Breaking the Content Down Into Tasks

Posted 11/19/2015 7:14 AM by Jeff Julian

Before you start reading this post, I want to make you aware that it is part of a series on Sprint Planning for Agile Marketing teams. Here are some of the post in this series:

  1. Put On Your Game Face - The Basics of Sprint Planning
  2. Some Assembly Required - The Tools
  3. Content Developers, Cross-Functional Teams, and Commitment
  4. This Post - Breaking Down The Tasks
  5. Go Run! Starting a Sprint
  6. How do I End My Sprints Well?
  7. What Do I Do When Things Go Wrong?!

Once we have determined the date range, capacity of the team, and what Content Items we plan to deliver, our next step is to break those items down into tasks.

So what is a task?  Well, I am glad you asked.  A task is a piece of defined work within a Content Item that can be completed by one of the Content Developers.  They typically have estimates and that should require a single defined skillset to accomplish. 

Ok, got that.  What is listed for the task?  I have documented tasks over the years much like I would a tweet.  It is a short description of a piece of work that is easy for the entire team of Content Developers to recognize.  The task then lists an estimate for the duration of work.  I limit myself to the following sequence for consistency: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 24.  These represent the number of hours it will take to accomplish the task in our known reality.  I will describe this in further detail soon.

Does the Dog Food Taste Good?

I don’t know why, but I love the term dogfooding.  The concept came from the marketing world when pet products started to be competitive in advertising.  The list of ingredients would begin to show that the competitor’s products were substandard.  Not letting the competition get the leg up, the response would be, it is so good, I will eat it myself.  Out of this came the idea that you believe so much in your product, that you will use it yourself to prove the value. 

So does the Agile dog food taste good? You bet it does.

To dog food the process, let’s look at the makeup of this post.  When I sat down to define this chapter, I started with the Content Item.  I created the Content Story and then determined the ways I planned to offer the value in the How to Demonstrate Value. 

Since these articles are pretty consistent in length and the research is based on over 10 years of daily experience with Agile practices, I have a pretty good idea of the amount of time it will take me to accomplish this item.  I typically define these types of articles with 3 story points. 

The priority was set lower than most and near the bottom.  I knew a lot of work would need to go into the introduction of Agile Marketing, so releasing this as a blog post too soon would not reach the audience as well as the other items.

This Content Item sat on the Content Backlog for over 6 months, waiting for the other articles to be completed.  Then at the end of the week of November 6th, 2015, I defined the following tasks for this Content Item:

  • Write a 2,000-word article, 8
  • Create Headline, 1
  • Create Header Image and Social Versions, 2
  • Author Review of Draft, 2
  • Editor Review of Draft, 2
  • Create Email Announcement, 1
  • Define 5 Social Media Announcements, 1

These tasks were then attached to the Content Item and in my case, assigned to a weekly Sprint along with an episode of the Midwest Marketing Show, and a few other pieces of content for AJi. 

Side note: I do my planning on Friday afternoons and base my Sprint on the calendar week.  I don’t suggest this for all teams, but it works when you have a small group of marketers.  The larger the group or initiative, the longer you can define your Sprints to build up that cadence.

Determine the Appropriate Estimate

During your planning session, the team will begin to dig deeper into the Content Item and ask questions about what goes into the value we are planning to deliver. 

Since each Content Developer will produce very different results when assigned the same task, we need to make sure we all have an understanding of the quality and weight of the item we plan to produce.

You might ask:

  • If we are producing a video, are we talking GoPro, iPhone, or HDSLR?  Are we using iMovie, an outside service, or Adobe Premiere Pro?
  • If we are writing an article, is it 400, 800, or 2500 words?  Will there be an interview with a subject-matter expert or other forms of research? 
  • When you using graphics, are they from a stock photography site, digitally rendered by our designers, or do we need to go out and capture them with a camera? 

These questions and many more should be asked at this point to determine the final estimate for this Content Item. 

Early I defined the sequence of hours I use for an estimate as 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, and 24.  Just like the planning poker sequence, I like some room in the larger estimates.  Since most of us are used to chunking our day into specific hours or splitting it with a lunch break, use even numbers once I get after the single hour increment.  Some people add a ½ hour to the mix, but I tend to not get that granular with my tasks.

