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Conquering Complex Projects

by Beth Johnson

Complexity. As a project manager at Brain Traffic, I hear clients use that word a lot. And, for good reason. When you think of everything involved in content strategy, it can get pretty overwhelming. In fact, Dictionary.com defines complex as:

  • Composed of many interconnected parts; compound; composite: a complex highway system.
  • Characterized by a very complicated or involved arrangement of parts, units, etc.: complex machinery.
  • So complicated or intricate as to be hard to understand or deal with: a complex problem.

Content projects regularly fit each (and sometimes all three!) of these definitions. So, how do you tackle complex projects? Where do you start?

Step 1: Diagnose the problem

The first—and most critical—step is to take time to identify why exactly your project is unique, different, hard, or complex. It’s not as hard as you think. You’ve got help. Project managers have been thinking about what makes projects complex for decades.

In his paper, “Project Complexity: A Brief Exposure to Difficult Situations,” project management expert Dr. Lewis Ireland identifies two categories of project complexity factors:


Technical complexity factors

Management complexity factors

  • Number of technologies involved
  • Familiarity of team with technologies
  • Brand new or  well-established technologies
  • Number of technical interfaces
  • Project staffing and management
  • Number of parties involved
  • Change-related issues
  • Stability and complexity of requirements
  • Political issues
  • Time/cost issues


Conveniently, Dr. Ireland’s categories line up with the two halves of “the quad” (a graphic we use at Brain Traffic to help our clients understand the interrelated areas of content strategy). The halves are:

  • Content components—what the content is and how it gets prioritized and organized.
  • People components—how content moves through the organization and how decisions are made.

Brain Traffic Content Strategy Diagram


When you compare Dr. Ireland’s categories, the quad, and your project particulars, it’s usually pretty easy to identify the factors. Some common complexity factors are:


Content complexity factors

People complexity factors

  • New technology
  • Complicated or unfamiliar subject matter
  • Multiple and varying audiences
  • Large amounts of content
  • Multiple platforms, properties, and content types
  • Stakeholders (large numbers, diverse roles)
  • Multiple teams with different expectations
  • Project participants who don't know each other well
  • Different vendors with different priorities
  • Recent reorganization, creating new or undefined roles


On your project, you may have one factor that makes the project out of the ordinary. Or, you may have a dozen. As we start adding more and more factors, our projects become more and more complicated.

Step 2: Break things down

Once you diagnose the factors that are entirely specific to your project, you can break things down and address each specific element.

For example:

  • Multiple content properties: Choose one property as the parent or priority. Work on recommendations for that property, and then branch out. (Even if this means you might have to update your recommendations later.)
  • Lots of diverse stakeholders: If you have several stakeholder groups, you might want to make a stakeholder matrix to create clarity and define roles. Distribute and share the matrix with the project team and stakeholders. If there has been a recent reorganization, highlight how things have changed.
  • New technology: Budget time and resources for training and research. Bring in experts to help you understand the implications of the new system, if necessary.

Complex problems seem a lot less scary when you look at them in small chunks.

Step 3: Roll with it

And here’s one final bit of advice: Roll with it! Every project has its quirks, and that’s what makes our work challenging and fun.

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Posted in Project Management

Give Your CS Project Sponsors the Royal Treatment

by Melissa Rach

Tonight, I’m headed to my first official “slumber party” in quite some time. My daughter and I are bunking with all the aunties, cousins, and grannies in anticipation of the royal wedding coverage—which starts at a painfully early 3:00 a.m. for us.

I know. It’s wrong on so many levels—there’s the anti-monarchy angle, the feminist issues, and it’s at 3-freakin’-a.m. But, my preschool daughter loves princesses and brides, and I’m a sucker for feel-good pageantry. So, we’ll be there, bleary-eyed in our jammies, celebrating Wills and Kate with toasts of the multigrain-with-butter variety.

Kate: “What? I’m on the BT blog? Now I’m really famous.” The official portrait photographs for the engagement of Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton. (Copyright 2010 Mario Testino).

Saving the monarchy, sponsoring a content strategy project … it’s all the same

However, unlike watching Charles and Diana’s wedding when I was a kid, this time I understand that it’s not all fun and fairytales. I can almost feel the pressure on Kate Middleton from Minnesota. No doubt she’s getting exactly what she wants, but STILL. As if getting married wasn’t stressful enough, she’s a “commoner” expected to save the British monarchy (in fashionable, but not too extravagant, frocks). 

Odd as it may seem, sponsors of corporate content strategy projects are often under a similar type of pressure. Obviously, they don’t have 130 billion people commenting on their fashion choices, but, like Kate, many are knowingly:

  • Committing themselves to a new role with increased responsibility and prominence
  • Tackling a huge, “mission critical” initiative, where related past efforts have had marginal success (if any)
  • Working in a fast-paced, technically-enhanced environment that their predecessors never knew and contemporaries don’t always understand     
  • Facing political minefields and public scrutiny  

With all that stress, why do they do it? I’d guess both Kate and the project sponsors would say it’s because there’s an exciting opportunity, there’s something they love about it, and they believe they can do it. Additionally, if it all goes well, the benefits for their organizations (not to mention themselves) will be great.

Help your project sponsors be royally successful

As content strategists, we have to be content experts, but we also need to be strategists. Part of the role of a strategist is to help each project sponsor navigate his or her environment. It’s a nice thing to do, and it’ll make the strategy a lot more successful.

