Content strategy Governance and workflow Risk management

Making risk management work (3): The framework

This post is part of the Content Is The Web risk management series.

Update, 13 Sept 2014: I finally got around to adding in the five steps a risk goes through.

Risk management replaces your old sign-off process. As part 2 explained, it changes what you ask as you work though content with other people. Once you have a big pile of information from these risk reporters, this post explains how to sort through it all. The next post introduces some of the tools you’ll use.

The risk management framework makes the entire process as objective as it can be. It rates each risk’s likelihood and consequence on separate scales, then produces a severity measurement. This determines how acceptable the risk is (or isn’t), and shows you what risks are most important.

Content strategy Governance and workflow Risk management

Making risk management work (2): Holding conversations

This post is part of the Content Is The Web risk management series.

You know the roles and definitions that risk management is based on, so now we turn to how to talk about risks with your risk reporters. After that, the next post introduces the tools you need to manage them.

(Risk reporters used to be stakeholders and points of sign-off. If that’s news to you, let me repeat the link to How risk management works (1) – Roles and definitions.)

It’s your decision to talk to risk reporters one-by-one, or all together as a group. It’s most important, especially at first, that you do actually talk. The old days of sending drafts and receiving tracked changes or free-form comments are over.

Content strategy

How to kneecap the IPCC with bad workflow

Politics, science, climate change, and the worst possible approval process

The article is behind The Economist’s paywall (and in its May 10, 2014 edition), under the playful heading Inside the sausage factory. It’s about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the process its members follow when pulling a short (30-ish page) summary out of a big report longer than anyone will ever read. The heading is unfair: A sausage factory would, by way of comparison, be a wholesome joyride.

The authors write a draft summary. Each sentence of the draft is projected onto a big screen in a giant hall. Officials then propose changes to the text; authors decide whether the changes are justified according to the full thousand-page report. Eventually a consensus is supposed to be reached, the sentence is approved or rejected, the chairman bangs a gavel and moves on to the next sentence.

Is this not the maddest possible system for creating coherent content about anything, let alone something as globally important as climate change? Is it any wonder that facts and opinions are treated interchangeably in so many debates about it? In letting the jobs of author and editor be so thoroughly perverted by a giant committee of conflicted interests, the IPCC has managed to ruin the whole idea of writing stuff down. It’s mindblowing and breathtaking and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

Professor Robert Stavins, of Harvard University, was a lead author on the report chapter about international co-operation. Delegates from countries all around the world hacked at his work until “three-quarters of his original draft was rejected and what remains is a list of disconnected facts, not a guide to the state of knowledge”. Oh, and the distillation of the report that these people are supposedly working on? It’s called the Summary for Policymakers. It still has that name, even though it’s been decapitated by representatives of the governments that we expect to make policy.

Perhaps this is the ultimate example of taking user testing too far.

As well as scientists and political delegates, the IPCC also has moral philosophers. One of them is Professor John Broome, from Oxford University. You can imagine his experience of a few hundred veto-weilding political appointees attacking his work “as though it were a legal document rather than a scientific report”. In fact, you needn’t imagine, because he’s written about the “extraordinary” way things worked. In so describing it, he displays the same remarkable restraint that lies behind the article’s title, At the IPCC. The details aren’t so innocuous.

During a brief break, the delegates formed a huddle in the corner, trying to agree text between themselves. We, who would be named as authors of the final product, were left as spectators. Eventually we were presented with a few sentences that, we were told, the developed countries would reject, and an alternative few sentences that, we were told, the developing countries would reject.

As he left the room, one delegate privately advised us not to depart far from his version of the text, because his delegation was very close to deleting the whole section anyway. This was the moment when I began to enjoy the whole event. The threat was not frightening. We privately pointed out in return that, if our section was deleted, we would no longer be authors of the SPM (Summary for Policymakers). We would be free to go to the press and publish what we liked. Moreover, all the ethics would have been deleted from the SPM. That would be embarrassing to whoever had deleted it, since the IPCC had been making a big show of incorporating ethics into its report.

In the world of IPCC content creation, this is what counts as a happy ending:

Some brief paragraphs on ethics survived all the way to the approved final version. They have been mauled, and their content diminished, but they are not entirely empty. We were lucky.

All of this makes it a lot harder to get angry at the sort of workflow that we put with in our day jobs. Four approvers, maybe five? It could literally be fifty times worse.

Content strategy Governance and workflow Risk management

Making risk management work (1): Roles and definitions

This post is part of the Content Is The Web risk management series.

So you already know that your sign-off process slows things down and makes it difficult to work with others. But you still need some way to hear everyone who should have a say, and to make sure that your web content is fit for purpose before you publish it.

Here’s something I picked up from an employer that could never guarantee 100% safety to everyone – the armed forces. It’s a risk management system, and it lets you gather more detailed information than you get from a typical sign-off process, while keeping you in control of your content.

Content strategy Governance and workflow Risk management

Sign-off is like road works

This post is part of the Content Is The Web risk management series.

I’ve already written about how sign-off processes make it hard to collaborate properly. Now we turn to another reason sign-off sucks: It’s slow and frustrating, like roadworks.

You might typically have 3-6 people sitting between your work and publication. They’re called things like ‘legal’ and ‘marketing’, but they’re better depicted like this:

Stop/go signs

Content strategy Governance and workflow Making corporate web Risk management

One thing we all know about workflow: No-one knows enough about what’s going on

It takes a team of people with a range of skills and knowledge to create our web content. The way we work together and organise the tasks that go into creating content is, in sum, “workflow”. Approvals, stakeholder engagement, work-tracking and getting feedback on draft content are all aspects of workflow.

Problem is, there’s a standard form of workflow – the sign-off process – that makes it difficult to collaborate properly with all the people who contribute to making great web content.