Agile Content Development for software adoption – Is enablement really a piece of cake? A quite tasty recipe for success.
How easy it is to create good quality, relevant and engaging content just–in–time? Quick answer – it’s not necessarily a piece of cake, but if you put the right ingredients together and follow a proven recipe it can turn out to be a quite tasty, beautifully layered tiramisu.
The ever-changing landscape of the IT world and its digital assets does not provide a lot of time for content creators to ponder on what should be produced and how to really address audiences’ needs. New products, disruptive technologies, cloud releases knock on your door every minute, awaiting corresponding enablement content.
How can we achieve all of it in an environment that by default is unstable, unpredictable, and unbelievably fast-paced? Wouldn’t it also be great to cut out some time for innovation, experimenting, testing new enablement platforms, instructional design techniques, and more?
In this and series of next articles, we’ll share some ingredients of our recipe for success. Modus operandi to stay in the game of supporting software adoption. Our story stretches between years spent in small content development teams, working mostly on big classroom trainings and eLearning courses, then growing considerably and introducing new learning platforms that adapt to the need of bite-size, microlearning while becoming a part of a huge organization with its procedures and constraints.
Whether you’re working in a start-up, middle-size company or a corporate setting, we believe you’ll be able to find useful tips that will match your context.
Agile mindset at core – What’s in it for me?
Confession: We did not reinvent the wheel. We tried out the same strategies and tactics that were already successful with our organization. We decided to follow an agile mindset as the core principle for whatever we do within our ranks: all levels of decision-making, project management, team setup, prototyping and more. So far, we have good results, and yes, we can attest – agile works not only for developing software.
Our product development and customer success departments are agile at heart, and finally, we share the same language, vocabulary, and guiding principles. That translated into improved expectation management, understanding stakeholders’ feedback, and our more organized response to the growing pipeline of incoming requests for enablement. It provided us with greater confidence in estimating what we could produce, by when and in what format.
Shifts in the company’s and products’ strategies also presented less of a hurdle. Adapting to changes and pivoting became less frustrating once we had a well-organized framework allowing us to rethink the most important piece of work to deliver, recalculate the resources, timelines and leave us with ‘we got it’ feeling at the end of the day.
If you struggle with the increasing number of time-sensitive requests for content, communicating with an intricate net of stakeholders across your organization, losing sight of where the priorities are or need to scale-up quickly – consider agile and its frameworks for your organization and team. It can be SCRUM, Kanban, Agile Project Management (e.g. based on DSDM), Lean or a combination of many. Give it time, be aware of the learning curve and as you become more comfortable with the approach – adapt it for your context and create your own recipe.
To give you some inspiration, let me share a story of what helped us in our transition to Agile Content Development.
What, when, how, and most importantly why? A Content Operations governance model that works.
Some of you might be already well familiarized with Content Operations concept as the glue connecting different efforts allowing everyone to consistently execute their content strategy. Content Operations cover many areas: guidelines and processes for content development and publishing, set of clear roles, quality standards, data & analytics and more. Its structure can be applied in various domains: content marketing, enablement content etc.
For us, the agile spice is pronounced most visibly in our guidelines and processes for planning, content production, publishing frameworks and team set-up, so let us focus on them as our governance model first.
Ok, now a bit of lecture time, here are the three, most important ingredients of our recipe that proved to be working repeatedly within the last couple of years:
Backlog Prioritization Process
Our tiramisu’s ladyfingers layer providing steady, yet flexible construction for choosing priorities. Turns a simple, unorganized mousse into a spongy cake. Provides us with a few important things for high-level decisions:
- Transparent place, the backlog for all incoming requests – we use it to capture the overall demand and put it in order of importance. That also translates into immediate communication to our stakeholders on what’s being currently produced, plans for the next months and list of requests that got deprioritized or postponed.
- Set of prioritization criteria – brings fast decision-making to our high-level planning; a formula that can be used whenever we need to settle what to focus on first. As a team you’d need to come up with a clear matrix of all factors that give you guidance on how to treat incoming requests. Read Jacek Konopelski‘s blog post for further information.
- A quick way to estimate needed effort – to perform feasibility check for potential projects, understanding most of the time we do work with limited resources and need to choose the next piece of work wisely.
