So here we are at the third and final post in our mini-series on being agile in the publishing world.
If you’ve been following along with us so far, in part 1 of this mini-series, you’ll remember that we introduced the complex and rapidly-changing world of (specifically) ELT publishing, highlighting the need for agile workflows when schedules become unpredictable. In part 2, we asked experienced freelance editor Lyn Strutt to give us an editorial perspective on the impact these condensed schedules can have.
To conclude our mini-series, we wanted to take a look at some of the ways we can work together to ensure that the agile systems we put in place actually do work. What follows are some of our ideas, but the conversation needs to continue if we want to develop more efficient and effective methods of collaboration.
Working at speed – positives and negatives
Condensed, unpredictable schedules are scary, but they do have their benefits. For learners, having the latest content is key, so publishers now compete for attention with the likes of Google and Wikipedia. The sooner you can get your content out there, the better.
From a workflow perspective, there are some benefits to condensed schedules, too. It forces you to think strategically, to keep learning and to pick the right software and push it to the limit. You’re kept on your toes and less likely to lose track of project-specific details over time.
Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to push too hard. As one of our commenters on Part 2 of the blog mentioned, staring at a screen for the majority of the day can be detrimental to both the health of the person doing it as well as the integrity of the job. When longer, more focused hours are spent on a particular task, you can get too close to it and quickly burn out, losing track of other important aspects of the job.
So if the purpose of publishing is to curate content and to provide quality and accuracy, how can we balance the quality-to-speed ratio? We’re only human, so what can we do to be able to focus acutely on each job and be prepared for any and all changes that may come, particularly for large-scale projects?
emc’s top 5 tips for maintaining quality in an agile workflow
1. Collaborate early
Working with big teams across time zones can make working on large-scale projects tricky. The project manager has to ensure they assemble the best team they can, but they also have to be clear from the beginning how each part of the team will work together. Make sure you have an understanding of the critical path activities needed to complete the job and how long each will take. Think about which parts of the project are most crucial to ensuring the rest of the project goes smoothly. Set up a Gantt chart or PERT chart and invite the whole team to see the workflow.
Some of this will happen naturally when setting up a project and much of it can be done within project management software, but if you are using online project management tools, make sure everyone has access and understands how to use it. The earlier you can get everyone involved in the project, the better – even if you’re not sure of all of the project specifics. It helps build rapport and an understanding of how each part of the team is related to the project. It’s possible that one part of the team will have ideas of how to improve the workflow.
Your team, regardless of how many different groups are involved, is your greatest asset, so get them working together as soon as possible.
2. Develop and follow project-specifc styles
Jobs go smoothest in the studio when we work from a properly set up sample, using stylesheets and effective master pages. For larger jobs, we will put together a single reference sheet on our server of all of the styles and features within the job. And as Lyn mentioned last week, the best editorial briefs will include comprehensive sections on project-specific styles so that each editor can maintain accuracy and consistency, but this needs to be updated and distributed regularly for it to work.
Consider working with your designers and editors to build a crib sheet of all of the key design and editorial features of the project and give everyone access to it in an editable format. This way, global changes are kept in one place and can be distributed instantly, and any time someone new looks at the job, they have a quick and easy reference.
Just remember – if it’s quite late in the development of the job, even small changes can have a massive effect on the rest of the project. So try to finalise your styles early on and stick to them as much as possible throughout the life of the project.
3. Train your team
It’s important for everyone within your team to understand the specifics of the job and to work in the same way to the best of their ability. At emc, if we have multiple designers working on one component to meet a tight deadline, we must ensure that each designer is working to the same brief. Where different levels of skills are present within the team, we identify where issues might arise and then provide training on those aspects of the job.
This doesn’t just have to be your own in-house training. It could be in-house people training external suppliers and/or vice versa. We have consistently been told that editors would love to know more about how the design process works and understand how long certain parts of the job take. Similarly, external suppliers sometimes need a better understanding of the importance of certain in-house tasks to work efficiently and to provide a slightly different approach to potential problems.
As we mentioned earlier, the better we understand what each part of the team does, the more we can collaborate to provide the best solutions and maintain consistency.
4. Define and manage expectations
This one is more difficult than it sounds. In an ideal world, where a project has clear expectations set out at the beginning, everyone knows how to plan their work and which team members are responsible for which aspects of the job. That’s your best-case scenario.
In reality, however, expectations change, goal posts move and people are human – personalities can clash and everyone approaches each job slightly differently. This is absolutely natural within the life of a project. The key is to ensure that there is ultimately only one decision maker who clarifies the project’s overall goals and maintains the whole team’s ethos.
With agile workflows, this hierarchy is not always cut and dry. Sometimes key decisions are not made by one person, and that works as long as those decisions are consistent with the other choices made along the way. There needs to be someone who chooses exactly which expectations change, what goal posts move and which people’s ideas to move forward with.
Expectations will always change, it’s how those changes are managed (by collaborating early, following styles and providing training) that makes the difference in how smoothly a project is run.
5. Communicate well
As you should all know, and as many of you have said to us previously, fundamental to any project (big or small) is productive and efficient communication. You won’t be able to do 1–4 without this as your cornerstone.
Good communication means responding to questions promptly where possible, but avoiding individual responses to many small queries. It means maintaining schedules and updating your team regularly on the status of queries and workflow. Perhaps most importantly, it means putting together clear, comprehensive briefs and avoiding too many small changes without good reason. Never assume someone understands what you want them to do without being asked. The previous tips should help mitigate potential issues, but clarity is paramount.
There are many great project management tools online to help with communication. Some of them sort your emails by key words, others allow for bulk instant messaging and most have some form of team alert management. Every tool has its pros and cons.
Often, though, the best form of communication is still picking up the phone and talking to someone. We’re all busy, but a thirty second phone call can sometimes save three hours’ worth of work!
Whatever your method, keeping in constant communication with everyone involved will ensure that everyone is on board with what needs to be done.
When all is said and done …
It may sound like just a buzzword, but ‘agile’ as a concept isn’t going away. As the need to reach markets faster continues to grow, the need for agile workflows is going to become increasingly clear.
These ideas are by no means comprehensive, and the only way to keep moving forward is to continue discussing how we can approach these projects in the best ways. In fact, considering these things raises more questions than it answers.
What do you do to be as agile as possible?
Should we be looking for ways to share more knowledge with each other? Does each part of the supply chain (authors, editors, designers, illustrators, marketers, etc) understand what goes on when the job is not with them? Most importantly, do they need to?
It has been our experience that the more we understand a project and its needs, the better we can do our job. So how can we ensure that everyone goes into the job understanding it as fully as possible without spending hours on briefing notes and guidelines or meetings?
The coming years are going to be hugely transformative for publishing. Although as an industry we are traditionally slow to change, it has already started in many ways. So let’s work together to make sure it moves forward in such a way that the quality and integrity (and essential purpose) of our work is maintained in the best way possible.