Creatively Growing Your Publications Group
In about a year, with the higher purpose of making significant improvements in our documentation set, I grew my publications group from three to eight writers, a dedicated content editor, and production editor. It took a lot of hard work and a little creativity. But, before I get to that, I first need to tell you a little story.
A Long Time Ago In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there was a black hole…and it was my publications group.
Let me explain.
When I first started managing my group, I ambitiously (and possibly naively) went to all the cross-functional team managers to get to know them and find out what their experience had been with the writers. No matter who I talked to, they all told the same story of a big, black hole (their words, not mine). A release began with a flurry of documentation plans; months later around deadline time, final documents would fly out of nowhere. Some team members had never reviewed the documentation. Some had no idea what the writers did all day. Some had scarcely talked to or seen the writers!
I tell you this because I suspect you might relate, even just a little. I know that this perception (and reality) of publications is not unique. Though talented and intelligent, technical writers are usually not exactly the life of the party. They are writers-people who truly like to sit alone in their cubicles and churn out masterpieces of procedures and protocol-and they can also be martyrs, the first to complain that no one came to talk to them.
Step One: Shock Talk
After digesting the feedback, I decided on the first step I needed to take if I wanted any chance of growing my group. I resorted to shock talk. I told my three (senior) writers exactly what people thought of them (no names, of course). I watched their jaws drop. I heard their gasps of disbelief. I felt the anger. It was definitely not fun, but it was something I felt strongly about doing. Without sharing how the team was being perceived, I didn’t think I would have much group buy-in for the changes I was thinking we needed to make.
Step Two: Just the Facts, Ma’am
We needed to make it clear what the heck we did all day. What value did we add to the product? Why were we here? For some writers, the second step we took was more than they could bear. It was time for statistics, metrics, and data. I am the first to admit that I am not a data junkie. Excel and I have a forced friendship. But sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.
Instead of reporting only that the writers were working on a particular document, we needed to communicate exactly what features they were working on, how many document change requests they had completed, and what meetings they had attended. This was a lot more than many writers were used to reporting. A typical report included lines like “worked on the XYZ book.” That definitely wasn’t going to work anymore.
In parallel, I launched a plan to collect external data to add to our cause. We knew that our lack of resources was reflected in our subpar documentation. Our group generated ideas for improvement in new quarterly documentation quality meetings, but did our opinions matter? Not really. What did matter was what our customers thought. So, we talked to them. We visited their offices and cubicles, and we phoned those located farther than a short car ride away. It was not long before the writing was clearly on the wall: bluntly put, our documentation sucked. Customers couldn’t find the information they were looking for (sometimes even when it was there), they didn’t know how to do the tasks they wanted to do, they found mistakes, and some had just given up using the documents completely and phoned customer support instead. They also told us how we compared to our closest competitors, which was another bitter pill to swallow.
Our customers’ dissatisfaction led us to do more fact-finding missions to gather additional information, such as:
- How much did it cost our company for every call a customer made to support in our product area? What percentage of the calls was due to incomplete or inaccurate documentation? Not only did our customer support group supply the data, they also became one of our greatest allies and cheerleaders on our road to add more resources.
- How many writers did our competitors have for a similar suite of software tools? I came across this data through pure luck. At the CIDM conference I attended that year, the publications director of our biggest competitor shared the size of their writing staff in her presentation. At the time, their number was 22; ours was 3. A startling contrast.
Data was definitely going to help sell our story, but it still wasn’t enough.
Step Three: Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself
If providing more statistics and data taxed some writers’ (and my own) sensibilities, this next step really pushed some limits.
I asked my team to build strong relationships with their subject matter experts (SMEs). It meant they could no longer spend all day in their cubes perfecting paragraphs. They had to:
- attend the R&D meetings for the functional area
- talk at these functional meetings-either report status or ask questions
- provide more frequent documentation drafts for review
- seek more in-person reviews, instead of relying on email
- have some casual, personal conversations once in a while-to get to know the SMEs as people
The writers needed to become integral parts of the team.
Becoming part of the team also meant that the flexible work hours had to go. It just didn’t look good if people saw writers arriving very late in the morning or regularly disappearing for several hours in the middle of the day. This was another challenge for some writers who were accustomed to managing their time the way they wanted. Running errands or deciding to sleep in until 10:00 was now not an option. It was clearly translating into the image that we were lazy, incompetent, or not busy. Truth or not, it was what people thought, and we needed to change that.
