Fixing the Limping Animal: Advice for Managers Who Want to Revitalize Their Departments
In these difficult times, management is always looking for ways to cut costs. Unless your information-development team is viewed as a vital part of the company’s business, you may find yourself ripe for the chopping block. So your job as manager, today more than ever, is to take the proper steps to make sure that your management knows and understands your value.
To be viewed as vital to the organization, your department might need to be revitalized. What I offer here are some suggestions for beginning that process.
What Does the Limping Animal Look Like?
Is your department a limping animal, in need of urgent care? It might be if any of the following things are true:
- Management has allowed the function to flounder. In this case, your company has an information-development team. It does some consistent work. But it has simply been allowed to exist with no vital purpose attached to it.
- The firm doesn’t know how to use the resource or has not taken advantage of the capabilities and unique skill set of the team. Again, there is a team, but it does only one kind of work and management has not approached the team to do other related work.
- The function has failed as a result of bad hiring decisions. This problem frequently arises when information developers are not managed by one of their own. A development manager, desperate to hire a writer to meet a deadline, takes the first resume that comes over the transom, without applying the same kind of scrutiny that would be applied by a seasoned documentation manager.
- The function is new. When the first steps are taken to formalize the function, the moment is right to see that the group is given a valid charter with the widest possible sphere of influence.
Why Go to the Vet?
If your department is indeed limping along, you might be asking yourself, Is it worthwhile to fix it? The number one reason to fix your department is for your own career growth. If you are doing the same old thing, with the same old people, in the same old way, you may not be able to create new opportunities to advance your career. You must be seen by your management and peers as being part of something truly outstanding and vital to the firm before you will be seen as someone to whom greater opportunities should be given.
You should feel the same way about the future of your staff. Where do they have to go if you are stuck in your same old role? Let’s face it. These are not times when you can easily move to another place if you don’t like your job. So, you’d better be thinking of creative ways to take advantage of your current situation. Taking steps toward revitalizing your function will help keep things more fun and fresh for your staff (and for you!) in these less-mobile times.
It’s also important that you make an effort to revitalize to find out if you still can revitalize. If, after trying several of the measures mentioned later in this article, you find that you are still in the same place, without at least a few new, bright prospects for change and renewal, you may want to be preparing yourself for a job change when the right opportunity comes along!
What Kinds of Surgery Might You Need?
There are several areas that you can focus on to bring fresh energy to your team. You can potentially focus your change efforts in the following areas:
- service expansion
Information developers, as a breed, are notoriously bad at handling company politics. Becoming more politically effective may be the one improvement you can make that could have the biggest impact on turning around your team. You may already be doing amazing work that is very important to the firm’s success, but if no one in the firm’s leadership knows what your team is doing or recognizes that it’s your team that’s doing the work, then you are not reaping all the potential rewards of your accomplishments.
Becoming more politically adept may require you to step outside your comfort zone. You, as the manager, have the responsibility to gather work and garner recognition for your team. If you are not good at “working the room” at a social event, are not confident in “taking a meeting” with senior management, or are not tuned in to the “corporate buzz,” you may be falling down in your role as advocate for your team.
Start with some basic steps that will get you more visibility. Begin “preaching the gospel” of documentation. Opportunities can happen in casual conversations in the hallway or in more formal settings. Take every opportunity to talk to your colleagues about documentation as a best practice and to enlighten others as to the unique skills your team brings to the table.
The most basic way to be political is to make your accomplishments known. Your team should have an intranet site where your products and services are advertised. And the content and design of that site should be superior to any other team site in the firm—that’s your specialty, after all. The site for my team has samples of all the work we do, a form to request our services, templates, and a big feature story on the STC awards that we’ve won.
You should have a strong advocate in the firm—someone who will attest to the value of the work your team does—someone you can call on to justify funding and endorse the involvement of your area in projects (and support you if reductions are being discussed). You should also have a mentor inside or outside the firm—someone in whom you can confide and from whom you can seek advice. If you are not so supported, put finding a mentor on your list of things to do this year!
