Digital Governance Fails Because We’re Afraid of Cultural Change

This is an essay version of my presentation at Confab Minneapolis in June 2013 (slide deck).

We try to implement governance to make our content strategies stick, and it doesn’t work. Writers don’t follow our voice guidelines, marketers ignore our message architectures, developers create apps without considering content. We’re doing great content strategy work, so why isn’t it taking hold in our organizations? We’re trying to leapfrog over the hard part: changing culture. Governance can sustain culture but it can’t change it—and the change we need is broader than content strategy, incorporating practices we know little about. Content strategy is just one piece of digital transformation.

1. The content strategy story has brought us so far that we can see past it.

You're talkin bout a revolution...

You’re a storyteller. You tell your colleagues stories to help them adapt to the changes their organizations face. Today I’ll give you a new story, or even better, inspire you to create new stories as you begin to change culture.

The content strategy story helped me to stop hiding.

I used to tell myself I was a firefighter so I could hide from the hard part of my work. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I would only get involved in web projects when they’d already screwed up, so I could play firefighter and save the day. That way I’d never get blamed if anything went wrong—see the genius of my lizard brain?—and I could shield myself from vulnerability. My choices made me miserable: I’d complain that my clients and colleagues didn’t “get it.”

Then a bombshell hit me. I came across the discipline of content strategy (CS) in an article by Kristina Halvorson where she pointed out that web professionals often avoid obvious questions about content—like, “what’s the point?” or, “who cares?”—and I realized that although I’d always wanted to ask those questions, I never had, because they were too scary.

The CS story saved me—in the evangelical sense—by giving me a framework for asking braver questions, listening, and making myself vulnerable instead of hiding from my work. Here’s how the story goes:

  1. The internet revolution made content more important, because our customers expect useful, consistent, easy to understand content across channels and devices.
  2. Our organizations aren’t set up to deal with this new reality. People avoid talking about content because it’s messy, political, and hard to do well.
  3. So our content is a mess, and nobody takes responsibility for fixing it. This creates crappy customer experiences and under-performing businesses, and it also drives us crazy.
  4. Content is important! It’s a business asset. Let’s fix these problems by spreading the word about the value of content strategy throughout the organization and the world.

I see the CS story as an intervention—in the, “I’m intervening because I love you,” sense—for those of us in the user experience (UX) community who were avoiding content. Back in 2008, there were few CS books, web conferences barely covered copywriting (let alone CS), and web projects tended to treat content as something the client should supply the day before launch. Today we have many fantastic books, UX conferences talk about CS all the time, and many people in the UX community see CS as a part of their work. Take this quote from Lean UX, published this year:

“Cross-functional teams are made up of the various disciplines involved in creating your product. Software engineering, product management, interaction design, visual design, content strategy, marketing, and quality assurance should all be included in a Lean UX team.”—Jeff Gothelf [my emphasis]

The intervention worked.

Our story is tripping us up.

We try to leapfrog over culture, so our attempts at governance fail

We’re doing great CS work, and it doesn’t stick, because it’s not compatible with our organizations’ culture. It’s time to own our part in creating this problem. Our attempts at governance fail because our CS story ignores culture. Consider point 1 of our story (above): “the internet revolution made content more important”. We’re comfortable with that statement, and we’re scared to ask the obvious follow on questions:

  • Why has the internet made content more important?
  • What else has the internet changed?
  • What does that mean for our business model, our siloed organizational structure, our “waterfall” development process, the software we buy, the agencies we hire?

