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Workflow That Works

by Christine Benson on March 6th, 2012

How many great ideas never get implemented or maintained because nobody ever bothered to figure out who would do the work? Or work was assigned to someone, but no one ever looked at the tasks that person was already doing?

Out of the four components of content strategy, substance and structure seem to grab the majority of the conversation. Known as the “content” components, they define what kinds of content are needed and how to prioritize and organize them.

But if content is a business asset, then workflow is what brings that asset to market. Imagine launching a new product without considering the cost of production, manufacturing resources, quality control, distribution, etc. Unfortunately, many organizations design websites and communication plans without considering the resources necessary to support them.

Now, I’m not trying to crush anyone’s dreams. I’m all for vision and aspirations. But you need to create a real plan for how you’re going to get there. Here are a couple of places to start.

There’s more work than you think

A friend of mine used to say, “Everyone’s the star of their own movie.” I have witnessed this to be true 95% of the time for anyone dedicated to a project. Since it’s their main focus, it’s hard to remember that it may not be everyone else’s.

It’s easy to underestimate how many other things people have to do, and the toll that takes on getting things done. Here’s a simple tool for getting to the bottom of how someone’s time is actually being spent.

Write down EVERYTHING you’re responsible for getting done in an average week. Assign percentages to those tasks. You only get 100%.

Workflow piechart

Once you have those percentages, map them to hours. As a default, use 40 hours.

 

Tasks
Percentage
Hours
Creating/editing content 55% 22
Project meetings 10% 8
Submitting requests 5% 2
Reviewing content 8% 3+
Communication plans 2% <1
Reviewing requests 5% 2
Random requests 5% 2
Personal development 5% 2
Non-content organizational needs 5% 2

 

This chart shows how much time a person actually has. It facilitates conversations about what tasks might need to shift or go away to get something done. Sure, a request for a single page may not take that long. But it’s essential to understand how that request fits into the overall process and flow of tasks for all the people involved.

Take writing, for example

Often, time estimated for writers is relative to the time given to the designers. Here’s the problem with that: designers create templates, writers create individual, specific pages. Certainly, it can take longer to get the visual design done and approved than it can to create a page of content. But one template might account for 300 pages. Make sure you’ve got an accurate page count before you fully commit to a schedule.

Next, you need to create an accurate, time-per-page estimate. Is the source content identified? Does the writer need to edit existing content or write from scratch? How familiar is she with the subject matter? Knowing the answers to these questions is critical to creating an accurate time-per-page estimate.

Once you’ve got a page count and determined the time needed to create a page, the estimating is easy:

Number of pages x Time to create a page = Total estimate

For example, let’s say 300 pages x 30 min. average per page = 150 hours. That’s almost a month of a single writer working full time, with no interruptions. That might work if your writer is a freelancer. But if they’re on staff, they probably have a few other things to take care of. Which leads me to my next point …

Of course, there’s more than writing

Oh, by the way, content isn’t done once it’s written. There are reviews. And revisions. And then more reviews. Reviews always take longer than people think. Determine who needs to look at the content—however many people that may be. Find out if one group needs to review and revise before it goes to another level, to avoid conflicting feedback (seriously, this happens ALL THE TIME).

After that, there’s publishing, QA, etc. I’m sure you get the point. Basically, it’s more math and accounting for ALL the steps. But don’t skip it. If you do, your schedule will quickly get off track.

Effective workflow = power to the people

Let’s face it. Estimating all of these tasks isn’t just about getting work done. There’s lots of work getting done every day without it. The goal of workflow is to get work done efficiently. (Read: get rid of “fire-drill” mode.) When one group skips planning, everyone else has to drop what they were doing to quickly complete the request.

By all means, there are circumstances important enough to the business that require everyone to drop what they’re doing and switch gears. But using this as the daily mode of operation makes people feel unappreciated and overworked. It also takes away the ability to efficiently balance the variety of tasks someone has to get done in a day.

It can all be avoided with a little planning up front. Take the time to communicate your needs and expectations. Your content will thank you for it.

  • Anonymous

    Do you tend to wait for visuals before setting out a content structure? Or develop a structure and work with the designers to execute upon it for different template types?

  • AP

    Great post. And I agree that creating a work flow is important. The only part I have trouble with is giving written content an estimate. As I’m sure you know, writing isn’t linear. One page might take 10 minutes, another might take much longer – even on a first draft. While you and I understand that, others will not. And assigning a word/min metric on every assignment can (and in my experience, has) put unrealistic expectations on everyone involved. What’s the happy in-between?

  • http://twitter.com/herdingwords Thomas Bevan

    Thanks for the great post! I have a constant struggle at my organisation trying to explain how much time is needed for content development, and that we actually have a number of projects on the go at any given time. “Fire drill mode” tends to be the order of the day.

    As much as it irks me to quantify an essentially creative process, this post has reinforced my feeling that I need hard numbers to back up my estimates as to how long it will take to complete content tasks. As AP mentions below, it is tricky to do so, as some tasks take little time, while others take a LOT longer, but I do feel that rough estimates and average times for tasks go a long way to help other people on a project understand the amount of work involved.

  • Luana

     Very very true.

    If you don’t quantify (read: justify) it like this, it’s often seriously undervalued.  As is management’s appreciation of what your role is  achieving for the organisation 24/7, or even more so what it could be achieving if value recognition meant you got more resources.

  • http://www.digett.com/ Amy

    You touch on this in the article, but don’t forget to factor in the decision makers’ (clients, customers, whatever) time. Will they be on vacation at some point? Will they be able to work at all during that time, or will they be incommunicado?

    Also, factor in communication time itself. You need to include the time you’ll spend writing email updates, reminding clients of deadlines, answering questions, and making sure they hold up their end of the bargain.

  • http://twitter.com/itscmb itscmb

    All the details of the process would take multiple posts to cover, but in general, we don’t wait for visuals to talk about content priorities. Typically we work with our clients to align on priorities of what should be represented. We talk about what and why, which informs designs that show the how.

  • http://twitter.com/itscmb itscmb

    I’m glad you liked the post. You’re right. There is no
    single number for how long it takes to create a page of copy. The more
    information you have about the range of scenarios your content needs to cover,
    the better off you’ll be. If the majority of your pages fall into the much
    longer category, estimate for those and the 10 min pages will take care of
    themselves.

    For large scale projects, we get deep into the details of
    what’s needed to actually get the content created. Things like how much content
    needs to be revised vs. created from scratch, what source content exists, and how
    many pages need complex concepts explained vs. interface copy are essential to creating
    a really accurate estimate that sets real expectations.

    When we work with companies to set up workflow for ongoing
    work, we typically talk about ranges of turnaround times. That way everyone
    understands that times can vary depending on the content needs.

    Hope that helps.  Thanks
    for your comment and good luck.
     

  • http://twitter.com/itscmb itscmb

    Great points Amy. All of those things also take time and are essential to keeping work moving forward.

    Thanks for  your comment.

  • http://twitter.com/itscmb itscmb

     Thanks Thomas and Luana for your comments. It makes me happy
    to know people are interested in workflow. I completely agree with what you’re
    both saying. Because content is so chronically undervalued and underestimated, it’s
    going take ongoing efforts by everyone to provide visibility into what the process
    truly involves. Hopefully this post helps people understand and gather the information
    needed to have those conversations.

  • Stephanie Mcgrath

    Hi there, I went on a blog -reading blitz here today and have very much appreciated all the info I’ve found so far. Just wanted to say thanks.

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