The true cost of quick fixes (podcast, part 2)
In episode 79 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Gretyl Kinsey and Bill Swallow continue their discussion and talk about solutions to quick fixes.
“A big part of your content strategy should be how requests come in, how the timelines are built, and what you’re responding to and how you’re responding to them in the first place.”
Gretyl Kinsey: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we’ll be continuing our discussion on quick fixes, this time focusing on solutions. How can you undo quick fixes or better yet avoid them in the first place? This is part two of a two-part podcast. Hello and welcome everyone. I’m Gretyl Kinsey.
Bill Swallow: Hi, and I’m Bill Swallow.
GK: And today we’re going to be revisiting our previous discussion on quick fixes, but this time with a bit more of a positive spin. Just to recap a little bit from last time, what we mean when we talk about quick fixes are when you take a one off or bandaid approach to your content strategy, you do some sort of a work around to get content out the door, usually on a tight deadline or under a constrained budget, and then that later can cascade into lots of problems down the road if you have done a quick fix instead of planning and doing things the right way. And where I want to start things off today, talking about how you can undo or avoid quick fixes, if your company decided to use a quick fix in the past, what are some reasons that you might need to change that now?
BS: Well, I think one of the first things that you should be looking at is the amount of time your team is spending on overall tasks and to see exactly how much time is being spent fighting with, or otherwise futsing with their content development tools. Are they going in and constantly having to reformat things? Are they constantly having to retag things? Are they fighting with the tool to get it to work the way they need it to? And looking at these types of things to figure out, do I have a problem with quick fixes? Did we implement things correctly? Are we using the tool the way we should be using the tool, and is the tool right in the first place?
GK: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this kind of touches on the flip side of the scenario that we talked about in the previous episode, where we mentioned things like template abuse and tag abuse, and people going outside those parameters that you have defined in your structure or in your template and doing these one off quick fixes for formatting. So if you realize that you’re spending a whole lot of time on those kinds of things, then suddenly that’s not really a quick fix. That’s a very time consuming fix when you put all of those little individual quick fixes together. So if you realize that you’ve got a lot of writers doing that, then that can lead to something like a limitation down the road. If you realize, for example, “Hey, we really need to streamline templates that we have, or we need to introduce a new template or a new publishing output that is a lot more sleek and efficient than what we’ve already got,” and you’ve got writers all over the place breaking the existing templates, then suddenly they’re imposing a limitation unnecessarily on the tools that you have.
BS: Yep. And we’ve been hearing a lot over the past several years about companies going through digital transformations and being able to essentially modernize their entire content set. And I want to say just putting it online because that’s not what digital transformation is all about. Yes, it’s a component. But one of the things that a lot of these companies are struggling with is that they’re looking to move to a more digital foothold on their content and where they need their content to go. And they’re taking a look at their entire legacy content set, and they’re finding out that they have millions of different Word files that are all using different formatting, different templates, if they’re using templates at all, several different content tools in play. They might have Word. They might have FrameMaker. They might have InDesign for some more higher designed outputs that they were producing.
BS: They might have both RoboHelp and Flare in the mix because there were two different divisions of the company at the time and each one decided on their own tools to use, and they have different styles and templates and even different approaches to how they develop the content in the first place. So you start seeing all of these things where you have all of these different documents using a wide variety of conventions, and suddenly you need to be able to standardize this stuff so that you can start doing more intelligent things with your content and it makes it incredibly difficult to take that leap if everything’s a mess at the starting gate.
GK: Yeah, of course. Absolutely. And that is a massive problem I think that I’ve seen in probably the majority of the projects I’ve worked on here at Scriptorium that… Especially when it’s factors outside of maybe the company’s overall control, if there has been something like a merger in the past, and you’ve had lots of disparate teams that suddenly are working together and they’ve all had their processes, then suddenly any of those teams who have employed a quick fix solution, that’s going to be multiplied when you’ve got all these different teams and all of their past histories of quick fixes working together. That’s when it becomes really important to look at what all these different teams are doing and streamline their processes and come up with a content strategy that brings everything together as it should be.
GK: And I think that gets into the issue, not only of streamlining, but of scalability as well, if you need to scale your processes to a larger target audience, a larger market, or as you mentioned earlier, Bill, if you need to undergo a digital transformation and you need to deliver more intelligent content, content that is not only available online, but that is interactive or that’s personalized, then if you are hindered by all of these one off quick fixes that people have taken, it can be almost impossible to scale. And that’s when you’re looking at maybe a complete content overhaul at that point.