These questions terrify us, because we’re afraid to face the truth: CS is just one part of digital transformation. You can see this in our foundational books, which describe organizational “silos” as if they’re simply a content problem, without considering what other problems they create. In Managing Enterprise Content (2nd edition), Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper discuss the “content silo trap”:

“Too often, content is created by authors working in isolation from others within the organization… No one has a complete picture of the customer’s content requirements and no one has the responsibility to manage the customer experience.” …
“The goal of collaborative authoring is to break down the silo walls so authors can create content consistently.” [my emphasis]

Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach make a similar argument in Content Strategy for the Web (2nd edition) when they call for a “home base that facilitates cross-team collaboration [about] content”:

“Even if you can’t create an entirely new business unit for content strategy, you can designate people to have content strategy as part of their job descriptions. And give those people latitude to be envoys to other business units. Content strategy ambassadors, if you will. That will help you ensure all of the business units understand each other and collaborate. Really, it can happen.” [my emphasis]

The actions Rockley/Cooper and Halvorson/Rach advocate—like building organization-wide structured content repositories and creating cross-silo content teams—are important and necessary as part of a digital transformation program. We need this stuff. We also need to recognize that CS alone can’t “break down the silo walls” or “ensure all of the business units collaborate”, because customer experience is about more than content, and the change organizations face is broader than CS. We don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK.

Content strategy is one part of digital transformation.

Content strategy is one part of digital transformation

You can see this in our case studies, which are all are part of wider digital transformations. You can’t cherry pick the CS component of these projects—and apply it to your organization—without going through a similar process of cultural change. For example:

  • We often cite NPR’s “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” (COPE) approach to content APIs, because it’s a fantastic example of combining technical, editorial, and design considerations when we develop digital services. It’s also part of a business-model-level transformation at NPR, as they redefine public radio for the internet age. For example, the COPE strategy includes opening up NPR content to external app developers. You can’t just pick up COPE and throw it into your organization without making broader cultural change.
  • The fantastic Voice & Tone work by Kate Kiefer Lee and others at MailChimp shows how we can maintain a consistent voice while varying our tone depending on our users’ feelings. Although we can all learn from this work, if implementing it was as easy as copy-and-pasting then your bank would already be talking to you like a human. To understand this case study we need to understand MailChimp’s culture: cross-disciplinary, agile, and constantly learning through failure. You can see it on their “about us” page: a photo of the founders in front of a poster reading, “Listen hard, change fast”, and a description of their learning culture: “We encourage our teams to grow in their current roles and dream about what’s next. Employees have opportunities to attend events, share their work, and take time off to learn new skills.” If we want content as good as MailChimp’s, we need to create a startup culture within our organizations.
  • The most convincing CS case study I’ve seen is GOV.UK, the UK Government’s single domain, built by the Government Digital Service (GDS). As a UK citizen, you don’t need to know which government department is responsible for your question or problem—you just browse or search for the answer or transaction you need, and everything’s written in clear, easy to understand language. GDS is the case study to rule them all because they have an explicit goal of cultural change. At GDS, content strategy doesn’t stand alone. In fact, their Government Service Design Manual that helps departments “build services so good that people prefer to use them”, lists 26 criteria that new digital services must meet before they’re allowed to launch on GOV.UK. Number 13 is “build a service with the same look, feel and tone as GOV.UK”, incorporating CS which they call “content design”. This is what governance looks like when it’s part of a culture of digital transformation, and CS is only one part of it. (Hint: we need to learn about the other 25 parts.)

2. Let’s tell stories about digital transformation.

Let’s examine where we came from so we can tell stories about where we’re going.

Society conditions us to accept industrial culture.

Education, work, and broadcast media condition us to accept industrial culture—it’s part of the furniture. It holds that we can control our environment through concepts like:

  • theory and prediction,
  • command and control,
  • separation of work into components,
  • hierarchy and status, and
  • efficiency.

We treat people like they’re cogs in a machine, each with a specific role that doesn’t require human judgement. Follow the manual, don’t bring your full self to work, we say, as we undermine people’s sense of self using shame. These cog-people are easy to replace, just like a faulty machine part. Industrial culture dehumanizes: it tries to turn people into emotionless machines. We believe that we can understand our environment perfectly, and so design the perfect machine for taming it, each component of work separated out and optimized for efficiency.

Although industrial organizations may be efficient, they’re fragile. We optimize for a narrow set of circumstances, believing that we can predict the future using theories and statistics. When these organizations encounter volatility, change, and randomness, they’re unable to adapt because they can’t learn.

