At some point in your technical writing career, you may find yourself in a position where you are responsible not only for your own output but also for the output of other writers under you. In other words, you’ve become a manager. Some typical scenarios where you find yourself in the role of supervisor or manager:
Regardless of how this occurs, now you need to manage the output of others, and your focus is going to change to at least some degree. You’ll need to acquire an additional awareness of the overall technical writing process in the company and how it is impacted by company politics, as well as advanced knowledge of the other departments’ personnel and processes. Of course, you’ll need to do this while continuing to deliver the documentation yesterday.
Simply put, you have to figure out whether you are a leader or a manager, and come up with a method for managing the writers under you. Your choice is greatly influenced by your personality, and the personalities of the people you interact with. A lot has been written about leader vs. manager, but in essence:
Successful technical writing groups do not depend on a question of leadership versus management, but rather leadership and management. Management is a basic requirement for any technical writing team. Content needs to be delivered on time to customers, and while there is always room for improvement, the actual process needs to be administered on a daily basis.
In some companies like MyPerfectWords with large documentation departments, it is possible to have both managers and also leaders, but it is impossible to get by on leadership alone. Technical writers need the how what and when questions answered. The why is an added bonus.
When you find yourself managing a documentation department, ask yourself the following questions:
What has to be done? What is the documentation that your company needs to create? What are the impending deadlines? Which SMEs need to be interviewed? Which managers do I need to talk to? What content needs to be reviewed?
When must things be done? Every what requires a when. Create a task chart or a Gantt. Being aware of what needs to be done and how everything is progressing will help you keep a handle on all the tasks, and also demonstrate it to management. Keep an open line of communication with your writers, they need to know tasks and deadlines, and you need to know whether to adjust the schedule so it won’t be at the last minute.
Who must get things done? Once you know what needs to be done and when it is due, you will be able to calculate how many people you need for the task, and what skills are needed. A well-thought case for additional staff will help you convince reluctant management to provide you with the help you need. When recruiting for the technical writing staff, emphasize skills and the ability to learn quickly since content requirements may change, and you’ll not be able to hire a new person for every new task that comes along, such as tutorial videos or instructional design.
How will get things done? Which software tools are required? Do you need special hardware? How are your outputs going to be delivered? Do you need a CMS? What processes do you need for the creation, review, and production of content? Your company likely has existing software that you are going to be expected to use (MS-Office), but to do the job effectively, your team may need more sophisticated tools like Framemaker, Robohelp or Flare. The choice of tools should be determined according to both the content requirements, as well as your writers’ abilities. Tools can be learned, and good writers are hard to replace so keep both considerations in mind.
How will the technical writing department’s place in the organization help me get things done? You will need to interact with other teams or departments to accomplish your tasks, such as conducting SME interviews. But you also need the help of other departments, such as engineering, training, support, or even marketing, to gather information and develop content. No matter whether your department is integrated with other departments, where you are positioned determines who you can interact with so it’s important to understand the chain of command.
These questions are relevant for managers of large departments and small teams. You need to be aware of all the details and the overall process in order to effectively manage tasks and writers. You also need to figure out how you are going to interact with people. As a manager, you are going to be interacting not only with the writers under you, but also with the managers above you and other departments – all of which have distinct personalities, agendas, and places in the organizational hierarchy. That means you have to adopt different management styles to successfully accommodate situations you encounter.
Here’s a quick summary of five management styles, and when they are appropriate:
Keep in mind that these management approaches are not the same thing as leadership. If you are a good manager, you’ll get your writer to produce the required content, using whichever approach best suits the person and situation. If you are a good leader, you’ll get them to want to produce the content and even enjoy the task.
A leader can get the best performance out of their writers, despite obstacles such as ever increasing workloads. Becoming a leader requires a conscious decision to do so, and involves careful thought about your own goals and willingness to change. Ask yourself the following questions:
Answers to these questions don’t always provide a clear direction or specific goals, but they help reaffirm the decision to take on a leadership role. These answers lead to the awareness of improvements you need to make in your approach, or alternatively, that you’re in the wrong role or in the wrong organization. And they lay the groundwork for creating a vision.
To lead effectively, you need to create a vision and communicate it to the team. The vision answers the “why” of your department’s existence and leads to the how. The Vision drives everything else.
Defining a vision is mostly based on known organizational objectives and your superiors’ expectations, but there is usually room in a departmental vision to add your own touch. For example, a technical writing department may be expected to manage documentation and is necessary for process control, but you can add a commitment to best-in-class performance, which communicates significance, to your writers and others. Establishing this vision helps define goals for the group and helps create a sense of personal ownership, especially if the team collaborates to shape the vision.
In a vision-building effort with your team, you should first define the core values of your organization, and the common ideals that everyone understands, such as integrity, creativity, innovation, service, and accuracy. Review with your team these values and mission statements, and decide whether the team’s performance has adhered to them. The next step is to examine what your team aspires to become, and the long-term goals needed to reach this aspirational state. One good technique involves stating what the team does and why it is important, and then asking what the company would lose if your department ceased to exist tomorrow. Repeat the question to open a free-wheeling discussion on contributions, and the value of technical writing to the company as a whole.
After you create the vision, you must communicate it – using both subtle and obvious methods. Connect events to the vision to emphasize its relevance. Bring it up in internal memos, presentations, and posters. Incorporate it into performance review standards and interdepartmental projects. Constant communication of the vision helps energize your team, and also advertise your efforts to upper management.
Developing a vision makes your life as a manager easier because it helps build a stronger team who feel more involved and committed, and thus are able to demonstrate more initiative. As a leader with vision, you establish a purpose for yourself and your team, and technical writing becomes more than just a job, even as you yourself become better prepared to handle the challenges of the future.
Today technical writers are more than just paper pushers and documentation managers. Technical writing has evolved beyond creating individual documents, to become managing content and information. Users today are accessing traditional documentation less and less while using their smartphones to search Google and YouTube and to ask friends on Facebook and Twitter for the knowledge they need. The interaction between a technical writer and his target audience is now much more direct, and information is considerably more mobile.
In addition to moving up the career ladder, technical writers have the option of moving beyond documentation management, to content and knowledge management, and understanding the larger role of content within the organization – how it is used and who consumes it. See where the trends are going, and be ready to adapt as necessary, while keeping your ego in check – whether you are a manager, a leader or both.
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