The next area you might want to concentrate on is your staff. If you have team members who are weighing you down because of the management overhead required to deal with them or who are sapping energy from the department because of how they relate to others, you may need to manage these people out of your organization. They may be legacy employees who have shown themselves unwilling (or unable) to keep pace with change. Or they may be very talented individuals who are prima donnas or whose work performance is inconsistent.
If you can manage someone out who is a problem, do so. Work closely with Human Resources to make sure that you are doing everything according to policy and law. Keep scrupulous and detailed records of every conversation you have and every issue that arises with that employee.
If you are given the chance to hire, hire only the very best that your budget can get you. Look for candidates who bring not only strong writing skills but who also have a complete package of overall professional skills, including presentation, project-management, self-management, and time-management skills1.
Under the general heading of personnel, you should also be taking a good look at yourself. How are your skills? As with many managers in technical areas, you may have been promoted to management because of your strong technical skills. But have you been developing your skills as a leader and manager? You, too, should have a strong overall professional package. Make sure you are actively working on your own development areas.
Another way to revitalize your team is by finding new ways for them to contribute to the firm’s success. Think of all the capabilities on your team that are not being fully used: information architect, designer, writer, organizer. Find ways to exploit these skills in new ways. Are you designing and writing an internal online newsletter? Are you consulting with departments within the firm, helping them design their internal Web sites or perhaps providing content or designs for the firm’s site? Do you write the technical marketing materials for the products you document? I’ve done everything from taking notes, to ghost writing for management, to giving guided tours of our facilities to clients. The goal of taking on peripheral services such as these is not to be seen as a clerical service but to parlay them into greater visibility and recognition for your team, thus increasing the team’s perceived value.
Trying to get in on the ground floor on key initiatives is also important. Be the scribe at the initial brainstorming session for a major project. That function may lead to helping on the proposal and then to writing the requirements. It is only natural that the documentation team would then be called in to do the rest of the product’s written materials—and maybe even help with the GUI design. When there is a close involvement from the start, the information developer is perceived as a part of the core team of the project and not just an adjunct brought in at the last minute.
You also want to find ways to revitalize your team from within—making sure that the personal relationships between team members are positive and infused with fun. Once a year, I take my team offsite (or to a conference room on the other side of the building, at least) for a day together. In the past, these sessions have included ice breaker games and workshops. The workshops are created and presented by the staff, for the staff. After the work, we go out for a picnic in the park. The costs are low and the benefits are high.
We also spend time each year setting goals as a team. The shape of this time can vary. We use the firm’s vision and values to guide us, or we brainstorm new ideas for products and services we can offer. Contacts in your training department may be able to help you structure such a working session with creative ideas for drawing out everyone’s thoughts.
One way to keep your work interesting, especially if the nature of it may not be able to change very much, is by finding new ways to do it. You also want to find new ways to do more with less and to make your function more cost-effective and efficient. That may mean that you will need to retool and bring in new technologies. I won’t use this article to make recommendations for specific technologies because the choices would vary based on many factors. But if you haven’t changed platforms or products for producing your work in the last couple of years, consider evaluating your options.
If you do make changes to tools, you will need to train your employees to use them. If you have legacy employees who are not flexible and able to learn new technologies, you may find you need to manage those situations carefully or manage those employees out.
Running on All Fours
If you felt at the beginning of this article that your department was a limping animal, you should by now have some ideas on how to make it run on all fours. In the end, your revitalized department will be
- a place where your career and those of your staff members are advancing
- included on key projects and doing a wider variety of work using current tools
- a fun place to work, staffed with excellent, well-rounded professionals
- viewed as a vital resource to the firm—one that is definitely not expendable
About the Author
1 For more about the subject of hiring, see my article in the August 2001 issue of the Best Practices newsletter, “Successful Hiring: Tips for Finding the Best and the Brightest.”