My 15th wedding anniversary is fast approaching. Looking back on that decade-and-a-half, fond memories come to mind. And, so do some stressful ones. For instance, in our first month of marriage, we had a wedding, moved to a new home in a new state, and started new jobs. When I found myself having trouble sleeping at night, I took a stress test and scored off the charts. Yikes! That was a lot of change at once—change that would make or break both me and my marriage. 15 years later, I can say that “pressure cooker” situation matured me and solidified my marriage.

In a similar way, smart companies and organizations who recognize the importance of digital at the C-level are rapidly maturing their mobile, social, and content efforts at the same time. That’s a lot of change to lead at once. And, instead of two people, an enterprise has thousands around the globe. The stress intensifies, and it will make or break many companies.

So, how do you lead an organization through this kind of change? With a lot of work. But not just any work—adaptive work.

In the seminal HBR article, The Work of Leadership, Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie outline how to lead a large company through adaptation. They couldn’t have predicted in 1997 the intensity of change we face in 2013, but their principles hold up remarkably well. One of those principles is Get on the Balcony:

Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s greatness in leading his basketball team came in part from his ability to play hard while keeping the whole game situation in mind, as if he stood in a press box or on a balcony above the field of play. Bobby Orr played hockey in the same way. Other players might fail to recognize the larger patterns of play that performers like Johnson and Orr quickly understand, because they are so engaged in the game that they get carried away by it. Their attention is captured by the rapid motion, the physical contact, the roar of the crowd, and the pressure to execute. In sports, most players simply may not see who is open for a pass, who is missing a block, or how the offense and defense work together. Players like Johnson and Orr watch these things and allow their observations to guide their actions.

Business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action. Leaders have to see a context for change or create one. They should give employees a strong sense of the history of the enterprise and what’s good about its past, as well as an idea of the market forces at work today and the responsibility people must take in shaping the future.

The difference between basketball and business today, of course, is that digital influence and action are difficult for even observant leaders to see. Getting on the balcony is hard. For leaders to guide their organizations in the right direction with content and empower their employees to solve tough content challenges as they move in that direction, everyone involved in content needs to see whether content is effective and why. But most organizations can’t see that today.

Why is getting on the balcony so hard? A host of reasons, in my experience. Content feedback is

Too fragmented
You have to piece together metrics and nuggets of insight from analytics tools, surveys, and other research.

Too technical and lacking context
Web and social analytics provide some great detail but little context. You might find out that 10% of your videos drive 90% of your video traffic, but you don’t know why.

Too haphazard, not systematic
Evaluating content is the exception, not the rule. It’s a special, expensive qualitative research project or occasional survey, not the norm.

Too time-consuming to interpret and act on
If you accomplish the painful chore of pulling together content feedback, you then face the painful chore of interpreting it and deciding what to do about it.

And, that’s only scratching the surface. At Content Science, we’ve helped organizations overcome some of these challenges with consulting and training. For example, we often explain how important it is to align your goal for content with your approach to evaluating it—and then set the right expectations with executives. If the CEO thinks a new digital magazine will increase your sales within a month, you are in trouble. If the CEO thinks a new digital magazine will improve reach, awareness, and positioning of your organization with a new market within a month, you’re in good shape.

That solution helps with interpreting content feedback, but it doesn’t help with the other challenges. I realized content evaluation can’t go but so far without the right tools to make what’s happening with your content easier and quicker to see. So, I decided it was time for Content Science to do more. We developed a new software service, ContentWRX, which automates collecting, analyzing, and interpreting content feedback. Our goal is to help content leaders get on the balcony to see the big picture, to see patterns, to get context from the past and the present—and ultimately make informed, efficient decisions about content.

Whether you use ContentWRX or not, plan how you will help your company not simply get “swept up in the field of action,” or creating content, but also get on the balcony to evaluate content. It’s the only way to ensure your company is made, not broken, by the pressure cooker of digital change.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in August 2013.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the founder and CEO of Content Science, a growing content intelligence and strategy company based in Atlanta GA. Content Science owns Content Science Review, Content Science Academy, and the content effectiveness software ContentWRX.  Colleen regularly consults with executives and practitioners to improve their strategy and processes for content. She shares insights and guidance from her experience regularly on Content Science Review, at events around the world, and in highly rated books such as Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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