BS: Yeah, and I do remember one client a while ago who decided that after looking at all the numbers and taking into account all the different documents they had in play, they needed to go ahead and rebrand, they renamed their company and had new logo, new look, new feel to all their content. They did a lot of upfront analysis and came to the conclusion that it would be a lot easier to just fix it all, to basically press the pause button, fix it all, move it to… In this case, they moved to DITA, but move it to a single content format and then apply all of their branding changes using automated formatting. It was a lot cheaper and a lot less time to do that than it would have been to go into every single document and update it by hand. And that speaks volumes.
GK: And I’ve seen a few clients take a similar, but maybe not quite as quick approach where if they couldn’t press the pause button on everything, they at least did that one department at a time. So start in one place with DITA and then pull the next department in when they were ready and then so on and so forth. So kind of depending on the size of your company, your budget, your deadlines for different products and different content that comes from different departments, then that approach in phases or with a small starting point that expands outward might be a good idea to make it manageable as well. But it really all depends on how interconnected things are when you start, how interconnected they need to be by the end, and how that all interacts with your product release schedule.
BS: And another consideration there is also if you happen to be merging teams or bringing on new teams, or if your team is growing, you’re bringing on new hires, it is very difficult for someone to figure out not only a new job or a new role, but also to figure out how to produce things when everything is formatted differently, when everything uses a different convention, when you have to know all these little details about how a particular deliverable comes together, because nothing is consistent in everything is done ad hoc. It becomes very difficult to get new people up and running in that environment.
GK: Yeah. And that gets into some of the things we talked about on the previous episode with training and how I think that one of the things that we talked about is that a lack of training or a lack of documented knowledge can lead to this problem of these one off quick fixes just growing and growing. And then that perpetuates itself into this problem that any time a new hire comes on, it is very difficult to keep them trained if it was a lack of training that led to people making these mistakes before. So that’s where it becomes really imperative when you bring on new teams, whether it’s from a merger or whether it’s just expanding and hiring that you get all of your content systems streamlined and aligned across the organization and provide adequate training and ongoing training to prevent those ad hoc solutions that people were using before.
BS: That’s great, and brings up another question here, which is types of approaches that you might take to start getting these quick fixes out of the way and start streamlining things.
GK: Yeah, absolutely. One thing that you can do is just revisit your original content strategy if you had one, which hopefully you did. If you didn’t, then it’s time to start one. But if you had some content strategy and things maybe went off the rails, maybe there was some sort of major deadline pressure that prevented you from putting the solution in place that you really needed to, and you used a quick fix instead. Then once you get over that deadline, a question you can ask yourself is, “Okay, well now that we’re six months out or a year out from when we originally started planning and things went a different direction, which of our goals from back then are still relevant now, and how are these quick fix bandaid approaches that we took to get through this deadline impeding those original goals that we had?” And that can start to give you a path out of the weeds that you got yourself into.
BS: Yeah, you definitely want to catch yourself before you start running too far in one direction and constantly look back and realign yourself with the goals of not only your content, but are they meeting business goals as well? Was this one off thing that you, or this screaming deadline that you were responding to, does it feed into those goals? And if it does, take a step back and see, “Okay, we had to do all of these quick fixes to get it out the door. Why did we have to make these changes? Were the decisions that we made when we started on this strategy sound and do we need to revisit those as well?”
GK: Yeah, absolutely. Another thing that you can do is look at the situation that you’re in now and do some evaluation and come up with an estimate for the effort it’s going to take to get out of the situation that you’re in with these quick fixes. So you’ll ask yourself questions like, “How much editing is it going to involve? Are we going to have to go in and make changes to a whole lot of documents? Are we going to need to do maybe an automated process to refactor them if it’s too much to do manually? Are there solutions that can make that process a little bit more efficient and more streamlined?” Because that’s the danger of going that quick fix route is a lot of times those fixes are introduced through manual processes. It’s through a single person making a one off judgment call here and there, and then those all add up.