Trains are efficient but cars have more options (Image by Dave Gray)

Image by Dave Gray (Creative Commons licensed)

I love Dave Gray’s metaphor for efficiency in his book The Connected Company:

“Many business systems are tightly coupled, like trains on a track, to maximize control and efficiency. But what the business environment requires today is not efficiency but flexibility. So we have these tightly coupled systems and the rails are not pointing in the right direction. And changing the rails, although we feel it is necessary, is complex and expensive to do. So we sit in these business meetings, setting goals and making our strategic plans, arguing about which way the rails should be pointing, when what we really need is to get off the train altogether and embrace a completely different system and approach.” (my emphasis)
Dave Gray, 2012

Web culture is antifragile: it benefits from disruption.

We can think of web culture as the opposite of industrial culture, because it rejects the central industrial premise that we can control the world using prediction and theory. Prediction doesn’t work in complex social systems like cities, ecosystems, and networks. Instead of trying to predict, in web and startup culture we tinker and experiment. We learn through small, manageable failures. Web culture is antifragile, to use a term invented by Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan) in his new book by the same name:

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty… there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile… Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”—Antifragile, 2012

Antifragile systems are common in nature. Your body is antifragile because it gains from stress: eg, exercise makes your body build muscles and infections build immunity by creating anti-bodies. The volatility you experience is information—it helps your body learn and grow. When we try to remove volatility from antifragile systems, we damage them. If you remove volatility by never exercising or getting infections (eg by never leaving the house), you’ll damage your body.

The social systems that survive are antifragile, because they learn from errors and volatility. A town market benefits from volatility in supply and demand (eg bad harvests), individual traders going out of business, etc. The system learns from failures and errors because there’s no centralized control and no single error is big enough to bring down the whole market. Modern governments (and organizations) try to control their environment by artificially reducing volatility (eg policies that encourage debt to prevent recessions, aim for price stability and full employment, or bail out “too big to fail” companies during crises) which damages these systems by removing their source of information, making learning impossible. While we can control volatility in the short term, it creates huge blowups in the future that we can’t predict. These blowups can be big enough to destroy the system (eg company bankruptcy, global financial crises). So when we try to reduce volatility we trade small errors that allow us to learn for huge errors that can destroy the entire system. A system that can’t tolerate failure can’t learn.

Taleb compares today’s dominant culture of theorizing and predicting to the trial and error of antifragile tinkering (found in America’s startups):

“[we suffer from] the illusion that you know exactly where you are going, you knew exactly where you were going in the past, and others have succeeded in the past by knowing where they are going…
Like Britain in the Industrial Revolution, America’s asset is risk taking and the use of optionality, this remarkable ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no comparative shame in failing, starting again, and repeating failure.”—Antifragile, 2012

The internet’s core systems are antifragile: eg, the Domain Name System, email, and web protocols like HTTP have no centralized control, no single point of failure, and open standards so anyone can participate. These systems get stronger when they encounter volatility and change, which is why they’ve outlived thousands of other more “efficient” proprietary systems which were fragile. Web culture is antifragile in the same way: we share knowledge and work together (eg open source), we encourage tinkering and failure, and we value relationships over transactions.

The waterfall: an industrial model that avoids learning.

In industrial culture, we believe we can control our environment through theory and prediction. In practice this means we don’t allow ourselves to fail—we don’t test our predictions, we ignore feedback, and we execute our original plan at all costs. You can see this in the waterfall model of project management, which removes volatility during the development process—that is, it removes opportunities for failure and learning—in favor of massive failures at the project level. Waterfall trades small failures for catastrophic failures, by throwing away hundreds of opportunities to learn.

Research, Tesco-style: the best plan money can buy.

In a waterfall project we do all of our research upfront, so that our plan is so good, nothing can possibly go wrong. This protects everyone involved from learning (which is an uncomfortable process). You see this behavior across the board in industrial organizations, and it’s particularly striking whenever they try to imitate startup culture by “innovating” or starting new businesses.