All of this enables us to adapt to strategy shifts and to choose the optimal content type (in our case classroom training, eLearning, video, tutorial etc.) considering our audience, time, resources, and sense of priority.
In the end, we have a good understanding of what and why we should produce next.
Agile Project Management
The mascarpone layer, cementing decisions from high-level planning and translating them into the project’s setup. Makes everything smooth and seamless, is lightweight, but not just a fluff. Agile Project Management, based on DSDM gives a framework tailored specifically for the project world, combining best practices from the product, software development, and business, project implementation scenarios. What foundations we should set, how many production sprints we need, what to focus on first to finish our work in time. With a clear project setup answering those questions, we can dive deeper into what should happen when and on a high-level, how it should happen.
Here you could see a couple of useful things we stole from this framework:
- What’s fixed, what’s not, and the MVP mindset – we learned to distinguish between what is set in stone in a project and what we are comfortable to negotiate or let go. The agreed quality level and timelines (based on estimations and type of content) became fixed values that we wouldn’t like to compromise. We could do a lot with the scope of content though e.g. deciding how much we’d like to put into the course agenda, how many videos into a video series, etc. MVP (Minimum Viable Product), Minimum Usable Subset, or simply, our core must-haves taught us to focus on the crucial parts of the scope – what the content asset cannot be released without. We had to tame our inner perfectionist (not easy!) and address nice to have items (not essential or high value-generating tasks) only if there was still enough time, only once the MVP got completed. Quicker go to market allows us to test new ideas and obtain feedback early on, without spending time on polishing up content nobody is waiting on.
- Prototyping – became easier as well. One example is our microlearning platform. From both the platform and content creation perspectives we started the project with a clear MVP in mind. We delivered enough functionalities and content to seize the interest and test whether what we propose brings value. Once successful, we ramped up our platform and content development based on the promising reception of the audience.
Scrum framework for the production process and roles setup
Proven and established in the industry; a framework that has been there for quite a while now and has brought us a fresh perspective into organizing ourselves on the team level. It was the final, strong jolt of caffeine, the best coffee for keeping our team energized and focused. It instilled in us a habit of inspecting and adapting that affected the way we make day-to-day decisions on how to develop our content in changing circumstances.
Few things we borrowed and continue to use:
- Set of roles – this streamlined our efforts, introducing division of focus and labor, e.g. with nominating Product Owners deciding on what should go into each product enablement portfolio, Scrum Masters facilitating daily operations and keeping team’s attention on priorities. All this fits nicely into our educational landscape and bridged gaps between Portfolio Manager, Course Architect and other existing roles. Read Angelina Padarnitsas‘ blog post for further information.
- Building content incrementally – brick by brick, planning our actions in a structured way for a 2-week time container – a sprint. The regularity of specific activities within that time (sprint planning, daily stand-ups, sprint reviews etc.) sets a good production rhythm and teaches transparency. All this still helps us to retain high focus on the most important tasks in front of us, while feeling safe about completing the big picture one sprint at a time.
- Learning and taking calculated risks – at the end of each sprint, the project team gets together to review the results of their work. It’s time to hit the pause button and reflect on how they came together as a team to see what worked or didn’t work for them in the last 2 weeks and what they’d like to improve. Based on the lessons learned, moving forward they could also determine what elements to add or remove from the sprint’s scope. Such a decision could be made on the go, without managerial approvals which in turn increased accountability and ownership over the project deliverables.
Pick me up, cheer me up
Backlog Prioritization Process, Agile Project Management, Scrum team, and production setup are our agile ingredients of the not-so-secret recipe for success. It allowed us to create clear and lean formulas for gathering and prioritizing our content demand, plan out projects focused on value-generating tasks, and organize ourselves without stress within production sprints. It gave us a solid foundation for undertaking new projects and prototyping. It encourages us daily to improve ourselves, stay on the lookout for new production technologies, instructional design methods, techniques, and innovation processes. The learning never ends, education and enablement departments included.
Tiramisu is translated from Italian to English as ‘pick me up’ or ‘cheer me up’, feel free to pick up and help yourself to whatever you find useful from our experiences and create your own mouthwatering dish. Buon appetito!