GK: So it’s really important to look at what people have done and where that’s left your content now, and then how big of a mess is it to clean up. And that can help you make some of the decisions that you need to make in terms of, do we need to focus more on some a programmatic solution and getting an expert involved who can write a cleanup script to help with a lot of this, or is it going to be more worth our time and money to invest in actual human resources to clean this up? People who are going to go in and clean up every document. So that’s another thing that you can ask yourself to make sure that you get out of that mess as effectively as possible.
BS: And it’s also a good opportunity to take time to reassess just how widespread these quick fixes have become and how necessary a lot of the documents are to fix going forward. So if you have a case where you’ve been copying and pasting information all over the place, how many of these deliverables use the same content in a different way? And do you need to fix all of them? Let’s say you’re migrating to a different tool set. Do you need to migrate every single one of them? Or can you migrate one or a small handful of them and rebuild a lot of the other deliverables that stem from that content automatically.
GK: Another thing that is really important to do while you’re evaluating the mess that you might’ve made with your content with these quick fixes is also look at what it’s going to take to get you into the solution or solutions that you should be using. So that might be things like new content development tools. It might just be improved processes with your existing tools. It might be some combination. And it’s important to look at that aspect and then everything that goes with it. So for example, what kind of training is going to be involved to make sure that you keep up those new processes and you don’t fall into the same traps that you fell into before with the quick fixes? There’s going to be a change management aspect to that as well, which I think goes hand in hand with training. Looking at why did people go to these quick fixes? What was it about that temptation or what was it about the necessity that may have led them down that path? And how do we put some kind of checks and balances in place and content governance in place to make sure that we don’t do that again?
BS: So after all this evaluation and all this investigation, the next thing you want to do is plan, plan, plan, and make sure you get things nailed down that are causing the problems that lead to quick fixes, not just resolving the quick fixes themselves. A big part of your content strategy should be how requests come in, how the timelines are built, and what you’re responding to and how you’re responding to them in the first place. If a lot of your quick fixes are a result of someone in the organization coming to you with a screaming need, then that is something that needs to be addressed by your content strategy, even if the strategy basically is to get management involved and coming to some agreement on how those requests for content come in. The more you get your arms around how requests for content come in and how the content flows out, the better control you’re going to have over the content creation process itself.
GK: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is an interesting thing to me because a lot of the content strategies that we end up doing are the result of these quick fixes, and we get brought in to solve whatever those problems were that led to those quick fixes in the first place. So the silver lining to having done these quick fixes and gotten into a mess is that it really helps you see where you went wrong and where you need to go right when you’re going forward. You get a little bit of a template or a roadmap for avoiding those mistakes once you have made them. So it’s really important to take advantage of that and not to make those mistakes again.
BS: Right. If you have the ability to collect any metrics on exactly how much time is spent dealing with quick fixes in your content workflows, that will go a long way also to helping you formulate a solution that will stick, because then you can get firm numbers to present to management to be able to enact some real change.
GK: Yeah, exactly. We talked before in the previous episode about how much these quick fixes can really rack up costs over time. And if you collect the information and have the numbers to actually prove that that’s what’s happening, then there’s a much greater chance that somebody higher up in management or at the C level will realize that it’s a problem and do what needs to be done to stop it.
BS: Right. I mean, if a lot of your time is spent essentially on churning rather than actually producing, then that is a productivity problem, and you can believe me that managers are very keen on identifying and solving productivity problems. And you want to make sure that those problems are solved the correct way, which is mitigating the need for these one off documents, mitigating the need for these last minute requests and being able to then focus on creating your content in a more structured way, whether you’re using structured authoring or not. So being able to use templates correctly, being able to use a proper workflow from content creation to review to publishing and so forth, and be able to use the tools the way you ideally need to use them.
GK: Absolutely. So if you’re just starting out with a new content system or new content process, and you have not yet had the chance to fall into this pattern of using quick fixes, how do you avoid that?
BS: Well, first I would take into account everything that was said before. And make sure that you have things documented, make sure the pain points are documented, make sure that even things that you aren’t currently doing incorrectly, make sure that you identify what not to do in a content plan as well. All of this information really does need to be funneled up to the managers or executives who are essentially owning this entire content development process.
GK: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s really important to help people at that level who are not creating content and are not in the weeds of it, but they are the ones controlling your budget. They need to understand just how many problems these quick fixes can cause. How much cost it incurs over time, how many messes it creates that have to be cleaned up later. And they need to know that information so that they can weigh it against things your deadlines and your schedules because it’s all too tempting, I think, even for people at that management or executive level, since they aren’t the content creators, they can be easily swayed into saying, “Yeah, go ahead and do whatever needs to be done to get it out the door.”
