Pair writing at agile content conf

To collaborate on content, go beyond arguments to find an approach that works for everyone

What would it take to publish content that’s:

  • consistent,
  • works for users, and
  • is efficient to produce?

Not just once, but repeatedly. Not just when we’re working on our own, but when our projects involve many people.

It’s not a case of “fixing” the content. The key attributes of effective content don’t live in the content itself. Pointing at effective content doesn’t make it appear on your website… And the key attributes of effective content don’t live in your user, either. Their experience is affected by it, but they don’t influence it…

We need to look at the team behind the content. The key attributes of effective content live in the team that creates it. Not just the writers and editors, but everyone who contributes to or is affected by the content. So the question becomes, how can we support teams to produce effective content? This isn’t about getting “better” stakeholders, it’s about supporting the stakeholders we have to work together effectively. How can we do that?

We try to get stakeholders to “buy in” to our methods by presenting evidence

Here’s what we normally do. We try to move stakeholders from business as usual towards our vision of effective content. We try to get them to “buy in” by presenting evidence about our methods. Evidence like analytics, lab research, neuroscience, and best practice. But often stakeholders get derailed from our intended path: they resist our recommendations. They share anecdotes or opinions, insist on using jargon and legalese, or offer reasons that appear to be motivated by politics. We respond by offering yet more evidence to try to win the argument. It rarely works.

There’s nothing wrong with our evidence, but for some reason it isn’t having the effect we intend. What stops stakeholders from understanding it? How is possible to look at the same data and reach different conclusions? There’s one underlying cause of this problem, which means that there’s also one way to fix it. (Although it’s not easy to implement, it’s straightforward to understand.)

Our realities are different

The cause is that we’re not looking at the same reality. Every person has different experiences, backgrounds, perspectives. We assume that our stakeholders are operating from the same reality as us. They aren’t. That’s why our evidence doesn’t convince them that our recommendations will work. Now the question becomes, how can we create a shared reality between us and our stakeholders?

Mary Parker Follett wrote about this problem back in 1933. Although Peter Drucker called her, “the prophet of management,” her work has been forgotten. Follett said that there are three ways to handle difference:

  1. domination: one side gets what it wants
  2. compromise: neither side gets what it wants
  3. integration: we find a way that works for both sides

“Integration involves invention, the finding of the third way. Never let yourself be bullied by an either-or. Find a third way.”
—Mary Parker Follett, 1933

We need to find this “third way” in order to create a shared reality around content. We need to integrate difference, instead of fighting it or pretending that it doesn’t exist.

Use collaboration techniques to integrate difference

Collaboration techniques allow us to integrate difference by:

  • building a shared understanding of all the requirements around a content problem
  • inventing an approach that meets all of them

Here are some collaboration techniques we can use to create shared understanding around content. Integration involves learning, which means stepping outside of our comfort zone—yes, stepping away from the content world that we’re familiar with. We’re asking our stakeholders to do the same, so it’s important to lead by getting involved in activities that we’re not accustomed to.

Approach people you don’t normally work with

Integration starts with discovering all the requirements around a content problem. That means approaching everyone who could contribute to the success of your project or who might be affected by it. Kate Towsey wrote on the GDS blog about her experiences using this strategy. Kate approached people from procurement officers to security guards, to share the vision and involve them in the creative process. If you approach people before you start work on the project, you’ll see them as partners instead of potential “blockers” who you need to get approval from.

Reframe dissent as an opportunity to integrate difference

When stakeholders resist our recommendations, it can seem like they’re trying to make our lives more difficult. They probably aren’t, though—they just have a different perspective. When we hear dissent, we can choose to treat it as a gift that helps us integrate different perspectives.

For example, imagine you’re advocating for plain language on a website and a stakeholder prefers to use legal language. Traditionally we’d see this as a conflict, an either-or. Let’s take Mary Parker Follett’s advice and find a third way through integration. First, we identify the constraints around the content problem by asking what requirements are driving each of our positions. Starting with ourselves: we want to use plain language so that users can understand the content. Then we ask the stakeholder why they want to use legal language. They might say, “so that users can comply with relevant rules”. We keep going until we have all the requirements written down, like this.

Our content needs to:

  • allow users to understand what we mean
  • allow users to comply with relevant rules
  • etc.

Once we have all the requirements written down, we begin to invent a third way, together. We come up with suggestions about how we could create content that meets all of the requirements.

Learn together by leaving your comfort zone

The third collaboration technique involves setting up a learning environment for both you and your stakeholders. This means that you both choose to leave your comfort zones. A simple method is pair writing, a real-time collaboration technique where you both sit at a computer and take turns to write. Another method is to participate in user research together, for example by interviewing users in their context. If both you and your stakeholder visit a real user in their environment, you’re likely to begin experiencing a shared reality, as you jointly witness the reality of your users.

Acknowledge difference

But there’s one thing we need to fix before any of these techniques will work. We need to go into interactions with stakeholders believing that we can find a way to work together. We need to show that we want to find a third way, to integrate instead of settling for domination or compromise. How often have you said, “I’d like to hear your feedback,” when what you really mean is, “I’ve written this and I want you to agree to my solution”? Don’t do this. People can tell when you’re taking a position, even when you dress it up in the language of requests.

The way out of this trap is to acknowledge the difference of views, instead of pretending it isn’t there. Tell the group that you believe it’s possible to find an approach that satisfies everyone’s requirements, even though there are differences of perspective. If you show that you believe integration is possible, your stakeholders will be willing to try it.

Integration takes work. It’s worth it, though, because it ends with everyone’s requirements being satisfied.

There’s one last problem. Remember we talked about stakeholders having a different perspective to digital professionals? One way this shows up is in the relative importance of content to them. Sometimes we treat stakeholders as if they love content as much as we do—as if it’s of primary importance to their jobs—when it tends to be one of many concerns and responsibilities they have. This means that even when they’re willing to collaborate with us, they will have many other things on their minds. We need to consider everything else that’s going on for them.

The wonderful part of this is that we have an opportunity to make the rest of their lives easier, if we work with them to find approaches that work for everyone. Instead of seeing stakeholders as people we’re in conflict with, we can see collaboration as an enabler for both of us. It makes both of our lives easier. Which means we can support our teams to collaborate on content. And then we can publish content that’s consistent, works for users, and is efficient to produce.

If you’d like to learn how to find content approaches that work for all of your stakeholders, come to agile content conf on 30–31 January in London. We’re featuring case studies of collaboration from organisations like Facebook, American Express and GDS, and workshops where you can practise collaboration techniques. Register by 31 October to save £100 with “early bird” pricing.

Photo: Paul Clarke