.
Then all you need to worry about is understanding the process that your company and team follow. Are you based in a waterfall type system? Are you Agile? And regardless of the underlying methodologies, how do things actually happen? Simple, right? Well it can take a little investigation but it certainly shouldn’t be difficult.
Briefly I’d tackle things in the following order:
- Talk to the members of your team
- Talk to the people who set the expectations for your team
- Audit your content (high level for now)
- Manage expectations
If you are joining an existing team of writers, then I’d suggest that the one of the first activites should be to sit down with them, one by one, and try and understand how they work, what issues they are facing and what expectations they have of you, and of their colleagues on a day to day basis. From this you should get an understanding of their process, how they go about creating the information, how editorial and technical reviews are handled, and how that information is published. Collate all of the responses, you’ll revisit them later, although I would take any personal or specific issues to one side and deal with them accordingly.
Next up I’d get a handle on the expectations being set on your team, which will include talking to other departments, and a good understanding of why that expectation is in place. There is a chance that there are unknown expectations on your team so make sure you understand what they are and if they are valid.
Then I would certainly tackle a high-level content audit. Understanding the content you have and learning what the audience of that content requires goes a long way to helping you understand the working practises and decisions made in the past. It should allow you to see if writing style guides are being followed, and whether an editorial review process is working. It won’t help with the technical review phase though but there are things you can do in that respect as well.
To me, a high-level content audit asks the big questions, why does the document exist? Why is the content of the document structured the way it is? Look at the content
So far you’ve talked to the people in your team who create the content, you’ve understood the expectations they have and the expectations on them. You know what type of content is being produced, why it exists, and have a good idea of what it contains and how it is produced.
Now the tricky bit.
Does the process that the rest of the company thinks you are following (their expectations) match up with the process your team is following? If it does then great. If it doesn’t then this is the first thing you need to address with your team.
Rather than try and fix things yourself, get your team together in a room and tell them what you’ve discovered. This is not an exercise in ‘why aren’t you…. ‘ this is the beginning of a collaborative venture, so make sure you pitch it accordingly. What you need to get from your team is the real reasons why the expectations don’t match. From their side it may be that they were unaware of some of those external expectations, or it may be that whilst the expectation is valid the team haven’t been able to progress that part of the process as they would like.
Once you have completed that exercise, and understand the position of your team and (and this is important) your TEAM has a common and understood position and process, you can then revisit the expectations being placed on your team. It may ultimately mean you need one meeting with representatives of both your team and those from the other areas of the company, but this will allow everyone to understand any issues, resolve them and move forward with a process that everyone understands.
Everything else to that is largely secondary. Yes using the right tools makes a difference, yes better knowledge of your audience is crucial, yes there may be improvements to specific areas of the content that could be made but all of those should start to filter to the top of your pile naturally. However, if the expectations both on your team and from your team are not manageable then you are only setting yourself up for a lot more pain in the future.