How workflow can unleash huge productivity gains (external interview)


Kilian Schalk is an expert in content workflow design and implementation, as well as owner of the consultancy PurpleGray.


A strong believer that improved workflows can unlock massive productivity gains, Kilian has worked with organizations including Condé Nast, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker. We sat down with him to get an external perspective on how workflow can impact the storytelling process. 

Welcome Kilian. Can you please tell us a little about your background?

Of course! I spent 20 years in production and technical roles at various magazines. During this time I began to notice that many publishers were missing out on huge opportunities to increase productivity through workflow. I also kept seeing the same mistakes made across many publications. My early roles had more technical responsibilities, but as I progressed I kept seeing big opportunities to drive productivity by improving workflow. 

About five years ago I made the jump into consulting, as a coach and workflow architect, and it turns out I was really onto something. For example, one client changed their workflow from paper-based proofs to a cloud-based solution and reduced their idea-to-reader lead time from four weeks to a few hours. Obviously that is fairly extreme, but I’ve seen again and again how valuable these kinds of changes can be. 


"One client changed their workflow from paper-based proofs to a cloud-based solution and reduced their idea-to-reader lead time from four weeks to a few hours."


What kinds of workflow mistakes do you see publishers make frequently?

One consistent theme is that most organizations don’t take advantage of the resources and knowledge they have within their own teams. A huge amount of expertise regarding workflows and how to improve them goes untapped if there is no structured way to get it out of people’s heads and into practice. 

There is also often a huge amount of time wasted in the feedback and approval process. A particular problem I see over and over is someone saying: “We’re waiting for X to email us his/her version of the story.”  Often X is the boss and no one wants to push the boss. I’ve seen editors work through the night because the boss didn’t respect the production schedule.

Also, a lot of organizations think it is impossible to change workflow. The reality is that it can happen both quickly and easily. PurpleGray has steadily increased the speed at which we can implement change, and one of the joys of my job is exchanging insights with different organizations. If there is buy-in from the leadership and we remove the fear of change, great things can happen. 

To get into some specifics, what type of approach do you see works best to improve workflows? 

When workflows are broken, often there are a lot of meetings. Large groups will take six or seven months to plan and then push a whole new way of working at once. But you can’t fix what you can’t see. I believe an organization learns faster by trying and doing, rather than by talking. So I work directly with each team to look at what they see in the workflow. 

We start with their existing set-up. We figure out small changes, apply them to a single process where the team builds a single article with the workflow they have just built, and then incrementally build new workflows from the ground up. I am a big proponent of Lean Management, and one of the key tenets of this is that the people doing the work understand best how to create positive change. So a lot of my approach is to coordinate and enable that process, letting the teams experiment and discover what works best for them.

Do you have any tips for our readers on improving workflow from a practical perspective?

I generally advocate a content-first approach. Before any discussion about channels or anything else comes in, the focus should be on the story.  I begin by getting the team together and helping them design the simplest workflow possible with tools that anyone can use, staying wholly focused on the content rather than the channel. Over a period of time we design and test workflows until the process is optimized across channels according to the group’s needs. 

"Over and over again I have seen that any team can experiment their way to a new way of working, incorporate new tools, and change their workflows." 

Essentially, with a content-first approach, the channel enters the equation once the story has been approved. In practical terms, that often means that editors need to be involved early then not required—or even permitted!—to give any more input. Individuals may also need to broaden their skillset, allowing them to do multiple jobs such as publish online, create newsletters, push to print, and so on. These kinds of cultural changes can really speed up approval processes. One publisher I worked with counted the number of times the EIC read each story and discovered she was looking at every page seven times. They immediately worked to change that—a more normal count would be one or two.


Are there any weak points or things to look out for in terms of getting input from a team to build a content-first workflow? 

In this process, it’s important to get a range of feedback. If not everyone in the meeting has contributed something it’s likely that opportunities are being missed. A couple of ways to make this happen are to encourage input from introverts as well as extroverts and to ensure the group includes people from different age groups and functions. Based on my observations, even people who seem to be stuck in their ways or resistant to change can have surprising insights. They often have a different perspective and see things the group at large was not aware of.

Earlier you mentioned the importance of content-first, and leaving the channel out of the discussion. However, it seems like new channels are popping up every day. Do you have any suggestions on how to approach new channels?

I think it is really important to have a short learning cycle so you don’t spend time developing channels, products, or ideas your customers don’t want. Every publisher’s community of readers is different and will react differently to a given channel. One advantage of a content-first workflow is it reduces the cost of testing new products and enables the entire team—editorial, research, design, sales, leadership—to contribute to the early development of new ideas. It’s really important to test out new channels and see what works for you. But you don’t want to invest large amounts of time testing every new channel that appears.

We sometimes see that there can be resistance to workflow changes, especially if people feel threatened or want to protect their turf. Do you have any thoughts on overcoming this?

The role of leadership is crucial. If the boss isn't willing to commit to and invest in their team and be willing to change their own behavior as necessary, why would anyone working for them get onboard? It's incredibly difficult for staff members to lead change when to do so would be to work against the intentions of the person who hired them.

What I have seen, over and over again, is that much better ideas come from people who use their energy to create and improve processes and teamwork rather than defend their turf. I have never seen anyone improve themselves out of a job. 

Communication is also important. I don’t work with organizations that are restructuring in order to cut staff, and communicating that upfront goes a long way to ensuring that people are open to organizational change. 

Here at WoodWing we are particularly interested in the technology and tooling side of improving workflows. What is your advice or thinking about how to approach tools and technology?

I firmly believe that discussions should never begin with tools or tech. The reason is that if you just add tech to a bad workflow, at worst you are going to be locked into bad habits, and at best just make bad processes slightly faster. You should always begin with workflow. Once people are working with basic tools and incremental change, their tooling and technology needs become obvious. As teams practice continuous improvement, someone will say something like; “Next week, I will try X approach or Y software, then show everyone how it works.” If X or Y improves the process, the person who introduced it becomes the expert and is responsible for training other people. 

Of course, you also need to ensure that tool use doesn’t spiral out of control. Once your workflow practices are relatively stable, I suggest looking for technology partners who will work with you to accomplish your business goals. 

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Like Kilian, we at WoodWing are big believers in a content-first approach and how it can benefit publishers. Learn how WoodWing Studio - our content creation, workflow, and publishing solution, enables a content-first approach. 

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