The pandemic has forced thought leadership teams to work faster than ever before. This article explores how to make your accelerated timelines sustainable.
A recent McKinsey Quarterly Five Fifty described the pandemic as “The quickening.” While the briefing was about the massive leap in e-commerce penetration within the U.S. economy over the last 3 months, it may just as well have been about the acceleration in the weekly expectations for thought leadership teams.
Virtually every editorial leader I talk to describes their pandemic journey in roughly the same way, “We produced more content in the last month than we normally would’ve done in a year.” After scheduling a call with the editorial leader of a prominent IT services firm last week, he replied back to my email saying, “Talk to you on blursday.”
We’re all working under tighter deadlines and raised expectations. The short-term solution has largely been to just throw more time at it. Extend the work day. Extend the work week. But we all know that’s not sustainable. In our April thought leadership webinar Bob Buday and I described 4 ways we can all work faster without driving ourselves into the ground:
- Bind research narrowly
- Work in collaborative environments
- Automate what you can
- Work concurrently
#1 – Bind Research Narrowly
Historically, a lot of thought leadership research projects are broad in scope and ambition. We ask respondents a battery of questions along a wide range of dimensions. Yes, we’re looking for separation points—what do leaders do differently from their peers? But given that we’re unsure what we’re looking for going into the study we don’t want to risk missing a key insight. Hence, we ask questions from all angles. We ask questions that explore company characteristics, team dynamics, leadership mindsets and behaviors, technology use, team structures. You name it, we ask it. Surveys routinely bloat themselves to 30-35 questions. Then, what happens? Analysts spend a few weeks culling over the findings in an attempt to extract what’s meaningful. Ninty percent never survives the journey and stays safely tucked away in the original research findings document. What’s left is a softball report that often looks more like an “industry landscape” than a “best practices” report.
In order to move faster we have to bind the topic and the audience more narrowly. Create constraints. Instead of surveying CIOs in Fortune 500 companies, drill down into specific industries and sub-spaces within them. Instead of asking 30 questions, limit yourself to 5-6 critical ones. Work with your subject matter experts to develop a hypothesis of what you believe really separates leaders from laggards. Narrow in on those questions that will confirm or deny your hypotheses. Don’t ask question you already know the answers to (either directly through your client work or through prior studies conducted by your firm or others). We partnered with our client, the National Center for the Middle Market, early in the pandemic to produce this study on the impact of COVID-19 on leaders’ confidence and expectations. The research was fielded, analyzed, written, and designed in just 2.5 weeks. We replicated much of this process again with a follow-on report in June.
#2 – Work in Collaborative Environments
Even in the absence of research, developing perspective-based articles can be highly inefficient. Gathering subject matter experts, developing an outline, securing draft approvals, developing supporting design assets, and getting content published online takes multiple meetings and a variety of team members with different skills. Simultaneously, the pandemic has brought more interest from senior executives in your thought leadership work. In the last few months we’ve found ourselves collaborating with 4-5 subject matter experts on a single article that just months ago would’ve drawn 1-2 people. Reigning in all those opinions while getting something to market faster that normal can be challenging.
One of the solutions we’ve found to accelerate this process is to work in collaborative environments. Specifically, we’ve adopted Microsoft Teams within our organization. This allows our internal folks to collaborate on a single outline or article draft in a single location at the same time prior to routing it to a client for feedback and approval. Some of our clients are using similar processes and they invite us into their thought leadership channel within Teams as a guest. This allows us to post documents, edit them, and share them with their internal teams. We can do this vice versa as well.
#3 – Automate What You Can
During the pandemic we’ve explored automating two different parts of the content development process. The first is rather simple. We’ve started using AI to streamline the editing process. Grammarly, while imperfect, is an incredibly useful tool to identify typos and grammatical errors within an article as you’re writing it. It works in your browser and it has a Microsoft Word plug-in as well.
The second thing we’ve explored automating is data visualizations. While this is still a bit of a work-in-process, the concept is simple. For a large research report with 10-15 data visualizations, we might designate 2-3 different chart types at the onset to represent all the information in the story (i.e., a dot plot for leaders/laggards comparisons and a bar chart to represent company challenges). Then we design initial conceptual charts that will be used frequently throughout the story. Finally, we use code to automate the production of the remaining charts. We used this process to develop all the charts in this Life Sciences study for the National Center for the Middle Market.
#4 – Work Concurrently
Historically, the thought leadership development process has looked like a typical “waterfall” project:
POV development doesn’t begin until the research process is complete and all information is in-hand. Content development doesn’t begin until all the data is fully analyzed and we have a preliminary sense of how we want to visualize information. But when you’re being asked to put something in the market in a few weeks that would’ve normally taken months you have to find ways to compress the process.
A modified process works concurrently, and looks something like this:
A hypothesis drives the research, hence a POV begins to emerge while the research is in the field. Because we’re working from a more narrowly developed research study, the data visualization process can begin as soon as the research starts to come back. Report outlines and initial designs can be developed while research is still in the field as well.
While the pandemic will eventually go away, the need to operate faster than ever before will not. Chances are good your internal clients have become accustomed to seeing content move at the pace you’ve delivered it over the last 3 months. However, if you’re going to sustain the effort you’ll have to find ways to work smarter and more efficiently than you have in the past. We’re happy to help you think through or adopt any of these processes at your firm.