An instructive example comes from Tesco, the largest supermarket group in the UK, who decided to start a retail business in the US. They realized that the two countries are different, and so instead of copying their store format from the UK, they did research first, to figure out the right approach for the US market. Sounds good, right? The result was Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, with stores in Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada. Here’s the CEO of Tesco at the time, Terry Leahy, in a 2007 interview with the Wall Street Journal titled “Tesco Studies Hard for U.S. Debut”:

“[We tried to] turn a weakness we had—that we had no presence in America—into an advantage: We can research and design the perfect store for the American consumer in the 21st century. Our team went over to live in the U.S. We stayed in people’s homes. We went through their fridges. We did all our research, and we’re good at research. …
We built [a prototype] store inside a warehouse. We claimed it was a movie set so that people would deliver all these goods and not think it was us. We had to borrow products from other retailers because we hadn’t at that stage developed any products. We took ordinary people in, and they really, really liked it.” (my emphasis)

They’d designed the perfect store for the American consumer, done all their research, and ordinary people liked it. What could go wrong? Here’s the Wall Street Journal again in December 2012:

“Tesco is poised to leave the U.S. after spending five unprofitable years and £1 billion ($1.61 billion) on an ill-timed American gambit that now ranks among the British retailer’s biggest-ever failures.”

Waterfall projects avoid small failures and in the process create huge failures instead. Industry consultants the Hartman Group point out that in reality, successful retail brands (including Tesco itself) aren’t created by an upfront plan:

“For even though [the Fresh & Easy research] strategy may appear consumer-driven in theory, unless the consumer is accounted for at a foundational, organizational level—unless the consumer is allowed to drive and shape the experience — his/her impact is not truly being felt. And therein lies the dirty little secret of most successful retail brands: the retail experience of the most successful brands owes much more to the routine requests and tweaks suggested by its loyal customers than the powerful vision or insight of its executive team, much less solely that of the CEO.” (my emphasis)

Tesco stuck to its original plan rather than allowing themselves to learn through tinkering and trial and error.

Startup culture creates a safe space to fail.

So what does startup culture look like? Some well-known examples:

  • Steve Jobs said, “stay hungry, stay foolish.”
  • Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook around a culture of experimentation, shipping fast, and being willing to fail.
  • Jeff Bezos built Amazon as a network of semi-autonomous “pods”, which respond to change quickly, creating entirely new services like Kindle and Amazon Web Services.
  • Tony Hsieh built Zappos around a “culture of happiness”, under the principle that if they had the right culture, business success would follow.

All of these examples are Silicon Valley tech startups. It’s difficult to imagine this type of culture taking hold in a traditional siloed organization, right? It’s starting to happen. The Government Digital Service (who we met earlier) are on a mission to bring cultural change to the UK Government, through the principle of “digital by default”: digital services so good that people prefer to use them. GDS created a new culture within government through experimentation in small teams, Agile methodology, and openness (take a look at their blog.) There’s no organization in the world which couldn’t benefit from this type of cultural change.

3. Dare to be vulnerable, to listen and to lead cultural change.

If we’re going to start changing culture we must dare to be vulnerable, to listen, and to lead. Let’s start by learning about practices we don’t normally talk about: service design, agile development, cross functional teams, and the Lean Startup.

Service design

Today we don’t design products, we design digital services. Service design is an emerging practice that considers how to design user-centered services across channels, including web, mobile, phone, retail locations, etc. We need to position our content, design, and technology work within a broader service design context.

Agile development

Written in 2001, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development outlines a trial and error (ie, antifragile) process that allows teams to create software without upfront planning. (The term “waterfall” came from the agile community as a way of comparing agile to industrial methods.) Today, many teams use agile frameworks like SCRUM and Kanban (based on Lean manufacturing principles originally developed at Toyota) to develop digital services through iteration. These frameworks feature short periods of time (“sprints”) where small teams work on a single design problem (often called a “user story”), with regular progress assessments and a minimum of documentation and meetings (eg, “stand up” meetings last for under 10 minutes.) In the content and UX communities, we’re suspicious of agile because we’re scared of losing control of our processes.