So, take a cue from the royal couple’s advisors. When appropriate, don’t be afraid to help your project sponsor:   

  • Be prepared and confident. The future Princess of Wales has a lot to learn, fast. She’s apparently taking lessons in a variety of topics: royal etiquette, dealing with the press, and even the Welsh language. Pob lwc! (That’s “good luck” in Welsh. She’ll need it.)

    Good strategists ensure project sponsors are similarly prepared. Be sure your project sponsor is armed with knowledge about content strategy best practices, processes, and theories. That way, they can participate fully in project work and talk confidently about content strategy to other stakeholders when necessary.

  • Earn trust from organization leadership. Just last week the Queen gave her official, written consent to the wedding of Prince William and “our trusty and well-beloved Catherine Elizabeth Middleton.” Trusty? Nice work, Kate. I’m guessing the Queen never said that about Fergie. 

    Helping your sponsor earn the trust of the CEO, CMO, or similar stakeholders is critical to strategy buy-in and implementation. Whether it’s creating talking points for your sponsor, giving a presentation, or facilitating a workshop, do what it takes to get leadership on board.

  • Keep stakeholders informed, and interested. The PR wizards from Clarence House have done an excellent job of releasing information about the royal wedding at regular intervals. These timely updates throughout out the wedding preparations have kept everyone apprised of progress and kept them interested.

    Once the project is underway, make sure your sponsor has regular progress updates to keep stakeholders interested and involved.

  • Get alignment before action. Kate and William were engaged for several weeks before it was announced to the public. That time gave the families and royal advisors a chance to get on the same page, coordinate activities, and come across as a unified, believable front.

    There’s nothing worse than 11th-hour political controversy—it derails the project and makes your sponsor’s job a nightmare. So, when it’s time to make big announcements around your strategy (introducing the strategic plan, launching strategy implementation, etc.), plan a few days in your schedule to ensure all of the key members of the project and leadership teams are aligned in advance.

And then they lived happily ever after

Take some time to understand each project sponsor’s stress points and alleviate what you can. When project sponsors (and their teams) have a positive project experience, there’s a significantly better chance that strategic recommendations will be approved and implemented. And that’s a happy ending for everybody.

As for William and Kate, I hope they have a happy ending, too. I wish them “longyfarchiadau” (that’s “congratulations” in Welsh). I’d also like to tell them: mae fy hofrenfad yn llawn llyswennod (“my hovercraft is full of eels”). Apparently, it’s a common Welsh phrase.

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Posted in Brain Traffic, Content Strategy, Project Management

You Have Problems.

by Kristina Halvorson

Web content problems, that is.

How do I know this? Because 99% of companies do.

In fact, I'm going to bet that you have one or more of these problems:

  • You have great ideas for awesome content…but you're not sure how to create and sustain it.
  • You have a fabulous new website design…that breaks as soon as you start uploading content to it.
  • You thought someone else would be creating the content…except, funny, they thought YOU were creating it.
  • You're wearing your underpants on the outside…wait, what?

I know. It hurts. But I have good news: there's a cure. Web content strategy offers a long-term, sustainable fix to these problems and more. And wait! I have even better news! Brain Traffic content strategist Meghan Casey wrote a terrific article that shows you how!

Meghan's article, 4 Web project problems content strategy can solve, kicks off an entire week of content strategy articles on the terrific UX online mag, Johnny Holland. We like it. We think you will, too. Enjoy!

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Posted in Content Strategy, Project Management, Uncategorized

Where’s the fire? And other burning questions about Brain Traffic.

by Project Management Team

The account services team at Brain Traffic gets asked a TON of questions from prospects and clients. After a little Brain(Traffic)storming, our team has selected a few of our top questions.  
 “Hi. What do you do at Brain Traffic?”
Short answer: Content strategy and implementation.
In more detail: Content strategists advocate for content that is useful and purposeful. Strategists create the big picture plan from which all other content decisions are based, including messaging, structure, workflow and governance.  
Writers and editors craft smart communication. They carefully select labels and language. They plan for what and how things are said. They are mindful of what doesn’t need to be said.
"Can you tell me a little more about how you work?"
First, we want to get to know you and your content. The more we know, the more informed our recommendations are. It might feel like an interrogation, but it’s for your own good. For example:
·      What do you like about your website?
·      What don’t you like about your site? Why?
·      What works well?
·      What other websites do you like?
·      How will success be measured?
·      Do you like long walks on the beach?
Okay, so maybe not that last one, but you get the idea.
The goal is to take a very detailed look at the “what-is” so we can help develop the “to-be.” This way, you’ll get recommendations tailored and designed specifically for you and your site.
That’s the thing – our recommendations come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s information architecture, or a style guide, or an editorial calendar, or brand-spanking new copy for your site. Sometimes it’s all of the above. Whatever it is, our process is designed to help you see it all come together and say, “Whoa. Now that’s what I’m talking about.”
 “Why on earth do you need all this documentation to work on our project?”
When we initially engage with a client, we request a lot of documentation, including style guides, metrics, competitive analyses, SEO data, org charts, workflow diagrams, etc. All of these documents have a direct impact on content. As our team begins our assessment phase on a project, it’s critical for us to get a grip on any content impact factors.
We provide more usable and realistic recommendations when we can fully understand the current state of your content. Although we are the content experts, we rely on you to be the expert on your business. The more information you share with us, the better we’ll be able to address your content pain points in our recommendations.
Have something a bit more specific you’d like to discuss? Give us a ring (or any other gift that seems appropriate). Kidding! Just kidding. But seriously, we’re here to help.

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Posted in Project Management, Uncategorized