Every strategic business decision has an impact on content. Entering a new market creates the need for localization. Images that work well in our home market may need to be altered or replaced in order to avoid offending members of new audiences. Mergers and acquisitions create a need for content updating and adaptation. Content obtained from others requires rebranding, creates the need for new metadata tags, and training content creators on new tools and workflows. A new product feature may require your content team to update your content strategy.
Unfortunately, business strategists don’t always foresee the impact of their decisions on content. They can find themselves surprised by the amount of time and money required to tackle the challenges they introduced.
Who should be involved in making such strategic business decisions, and what process would they follow, ideally, to avoid such rude surprises? Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper of The Rockley Group have a model for you.
Ann and Charles have spent decades consulting with big companies and their content teams. They’ve seen processes that work and processes that don’t. At the Intelligent Content Conference, in a talk they gave called Playing Well with Others: Using Workflow and Approval Process to Smooth Communications & Content Flow in Your Organization, Charles used his turn at the mic to walk the audience through a process that works.
Recommended reading: Adopting Intelligent Content: Practical Advice
While your process may not have exactly eight stages, and while you don’t have to use exactly these labels for them, “You need everything that’s in here,” Charles says.
As you read this post, which sums up Charles’s take on this process, look for opportunities for your company to smooth out its process and to unite people in your organization around it.
Why put this kind of process in place?
The process that Charles maps out—although it may seem, to some, like a series of roadblocks—enables corporate leaders to make strategically sound decisions in a timely manner, guiding the company toward activities that forward the business and away from activities that don’t.
The process also increases the chances that strategists will take into account the full impact of their decisions on their company’s content. I’ve been involved in situations where that didn’t happen, and the scrambling that resulted wasn’t pretty.
Ideally, this process keeps a company’s whole body of content consistent and up to date. As a result, even as the business evolves, customers and content teams alike get to have the kind of satisfying content experiences you would expect from a brand you love.
“This process gives companies control without over-controlling,” Charles says. It does this by giving people in various departments a regular opportunity to talk and get aligned—a critical benefit for content teams that operate in silos.
“If you have one team doing videos and another doing podcasts, you want to keep them moving in the same direction—hitting the same talking points, delivering the same messaging—as they create the content.”
Who belongs on the decision-making team?
Charles suggests that companies appoint four or five people (referred to variously in this post as “decision makers,” “strategists,” “approvers,” and “the team”) who have a stake in both the short- and long-term repercussions of the decisions.
- The appropriate project manager
- The person who manages the project managers
- Someone who understands the relevant content systems and teams
- Someone from the legal team
- Someone from the brand team
- Someone from the region in question
The people you choose to involve may vary. Not every strategic decision needs to involve legal representation. And maybe your product or service isn’t international. It may even be hyper-local, requiring no consideration of regional concerns. Don’t force these roles onto your team. Identify the roles your company needs to support its business decisions, and choose people who can fill those roles.
Subject-matter experts (SMEs) don’t need to be on this team; the team reaches out to them as appropriate.
If the team is focused on a product, the product manager might be at the appropriate level. If the team deals with a number of products within a brand, the brand manager might be at the appropriate level, calling on individual product managers, as SMEs, between meetings. In some cases, those product managers might be invited to a team meeting to provide extra input.
The goal: Create a stable team that provides strategic consistency.
How much time does this process take?
Depending on the nature of the request, this decision-making process may take a concentrated hour, or days, or weeks.
The team may want to hold regular decision meetings—maybe weekly, maybe monthly—depending on the number of requests that roll in. Organizations with a large backlog of requests may want to meet frequently at first, perhaps weekly or biweekly for three to five months, Charles says, tapering to monthly meetings after that.
The conversations that happen between meetings don’t have to take long. A quick Google search or 30-minute conversation may yield a pivotal discovery. At the same time, some requests merit in-depth research.
Companies that rush their strategic decisions or follow inconsistent methods shortchange themselves; they may suffer expensive—and avoidable—consequences.
Don’t be a slave to consistency, though, Charles says. Flex as needed to support your business requirements. If you’ve settled down to a monthly meeting cadence, for example, and an important issue comes up, don’t wait for the next monthly meeting to address it.
“Use the process—gather information, distribute it for discussion, research the situation, and come together to decide—to support your business needs. Don’t force your business needs into a defined meeting schedule if that would cause more problems than it would solve.”
In short, this process takes however long it takes. Wise leaders give each phase its due.
A walk through the process
The following sections detail the stages of the decision-making process that Charles recommends for strategic leaders of any company.