Cross-functional teams

Cross-functional teams

We need to work in cross-functional teams if we’re going to benefit from agile. If I’m a content specialist I should work with, for example, a technologist and a designer, to expose me to different perspectives. The idea is to push each other outside our comfort zones. A cross-functional team crosses organizational silos, because we’re all working together to get the best outcome for the customer, instead of trying to optimize our specialism on its own.

The Lean Startup

For this cultural change to be feasible, we need to explain it to people who come from industrial culture, especially managers. Although it’s possible to make arguments for culture change based on traditional metrics like ROI or increased shareholder value, it’s dishonest (we can’t predict ROI or increased share prices) and liable to backfire. Don’t despair: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries can help us:

“How do we hold people accountable for learning at an organizational level? Traditional departments… keep people focused on excellence in their specialties: marketing, sales, product development. But what if the company’s best interests are served by cross-functional collaboration?”
—Eric Ries, The Lean Startup, 2011

Ries combines concepts from lean manufacturing, agile, and startup techniques like customer development, to advocate organizational learning through entrepreneurship (in any organization). He attacks the “vanity metrics” of industrial culture and suggests that we measure “validated learning” instead, using a process called innovation accounting. He popularized the idea of the “minimum viable product”, which states that everything we ship should involve the minimum work possible to learn something from our customers—that is, each product is an experiment, helping us reduce uncertainty through learning.

We need to improve our messaging.

When we say "my thing is important!", other people hear "your thing doesn't matter and I should be in charge"

As content strategists, we need to take our own advice and improve our messaging beyond, “content is important.” When we say, “my thing is important”, people hear, “your thing doesn’t matter, and I should be in charge.” We say things like:

  • “content is a business asset”, or
  • “people don’t come to a website to appreciate the design, they come for the content”.

While these statements come from a good place, others are likely to hear them as territorial. We need to stop trying to control “our” part of the work (the content) and instead start working with others from different disciplines to change culture and learn together.

We need to make ourselves vulnerable.

If we’re going to change culture, we need to start taking personal risks by making ourselves vulnerable. I learned about this from Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly:

“When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we sacrifice relationships and opportunities, squander time, and turn our backs on our gifts. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.”—Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, 2012

The voice of shame says, "if people react badly to my ideas, I'm worthless as a person!"

Being vulnerable means fighting the culture of shame, where we reject people who fail. The voice of shame says, “if people react badly to my ideas, I’m worthless as a person,” and industrial culture encourages that voice by shaming people who are seen to fail. To create a safe space for experimentation and learning, we need to create a culture where people believe that failure is OK, and where we really listen and build on each other’s ideas.

Create a culture where we really listen, by saying, "yes, and…"

The activity I’ve found most helpful for practicing vulnerability and truly listening is improvisation. Consider taking an improv class—the skills you’ll learn are directly relevant to this type of work.

Go Forth and Change Culture

Start changing culture today! And if you’d like some help from other people in a similar situation, come to the Dare Conference in September 2013 in London, and let’s be brave together.

2 thoughts on “Digital Governance Fails Because We’re Afraid of Cultural Change”

  1. Thanks for this. I am writing a book on outside-in content marketing, which includes a chapter on culture and digital transformation. This has really helped me solidify my thinking. Thank you!

  2. I love, love, love this. I think working in an agile process is one of the biggest–and scariest–challenges for a content strategist, especially when our discipline is still very much gaining respect and recognition. It’s hard to let go of the desire to prove ourselves and our value (and spend lots of time and energy on “making it right” to ensure that we do), in favor of working collaboratively and potentially being wrong sometimes. We have to let go of the belief that trial and error will somehow compromise our legitimacy or threaten our very right to “be there” in the process. That can be really, really hard, and you captured that struggle really eloquently.

    Also, “anti-fragility” is my new word of the day, to be used in every possible context.

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