We started working like engineers-their hours, their pace, and their way of reporting progress. That meant that we sometimes worked on a Saturday or into the weekday evenings, and “we” included me. If my team was in, I tried to be there as well, if for no other reason than to show my support and appreciation for how hard they were working. I sometimes got approval to expense lunch or dinner, and the common cause and direction were really bonding our team like I had never imagined.
In the meantime, I got busy building relationships with fellow managers. I attended all the meetings I could and always reported something. For example, when we had talked to a customer, I shared key learnings with the team. I also regularly met one-on-one with R&D managers to share progress and discuss issues and improvements. Finally, I worked on managing up. If I was to successfully argue for more resources, I needed the complete support of my manager, a publications director, and her manager, the operations director. I did detailed weekly status reports and communicated more detail in one-on-one meetings. The more the publications director knew, the more she would be able to represent my group’s needs at a higher level when she was given the opportunity.
Step Four: Outside the Box
My group and I then got more creative on our road to gaining more respect and resources. Here are some examples:
- With the support of our operations director, I arranged an offsite documentation review with our entire team (about 70 people) at an indoor kart racing facility. We poured through our documents all day. Then, we put down the pens and pencils, slipped into race suits and helmets, divided into teams, and zoomed around the track. Despite expecting the feedback to emphasize the racing fun, comments overwhelmingly came back that we should do more documentation reviews-on- or off-site.
- Writers nominated their favorite reviewers for Cadence achievement awards. Winners were presented with a plaque and cash bonus at an organizational meeting. Interestingly, writers got more thorough reviews from those we had recognized, and those who hadn’t been recognized started working with us more.
- My presentations to upper management covered only the key points:
- “Show me the money” – I showed the percentage of document-related calls to customer support and what that meant in cost to Cadence. I then compared that cost with the cost of hiring a writer to create the kind of documentation needed to prevent those calls.
- “If only” – I listed what we were currently doing to meet customer needs, as well as detailed what customer needs and competitive expectations we could meet if only we had X more writers. It clearly showed where additional resources would go.
- “No strings attached” – Instead of arguing for three full-time writers, I asked for one full-time and two contractors to staff improvement projects with definite ends. I knew I wouldn’t get three full-time writers, so I didn’t even ask. I asked for something more palatable that, at least temporarily, solved our resource problem.
- “Competitive disadvantage” – I showed our small numbers and then noted our biggest competitor’s documentation team number. At the time, the ratio was 3 to 22. Doing so created a sharp contrast that really helped show that I wasn’t just being a whiner.
Step Five: Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
When I started getting approval to hire more writers, I wanted to make sure no one regretted it. So, I focused on:
- Hiring writers who would fit into the way we were working. I was looking for writers who were team-oriented, outgoing enough to talk to their SMEs, had a sense of humor and fun, and had a strong work ethic.
- Reacting quickly. When you get the green light to hire, the worst thing you can do is take weeks to fill the position. Make it your number one priority and start looking even before the ink is dry. Keep on the lookout for good resumes so you know exactly where to go first.
- Continuing to report progress and status. I increased the amount of communication as we reached each goal, eventually listing all the quality achievements on a giant poster board and hanging it on a wall in our department to make it even more visible.
- Rewarding and acknowledging the group and individuals for successes. There were group lunches, afternoon movie outings, and ice cream sundae fixings. I called out individual achievements in staff meetings and also made sure to give lots of well-deserved one-on-one praise. As well, our quarterly documentation quality meetings always began with acknowledging recent achievements before we discussed what was next.
Step Six: And the Winner is…
- The customer! With more writers, we were able to restructure our user guides to make information easier to find. We added examples, tasks, troubleshooting, and improved error messages in the software. And the customer noticed! We received feedback that our documentation had improved, and some customers even requested that other Cadence documentation be done the same way as ours.
- Us! We became part of the product team. How much so? Engineers started coming to the writers to give them information without even being asked. One engineering manager assigned his engineers to work with the writer to beef up specific sections. One writer started getting chocolate from her SMEs! And I even received unsolicited feedback from some engineering managers about how impressed they were with what the writers were doing.
Then, Rinse and Repeat
Reality check-my group did not remain at 10. The economic climate, company-wide workforce reductions, and everyday life circumstances have taken my group down to my current five writers and one editor who writes half time. We lost our dedicated production editor. Upper management, the work environment, and the products we support have been through changes. I have no illusion that I’m nearly back to square one, but I do have optimism that my group will grow again someday soon. After having success before and a great group of writers now, I’m busy gathering new data, getting to know the new faces, and getting ready to go at it all over again.
About the Author