GK: But if you’ve made them understand that taking that approach is going to get you into a mess later, then they might be more likely to say, “No, let’s actually make sure we do this the right way, and if that means that I need to shift somebody’s responsibilities for a little while, so that you’ve got more resources for your content for this deadline, or that means if I need to bring in someone to help with training and get you up to speed to do things the right way, then that’s going to be worth putting those things in place.” So it’s just really important to make sure that the people who are in charge of the budget truly understand how it’s being spent so that they can help everybody else avoid those quick fix approaches.
BS: Yep. And if they’re in charge of the budget, chances are they’re also in charge of a lot of the workflow within the higher level of the organization. So it might be that a lot of these screaming needs that come in at the last minute that are creating some of these ad hoc practices in your content development process, it might be that a lot of these deliverables were known high up at a very early stage, but for whatever reason, the information did not get down to the content development teams until someone from either sales or from tech support or someone else came running down saying, “Hey, we need this thing tomorrow. Can you stop what you’re doing and work on it? This is a high priority item.” So it’s to your advantage to make sure that you have management informed of not only where the quick fixes are happening and the problems that they’re causing, but also to discuss a lot of the workflow around them to clear the… Essentially be a linebacker and clear the path for you so you can hit the goal when you need to hit it.
GK: Yeah, absolutely. Another thing that you can do to avoid these quick fixes, and we’ve touched on this a lot in this episode and the previous one, but provide adequate training. Don’t let your writers, your reviewers, anybody involved in content development to get behind, because that ends up breeding resentment. And if you are introducing some sort of very different and very new content development process to your team, there is going to be a learning curve and there’s definitely a chance that people will be resistant to that learning curve, that they will say, “Why does my working life suddenly have to change so much and have to be so stressful?”
GK: So support them through that learning curve. Make sure that they have the resources they need. That they don’t just have a one and done training session, but that they’ve got somebody they can continue to ask questions to whether it’s a consultant, whether it’s a dedicated resource in your organization, whether it is someone that works for the software vendor that makes your content tools. They need to have that open channel of communication where they can say, “I’ve been trained on this, but maybe I still don’t quite understand this one aspect or I’ve been through initial training but I think I need a little bit more robust training on this particular aspect of what I’m doing.” And make sure that they don’t fall through the cracks because that’s what’s going to lead them to say, “I don’t know how to do this, but I have to do this thing to get the document out the door, so I’m just going to use a quick fix.”
BS: Yep. And it’s really important to make sure that this training is also targeted toward the type of work they’ll be doing and uses content that they’ll be developing. A lot of times we see teams that say, “Oh yeah, we were trained on using this particular tool.” And it turns out they’ve just gone through generic tool training. And as we all know, you can use, for example, Microsoft Word to produce anything. You can use it to produce a letter to a full blown manual and everything in between. It doesn’t necessarily help you if you’re only providing tool level training. You have to be able to provide contextual content related training. So something that is tailored to the exact type of content that they’re going to be developing, perhaps even using their existing content in the training class so that they know exactly how they should be writing and when and where things should be applied a certain way. Which styles do you use in which instances? How do you structure a document? Which tags do you use in which cases? How does the publishing workflow work? Why don’t we select this one particular button or select this one particular option when we’re going to print something out or to convert it to HTML? It’s really important to have that targeted training, so it’s not just about the tool, but it’s actually relevant to the work they’ll be doing.
GK: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s important too, along that same road, to think about are there going to eventually be content features or aspects of content development that you won’t use until later? So it’s important to think about training at different points in the content development journey that your writers are going through. So one example I can think of is that one of the clients I worked with did basic authorizing training when they first made their move to DITA, and they had not introduced any reusable content yet. They were still doing a lot of writing. They had not fully written out their documentation, but then as they went along and as they wrote that documentation, they had more and more content that they needed to reuse.
GK: So they realized they needed additional training on DITA reuse mechanisms a couple of years down the road. We had gone through basics of things like what is a conref, what is a key, how do you set up reuse? But it’s a very different ball game to go through that generically and just touch on the highlights of it at an early stage where there’s no context for it, then it is to talk about down the road, “Okay, we have these pieces of content that we need to reuse in this way. How do we do it?” And that’s why it’s really important that you make your training ongoing and open to addressing new needs that pop up.
