Engineering lessons for content creators: 8 things I learned from Edmond Lau

Back in September someone recommended that I subscribe to Edmond Lau’s free email series about becoming a successful engineer.

I had no interest in becoming a successful engineer. But I was told that Edmond’s lessons would still be relevant.

I can’t remember who made the recommendation, but they were right.

Edmond’s email series dripped into my inbox over a couple of weeks. Each lesson was basically a blog post focusing on a single key takeaway.

It’s a fantastic approach to providing value through email. And it’s not the first time I’ve seen this approach. Jimmy Daly has a similar one for content marketing. (I just signed up for it again.)

So, back to the lessons from Edmond Lau…

His series isn’t just about becoming a successful engineer. It’s about becoming successful in your work because you build successful habits. His examples are tied to creating software, but the lessons apply to much more than that.

I wanted to capture all of my takeaways in a single place that I could easily refer back to. My blog felt like as good a place as any. 🙂

So here’s the meat of it:

Lesson My Takeaway
Focus on high-leverage activities. “Leverage is the return on investment for time spent.” What 20% of the work you do that achieves 80% of the gains?
Pick the right metric to incentivize the behaviour you want. “The right metric aligns individual and team efforts toward a common goal, that if achieved, increases the success of the product or organization.” In other words, does the metric indicate true progress?
Invest in time-saving tools. “Investing in tools is extremely high-leverage because the time-saving benefits compound and pay for themselves over time.” Find tools to handle the grunt work. Automate your tasks.
More effort DOES NOT imply more impact. “You have to focus on activities that produce a disproportionate impact for the amount of effort that you put in.” How can you streamline your tasks and processes so that you’re spending far less time working on them?
Working effectively as part of a team instead of working alone can significantly improve output quality and morale. Working with others gives you a tight feedback loop; helps you learn more, faster; increases your motivation; reduces the risk of failure; and decreases perceived time requirements. (I feel this! My most successful projects have always been in team scenarios, even if it’s just a team of two.)
Building a team? Learn from Google. Invest in creating and using shared tools and resources; create reusable training materials; use standardized conventions (e.g. templates); run automated quality checks on your work; review data (i.e. analytics) to test assumptions and monitor performance.
Build a great culture. A culture that moves quickly through cycles of ideation, creation, and validation; a culture that embraces automation to scale effort; a culture that focuses on producing high-quality work with shared ownership; and most importantly, a culture of continuous learning and improvement.
Get set up with the right mental models. Use those models as context. “Talk to the best in your field, extract their mental models, and practice applying those mental models to your work.” Find the frameworks and models that’ve helped others succeed. Put them to work.

So, how does this apply to the world of content creation?

Here’s my take:

Focus on high-leverage activities.

Produce content that works in multiple ways. Make it useful for marketing, for sales, and for support.

Present it in multiple formats. A written article, a well-designed infographic, a short video, or even as a podcast.

Alternatively: What if you were to bring together a production team? Focus your time on defining the scope, the requirements, the briefs, finding the right talent, and managing the project. You’re still deciding what gets produced, but you’re outsourcing the production to specialists.

Pick the right metric to incentivize the behaviour you want.

Focus on production metrics because you can control whether or not those are met.

Traffic, time on page, bounce rate, goal conversions, backlinks, shares, engagement? Those metrics we usually look at are a sign of how well the content is doing after it’s released.

(The nice thing about content is that, like software, you can continue to make improvements and iterate.)

Invest in time-saving tools.

A good project management tool is a must-have for content creation. Tools like Contently are built explicitly with content marketing teams in mind.

Outside that niche, though, you have a bunch of tools like Asana, Trello, Basecamp, Airtable, Teamwork, Wrike, and so many more.

And then you’ve got a bunch of other specialized tools depending on what type of content you’re creating.

(Aside: I’m starting to build up a list of content creation tools that I use or have experimented with.)

More effort DOES NOT imply more impact.

How can you streamline your processes? I’m a fan of using templates, frameworks, and a routine method so I’m not re-thinking the approach every single time.

That doesn’t mean that my approach is the best approach – it’s just the approach that happens to work for me.

Working effectively as part of a team instead of working alone can significantly improve output quality and morale.

This goes back to the point I made earlier about outsourcing creative work to specialists. You can position yourself as a project manager to scale your work. It’s a solid high-leverage activity.

The other benefit is that working as part of a content production team gets more perspectives and experiences into the content creation process. That makes for better content.

Watch the credits roll on even a local television production. There are a lot of people working as a team to pull a show together. You don’t need a team that big. But if it’s only you coming up with the ideas and producing the content? That’s a problem.

Building a team? Learn from Google.

“Invest in creating and using shared tools and resources; create reusable training materials; use standardized conventions (e.g. templates); run automated quality checks on your work; review data (i.e. analytics) to test assumptions and monitor performance.”

To paraphrase from the book E-Myth Revisited: Work on your operation, not for your operation.

Put all the pieces in place and think about the overall system. Look for opportunities to make improvements that scale across the whole team and the whole operation.

Build a great culture.

Ideation. Creation. Validation. I can’t think of anything that’s a better fit for this than the act of producing content.

Whether it’s writing or an illustration or a video or a podcast or a performance on stage or a performance in front of a camera…

We live in this constant loop of coming up with ideas, producing something based on that idea, and pushing it out into the world to see if resonates.

We breathe this stuff. And if the culture we work in doesn’t support that cycle, then we won’t be able to do our work.

Get set up with the right mental models. Use those models as context.

I’ve been banging out my own mental models, the Content Creation Regimen and Content Creation Workflow, for the last couple of years.

They keep evolving as I pick up new thoughts or ideas from other sources, or as I try to apply them to different scenarios.

I use it at work, I use it when teaching, I use it when planning my own personal projects.

When I look out five to ten years in the future and imagine myself leading a team, I know that my approach will have evolved even further, but it’ll have roots tracing back to the mental models I’m using today.

There’s a lot of overlap between engineering and content creation.

We’re all creative problem solvers looking to bring something new into the world. We’re using the tools we have at our disposal.

Edmond Lau’s lessons were intended for engineers, and even though we’re not engineers, we can still take the concepts and build on them.

After all, at the end of the day, I think we’re all just artists. And great artists steal, right? 😉

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