I was in Portland for LavaCon last week, and one night I had dinner with a bunch of content strategy types. As we do, we spent some of the conversation bemoaning the short term thinking that many people and organizations have about content.
One of the first sessions I attended, however, was Edwina Lui’s A Goldilocks Approach to Product Innovation: Finding the Right Team and the Right Project at the Right Size, which contained a salutary warning about the dangers of too much long-term thinking, particularly long term thinking that is aspirational rather than answering an immediate business problem.
Lui told of a enterprise-scale content management and content modeling initiative that foundered under growing complexity and failure to meet current business needs, and then contrasted it to a much smaller, simpler initiative that succeeded in addressing immediate business needs. Clearly short-term thinking won the day in this case.
Short term thinking is common throughout organizations. And sometimes it can be seen as the cause of expensive failures. And yet, if short term thinking invariably leads to failure, then most organizations should fail most of the time — which they don’t. The fact is, short-term thinking has some big plusses going for it.
One of the principles of the Toyota Production system, and of the Lean movement that it inspired, is don’t build anything until it is needed. A lean manufacturing system will often forego the efficiencies of large batch manufacturing in favor of smaller, less efficient machines that produce parts only when the next process in the line needs them. While the machine involved may be less efficient in itself, producing things only when needed reduces a much greater inefficiency — work in progress inventory.
Work in progress inventory — stuff sitting around in warehouses waiting till it is needed for the next stage of production — turns out to be an enormous source of waste. Not only is it tying up capital, and occupying floor space, it is hiding defects and robbing the company of the ability to respond quickly to market changes.
Long term thinking may say, we are going to need one million rear view mirrors over the next two years, so lets make a really big batch for a low unit cost. But what if there is a defect in the mirror design? What if regulations change? What if the design changes? What if everyone suddenly demands rear view cameras instead of mirrors? And what will it cost to store all those mirrors till they are needed? How much will it cost to integrate them into the production line? How much capital will be tied up in a million mirrors that are just waiting to be used?
It turns out that just making a few mirrors at a time, even at a higher unit cost, is actually much more efficient and avoids all sorts of pitfalls. Score one for short term thinking.
From a content perspective, this means that we should perhaps be more focussed on getting content out the door and into the hands of consumers than about creating elaborate information systems or elaborate systems of reuse. Those systems may perhaps be useful, but if they tie you into long-term publishing cycles or the creation and maintenance of complex models that interfere with getting content out the door today, they may be doing more harm than good.
There is a principle in Agile software development that says, do the simplest thing that works. Don’t build in features you think will be needed in the future. Just build what you have committed to build today, and do it the simplest way that will actually work. The reason is twofold:
- If you build anything more complicated, it will take longer and cost more money. This will mean you have spent more resources before you deliver it to the customer and learn if it meets their needs. That lost learning opportunity is very expensive.
- You don’t have enough information about what future needs are actually going to be (in part because you have delayed your learning opportunity) and what you are building today may not actually be useful in the future.
Long term thinking is thinking for the future, and the further you try to think into the future, the less certain your conclusions become. Short term thinking is thinking about the present. It is based on much more information.
In hindsight, when we get somewhere through a series of short term expediencies, it is easy to see that you could have got to this place far more efficiently and at far less cost if you had anticipated future needs. Long term thinking backwards is easy — it is based on certainties.
But at the start of the journey you did not have those certainties, nor any way to get them except by taking the journey. If you started out on another journey today, you would not have the information to make accurate long term predictions about your destination. If you tried, chances are you would waste a huge amount of resources to build things based on your wrong guess, and end up spending even more money than if you had taken a series of short term expediencies like you did the first time.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, in other words. Don’t build until you know what you are building for, and then don’t build more than you need right now.
But wait! Isn’t that really a form of long-term thinking? If you recognize that you lack sufficient information for a long term plan, isn’t that a form of long term thinking about what information you have, what you need, and where it is going to come from?
Yes it is. This is the long term thinking that underlies the lean and agile movements. We might sum it up by saying that the long term thinking is more about planning how to learn than planning what to do. Lean and agile stay lean and stay agile in order to be able to react quickly and efficiently to new information. And they plan their systems to maximize learning, so that they generate as much new knowledge as possible out of each short term build iteration they perform.
A journey of a thousand miles not only begins with a single step, it is steps all along the way.
We would do well to take a similar approach, both in the content that we create, and in the systems that we use to create it. Every Page is Page One is about creating small units of content that can work independently. It helps us get content out the door without elaborate publishing rituals.
But what about structured content? Isn’t that a form of long-term thinking, and doesn’t it have long term advantages? Sometimes, certainly. And sometimes it becomes an expensive disaster, multiplying in complexity and not delivering many of the long term benefits that were promised because short term needs have changed in the meantime.
But not every structured content initiative has to be enterprise scale. Not every project has to use a massive complex global standard 20 years in the making. Structured content techniques can bring short term benefits to short term projects. And along the way we might learn something that will help us avoid the pitfalls of large scale structured content if and when it is appropriate to go there.