Stage 1. Someone submits a request, following a defined method
Strategic ideas may come from any number of sources: people anywhere in the organization, customers, the public. The ideas may come in via email, web forms, tweets, phone calls, hallway conversations, meetings—any way that human beings communicate.
Somebody somewhere asks somebody at some company to do something different. Charles calls this input a “request” (aka an idea, a change, a suggestion).
To smooth out the infinite variability at this stage, he suggests that companies define and streamline the ways that people submit requests. “If you’ve got 50 ways of receiving requests across all your touchpoints, see if you can cut that down to a smaller number, perhaps to five,” Charles says. “Come up with a consistent approach.”
Stages 2 & 3. A sanity checker reviews the request, rejecting it if appropriate
When a request comes in, someone must determine whether the idea merits further assessment (Stage 2). Charles calls this the sanity check.
Your company may want to establish a separate group of people who do the sanity checking. Choose people who know enough to understand the requests, the audiences, and the business needs and who can spot ideas that should be immediately rejected (stage 3) rather than waste everyone’s time by moving it on to the decision-makers (stage 4).
Sanity checkers may reject a request for several reasons:
- It may not make business sense.
- It may not be described clearly or fully.
- It may not include enough information for the decision-making team to consider.
Where appropriate, the sanity checker returns the request to the requester, asking for whatever additional information is needed. From the requester’s point of view, this feedback loop takes the guesswork out of submitting a request. From the company’s point of view, it keeps underdeveloped requests from wasting the team’s time.
The goal: Improve requests so that they are more likely to be approved (and approved efficiently).
Stage 4. The sanity checker distributes information about the request to the team
When a content request passes the sanity check, the sanity checker creates and distributes a packet of information to the members of the decision-making team. Like anything worth reading, this information must be fair, accurate, concise, and easy to understand, giving the strategists everything they need to make a good decision.
What does this packet contain? Whatever it takes to sell the idea.
- The request. (Exactly what is being proposed?)
- The rationale. (Why do this? What problem would be solved or what market advantage gained?)
- The scope. (Would this require action locally, in certain regions, or worldwide? What departments would be affected and how?)
- The consequences of rejecting the request. (If the company doesn’t do this, what’s likely to happen?)
- The concerns. (If the company does this, what concerns might need to be considered?)
This packet must be distributed far enough in advance of the decision meeting (Stage 7) that the team can examine it and have the necessary conversations with SMEs (Stages 5 and 6).
Stages 5 & 6. Team members examine the request, getting input from SMEs as needed
In most companies, decision makers have too little time to examine requests (Stage 5) and then to reach out to SMEs for further input if needed (Stage 6). Sometimes companies skip these “incredibly important” stages altogether.
“It’s not unusual for five people to come into a meeting to approve a bunch of requests without having looked at any of them. They’ve had no time to understand the requests, no time to ask their own questions, no time to talk to people across the organization.”
In that situation, no one can make good decisions.
Although it sounds like a lot of work, this research often doesn’t take much time. A brief conversation with an expert or knowledgeable colleague– via phone, email, desk visit, hallway encounter, or electronic exchange in a formal approval system—may be all it takes to address the questions.
“Ask SMEs what they think,” Charles says. Give them a chance to weigh in, especially on changes whose ramifications will resonate for years.
Charles uses the term “SME” to describe someone knowledgeable about anything—a product, a country’s culture, a group of customers—anything that the decision makers need to understand.
Budget sufficient time for Stages 5 and 6. To give strategic direction is to take the time required to understand and wonder about the requests you’re being asked to approve.
Stage 7. The team meets and decides whether to approve the request
At this penultimate stage, decision makers meet to decide which requests to approve and which to reject. In this meeting, no one is looking at the requests for the first time. People walk in having done their homework, ready to make informed, considered decisions.
Occasionally, in the course of the meeting, it becomes clear that more information is needed. Issues come up in the conversation. People go back, get the information, and make a decision at the next meeting or through email. No problem. But the goal of this meeting is to say yea or nay.
Stage 8. The team passes on the approved request to be implemented
After the decision makers approve a request (Stage 7), they let the appropriate teams know what they need to do to implement the request (Stage 8). Sometimes, though, especially when a process like this is just getting started, the decision makers don’t know whom to pass the approvals on to. “That education is crucial for the process to work,” Charles says.
Charles’s insights ring true for me. I’ve worked in situations where business decision makers underestimated the impact of their decisions on content teams. Stress abounds, and expenses soar. A process like the one described above could have made all the difference.
How about your company? To what extent do strategic decision makers anticipate the impact of their decisions on content teams across the company? What would you add to what Charles has to say?
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