Lessons in implementing a content strategy and the 90/10 rule


If you’re going to be a Content Strategist who delivers things, you’re going to have to be a Delivery Lead too.

Last week, I was at an extraordinarily inspiring conference called Thinking Digital. One of the conference speakers said something that stuck with me:

It takes 90% of the effort to finish the last 10% of a project.

I suspect that the mathematics behind the concept is more symbolic than real, either way, it rings true in my work life right now.

It’s easy to give up when you’re getting close

It’s easy to give up when you’re getting close to having actually done something. The going gets tough, resources seem scarce, and the final product seems like a mirage.

At GDS, I work independently. I generally run projects on my own, and call in, and rely on, extra skills and advice when I need them. I’m a Content Strategist by trade. Over the past two years, I’ve lost track of what that means and I’ve found myself wondering how I became a Delivery Lead instead.

Content strategy’ish

If I express in broad brush strokes the things I’ve been working on, they sound very content strategy’ish, albeit in a not-so-run-of-the-mill way.

Is there such a thing as run-of-the-mill content strategy? I think not, but still…

… Fellow Content Strategists, what are you doing out there? I’d love to know. Perhaps I’d discover that I’m not a Content Strategist after all.

(I tend not to care too much about what I’m called, caring more for what I do. That is, until I’m frustrated and I suddenly do care. Plus, I really should hang out with other Content Strategists more, head to a few conferences etc.)

What I’ve been doing

Over the past year and a half, I built GDS’ first user research lab and got it up and running, which is a totally not-content-strategy-thing to have done, but it was fun.

(I still have a hand in its running.)

I’ve also been researching, strategising and project managing a thing for the GDS user research team to store their research data in. By research data, I mean all the content the researchers produce in doing research – audio, video, various kinds of digital documents and paper things.

I did a 6-month discovery on the project, gained insights, and developed a hypothesis as to how we could store our research data in a way that allows for empathetic engagement, and makes things easy to reuse and find.

During this phase of the project, I felt engaged and creative. I felt: “Yes, I’m doing strategic, creative stuff. This is my kind of thing.”

Leaving implementation to the client

In the long ago past I bemoaned this particular problem: I’d be hired by an organisation, I’d do some research, and make a document detailing the research. I’d strategise and divine tactics, and document that too. With a heavy heart but a sense of success, I’d leave the company to implement what I’d suggested.

Implementation would happen to varying degrees and often not quite as thoroughly or as precisely as I’d have liked. I figured I needed to improve my documents and communication, or start the process for them so they could pick it up more easily and take it from there.

Getting the process going

Then I worked on a project where I did very little research (it was being done by others, and very well), very little sitting around and thinking, and a whole lot of prototyping and making.

This project was strategy in action. I recall thinking: “This time we’re going to make an actual change in the organisation, because we’re making the bloody thing! Exciting.”

Still, the organisation didn’t fully live out the plan. It’s culture wasn’t ready for it. They hadn’t bought in. As consultants we’re weren’t around for long enough to make it happen. Plus, the organisation was especially stubborn.

A long list of reasons and excuses.

My new thought: “There’s only one way to get this right. I need to implement. Completely.”

What sits behind that outrageously creative and exciting thing

At GDS, I’ve been able to do loads of research, thinking and strategising and I’m responsible for delivering the solution. Ideal right?

Well, I’ve been moaning: “My work is fun, but the problem is, I’m a Content Strategist. I’m a Creative Technologist. And here I am doing Project Management.”

When people stand on a stage at a conference and in 20 minutes tell you the story of how they made this amazing thing, it’s easy to forget that behind that outrageously creative and exciting thing there were countless forms, emails, meetings, applications and manipulations that helped bring it to life.

Knee-deep in admin

In my experience, especially in making OFFICIAL SENSITIVE content environments for the Cabinet Office, the real work is in departmental buy in, procurement, infosecurity, and in team and stakeholder management – a gauntlet of conversations, emails and 40-page forms.

Those things have nothing to do with content strategy, and yet everything to do with it, because…

A strategy is only as good as its delivery

Going back to this notion that it takes 90% of the effort to finish the last 10% of a project.

I’m into about the last 20% of delivering the user research repository. I was about to give up because I’m hell bent on this notion that, “I’m not a Delivery Lead.”

The thing is, the strategy is the delivery and when the delivery is taking a long time, because it’s complicated and often bureaucratic, it can be easy to forget that what you are doing is creating your strategy. And that takes time, and effort. And it’s not all sexy.

But, it’s a unique opportunity to see something through from start to finish. And to get something that’s been in your head out into the real world and in front of your users, to see if it works, and then, to make it work better.

If you’re perpetually zoomed in, zoom out

Here’s the thing: if you want to make your creative or strategic vision come to life, and have full control over it, you’re going to have to be a Delivery Lead. It doesn’t mean that while you’re project managing, you can’t be a fired-up and creative Content Strategist too. In fact, you must be that too.

Keep your eye on the thing you’re making, but regularly zoom out to see the bigger picture again. Keep reminding yourself of why you’re making it, keep learning about the users you’re making it for, adjust course, rethink, re-strategise, redraw, redirect, continue on your path, keep focus, fill out forms, keep talking to stakeholders and team players, dream of other/better solutions – possibly even better than the one you’re already making – build those things, experiment more.

And while you’re doing that, project manage your ass off.

Because a strategy is only as good as its delivery.


  1. Kate,

    Refreshing to read this, for I’ve found the same to be true for myself and pretty much every other content strategist I’ve talked to. Getting that last sack of corn to the barn is the hardest thing. It’s as though all of the energy expended earlier comes back to haunt you over those final steps.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and thoughts.


  2. “Getting that last sack of corn to the barn is the hardest thing…” I love how you put it Ronell. And thanks for your comment.

  3. Kate, I’m glad I’m not the only one that feels this way. Great article! In the middle of another project here at work, I realized I was doing the PM’s work. Unfortunately, we had no PM. So all the while I’m doing content modeling, building out content types in the CMS and discussing how the content will get from the CMS to the presentation layer with development, I’m also driving the product and creative departments to get me business rules, commit to dates and fill in the gaps with questions back to them about their content since they just don’t have the knowledge of what it takes to put a website together. And you’re absolutely right. The last 10% of that work was where I focused most of my effort.

  4. It seems a relatively common thing. Now that I’ve spoken about it. Question is, should it be that way? Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? I’m undecided. (And too focused on getting stuff done to come to a conclusion right now!) Onwards and upwards. Thanks.

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