BS: And that right there really speaks to how you roll out a content strategy or how you approach developing content with a content strategy in place. You want to have things staged, because you don’t want to try doing everything at once out of the gate because you’re going to get things wrong. You’re going to implement things incorrectly. You’re going to discover that what sounded like a good idea at the time doesn’t really work well. So you’re going to have to refactor a lot as you’re going along, and it really helps to have things buttoned up and streamlined so you can make these shifts as you hit these different milestones in your content strategy implementation, to be able to say, “Okay, we tried X, Y, and Z. X and Y worked great. Z was a catastrophic failure. We can’t allow that to happen again. Let’s stop, reassess, and let’s change things.”
BS: And if your documents and your workflows are void of any ad hoc bandaid approaches, then it’s a lot easier to make that shift. If the content needs to be refactored, chances are you can probably do it programmatically at that point. If it turns out a particular tool isn’t working well, then it’s probably going to be a lot easier to up and move your content to a different tool or to implement a new tool in the tool chain that you have for publishing if everything is done consistently up to that tool’s point. The more you can get your arms around all of the pieces that go into your content creation and address each piece systematically in the process of implementing your content strategy, the easier it’s going to be to make these pivot points when you need to, when you find that a piece of the strategy just isn’t working.
GK: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why I think it’s really important when you are developing that strategy to, as you said, pace it out, have it in phases, have it in stages and think about your short term versus your long term goals and realize that those long term goals might change over time, and almost certainly will change over time. I mean, you may have your overarching business goal stay the same, which is bring in more revenue, deliver content more quickly, and better quality content to your customers, but the way you actually achieve that will almost certainly shift over time. And that’s because a lot of times there are unexpected things that happen. Emergencies, challenges, things that come up that you were not planning for, so that’s why building in that flexibility into your strategy, saying here’s what we want to do in the short term, here’s what we want to do in the long term, the road to get there. We’ll probably take these steps, but it needs to be flexible, because you don’t know what kinds of things might come in and disrupt all of the plans that you had.
BS: And let’s be honest, you’re going to have a need that is going to go outside of your established process. It’s almost a given that something’s going to come in, it’s going to be a high priority need in a very short period of time and you’re just going to need to get it done. At that point, you need to pivot. Don’t abandon your strategy, but take that one piece out and plan to take it out of that stage and have a plan to put it back into whatever content workflow you have in place. So don’t just introduce ad hoc formatting and just assume that it’s going to be a one off need, but actually plan for it to be an ad hoc process to get something out the door, and then there is a plan for bringing it into the fold. Whether it’s six months out out from delivery, whether it’s two years out from delivery, or whether it’s tomorrow, depending on how big of a need this is. But have that plan to essentially take a detour around the strategy while all the other content continues to follow the correct workflow.
GK: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, to tie everything together, we we’ve made this point with all of our other ones, but it’s really important to plan for those unexpected things, but also still keep all of your goals and your content life cycle in mind as you execute the strategy step by step. And that’s again, why it’s so important to take this well paced or well phased approach, start maybe really small, maybe start with a proof of concept, a pilot project, something that’s low stakes to prove that what you are planning to do actually works and then expand outward from there. That’s going to help you build in a lot more room for things to change and a lot more adaptability to those changes when they come up, if you keep things well paced, instead of trying to do a whole bunch of things at once.
GK: And I think that, that aspect of biting off more than you can chew and trying to just go all the way into a new strategy with all of your content all at once can actually lead to more of those quick fixes because you may get in the middle of transferring all of your content over from one system to another, or trying to scale way too quickly and realizing that you can’t do it on the deadlines that you have set and then just falling right back into that trap of quick fixes. So I think keeping that entire cycle of your content mind and keeping that entire path of your strategy in mind, and really pacing it well, taking each step at a time is a good way to not only avoid needing a quick fix, but if something unexpected does come up and you do have to have a quick fix, it does make it easier to address that and not let it get out of hand and bring it back into the fold of your content strategy without too many interruptions.
BS: Yep. Slow and steady wins the race.
GK: Absolutely. Well, I think we’re going to go ahead and wrap things up here, so thank you so much, Bill.
BS: Thank you.
GK: And thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.