There are other approaches you where teams don’t estimate with hours, instead they use another sequence to show scale like S, M, L, XL.  If that works for your team, great!  However, I find the hour to be the most meaningful to teams and a great place to start.

What Happens When the Work Leaves Our Team?

During Agile assessments or workshops, I often get the question, what happens when the work leaves our group?  Great question. 

Here are a few examples I hear about:

  • Compliance or legal review
  • Designers are not part of the team
  • Agencies that are not collaborative in their work
  • Other departments for early feedback
  • The boss that wants to check everything

The whole concept of a Sprint is to add as much control and isolation to the planning process so that your team can commit to a set of work and deliver on those commitments.  This means any time the steps of your content creation leave your department and you insert the tasks that follow into your Sprint, you are starting to play Russian Roulette.

Why draw such a firm conclusion?  Because you are committed to the completion of the item and they are not.  Once it leaves your team, the completion of those tasks could take hours, days, even weeks.  If the resource is pulled away on another urgent assignment, you are left waiting with the stopwatch still running. 

So what can be done about these types of items?  Here are a few scenarios and solutions to look at:

  • Final Approval - Anytime you can complete as much work as possible for the item before it leaves and you have done the quality checks that should allow the content to pass through the review, nothing else needs to occur in your planning.  This is considered potentially shippable content.  You could publish, but you need a few final steps before release.  If the content comes back from review with changes, you create a new task or even a Content Item to represent the work on another Sprint, based on the new priority, and provide an estimate.  Then the updated content will be complete and sent off again for the review.  Once approved, your publishing process begins.
  • Midstream Creative – Another scenario I hear about often is the design or media team is not part of our department.  This can cause a huge problem with the work inside a Sprint and there is no perfect solution.  In the case where you have to prepare some work to hand off to another group, wait for production, and finally complete the other tasks, you typically have a dividing line between tasks that are pre and post-exit.  The solution for these types of items is to Split the original into two Content Items with individual estimates.  The pre-exit Content Item will be for everything needed for the outside group and the post-exit work will be for all remaining tasks.  Plan accordingly and to the capacity of the outside group.  If it makes sense to throw a few of these pre-exit Content Items into a Sprint to build up the queue for the group, make those items have a higher priority.
  • External Agency – When you have content that is produced by an outside agency, there are a few solutions.  The first would be to include them in your Sprint planning to have them become an active member of the team.  Think of highly skilled collaboration rather than staff augmentation.  Another approach would be similar to the external department where you can have tasks assigned to the team and two cards to represent the state of the content from the agency.  And finally, they can produce the whole piece of shippable content, but the Content Owner is in control of the Content Item and all the fields.  Have them estimate the work just like your team, and make sure they have a committed delivery date for the content. 

Final Check Before Launch

The last step of tasking a Content Item is to confirm your estimates were pretty accurate and you have identified all the required steps to produce the asset.  I say pretty accurate because we have a few variables that need to be taken into consideration:

  • First, we estimated with a team based on a controlled setting and applied an efficiency factor.  Notice our board is not riddled with tasks that represent meetings, lunches, social media, email, etc.  These items will happen every single day and they will end up pulling you away from your tasks.  
  • Second, these are estimated.  We will get some of these wrong each and every Sprint.  Rather than coming down hard on those who miss it, we need to take the opportunity to learn and get better.  During a Sprint if we find a task takes us 8 hours instead of the 4 we thought, we should look at the board to see if there are any other like items and make appropriate changes.  If we squeezed every ounce of room out of the Sprint with all planned tasks, we wouldn't be able to make these adjustments without requiring more time from our team.  This breaks our sustainable pace and adds fatigue to the group.

To confirm the tasks, I like to read the list of events that will occur out loud to the team.  For the example of this blog post I used above, it might sound something like this,

“First we will write a 2,000-word article on tasking during Sprint Planning, in the meantime we can work on the headline and images for the content.  Once the writer is done, they will need to review it and then pass it off to someone else for outside review.  Then we will create the email and social media announcements.  Did we miss anything?”

If everyone agrees, we do the same for the remaining Content Items we created tasks for during the meeting.  Before we finish, the ScrumMaster will confirm the commitment from the team to lock in their understanding of what is required of them.  Then we are off to the races.