Editor’s note: This material is reprinted with the permission of Padma Gillen. The following excerpt is from Lead With Content.

Workflow, proposition, user needs, agile—none of it will work if you can’t say no to the right people at the right time. If you can’t say “There’s no user need so we’re not going to create content about that” and know, with confidence, that no means no, you may as well not bother.

If someone in your organisation can either publish it themselves, or simply go to their boss, who goes to your boss, and the result is you end up publishing something with no user need, or something that’s full of technical language no one but them can understand, in that moment, your organisation has killed content design.

Well structured governance is your Excalibur. Grab that sucker, get it out of that stone, and never let go! With a weapon like that you can fight the good fight.

Why you need to get this right

The main reason why governance is important is people have different perspectives on what good looks like. They also have different priorities. For some people the top priority is to serve the organisation, for some it’s to serve the user/customer, and for many it’s to serve themselves.

I shall illustrate this by talking through a made-up coffee business.

Life cycle of a made-up coffee business

When an organisation is young and small, it will only survive if it effectively serves its users. Imagine a sole trader selling coffee from a stall on the street. If the coffee is not very good, if the stall is in an inconvenient location, if the sole trader is rude, or if people prefer tea, that business will either need to change how it functions so it meets user needs, or it will quickly fail.

As an organisation gets larger and older though, things change. Let’s imagine that sole trader did everything right. They secured some proper investment, scaled the business, got a great logo, and now have a franchise in every high street in every town and city in the whole country.

The person who serves you coffee in one of those franchises probably has a different set of priorities to the sole trader when the business began. They have no stake in the business, are not being paid well, and probably don’t see this job as their career. They may still be great at serving coffee and the customers may love them. But if they aren’t, the business as a whole will not fail and the people in head office won’t ever get to hear about whether or not this particular barista was great or terrible.

Then there are the people who own that business. They never see the customer’s face. They see a spreadsheet with numbers in it. One of those numbers is the profit margin. Another is how much return they got on their investment this year. There are a bunch of other words and numbers in there too, but somehow they don’t care about those as much.

The owners of the business only indirectly care about the customer. And whether or not the customer is happy isn’t necessarily the top priority.

Perhaps, for example, they do some research and find out that if they switch to a coffee that’s 5% worse they can get it 10% cheaper and only lose 3% of their customers. That sounds like a great deal! It’s not a great deal for the customer, but it’s a great deal for them. That spreadsheet now has some even better numbers in it. Mmmmm, I can smell the leather seats on that new car from here.

Finally, there are the many people in the middle. Hundreds of thousands of them! They have made a career in this made-up coffee business. They have committed decades to it. They understand the rules, they know what works and what doesn’t in terms of improving their career prospects. They have friends at work who are pretty much like them and generally, as work goes, they are happy. Keeping things going exactly as they are works well for them.

Now let’s imagine some new starters arrive in the organisation. The people in head office have decided that in order for the business to prosper in the long term, it might be a good idea to actually think about what customers want from the business and then get everyone in the business to do their best to give the customer what they want. Weird, huh.

These new starters they’ve hired to make this happen keep on going on about ‘meeting user needs’. They don’t dress right, they don’t act right, they’re not company people, but for some reason the bosses say they know what they’re doing. The thousands of people in the middle of the organisation unconsciously but pretty much unanimously decide that they are just going to wait around until these young upstarts fail and leave. Between now and then, they will cooperate if they absolutely must, but it’s not going to be high priority, and it better not get in the way of how they do things.

Governance and culture change

What happens next in this made-up coffee business is one of 2 things:

  1. Beginning with the best of intentions, the new starters get to work. They start trying to change things so that the organisation can best meet the needs of its customers. However, at each turn they run into a quiet wall of apathy, broken promises, slow response times, dilution of the approach, reframing of the key messages, and general dragging of feet, for as long as it takes, from a significant percentage of the workforce. It takes a while to notice, but the new kids eventually realise they are failing to make any real headway with the whole user-needs thing.

One by one the new starters get frustrated and leave, or resign themselves to the fact that nothing ever really changes in this place and they may as well join the status quo. Maybe they made things 1% better. That has to count for something, right? And the old way really isn’t so bad. And if you stay long enough and keep your head down you get great benefits. Corner office, anyone?

  1. The new starters begin their user needs project by creating a set of clear, enforceable rules to make sure the new culture of user needs takes shape. Every time these rules are challenged the new starters are able to point to the clear, signed-off document that details how this goes.

When the challenger points out that they are a special case, a unique, snowflake-esque being that deserves special treatment, the new starters are able to politely disagree and escalate the issue to their boss, their boss’s boss, or as high as it needs to go to get the issue resolved.

Because the rules are clear and the top of the organisation is behind them, the new starters know that they will win any argument. The lovers-of-the-status-quo start to realise that they aren’t going to get anywhere with their usual sabotage routine, and inch by inch, the culture changes. A new normal is embedded in the organisation. The made-up coffee company now produces great coffee, has friendly baristas, and develops a whole range of other innovations that help customers have a great experience and end up increasing the profits and market share way more than the old way had ever done. In the end, everyone is happy.

About Lead with Content

This article is an excerpt from GatherContent’s book, Lead with Content: How to put content at the centre of digital transformation. Written by Padma Gillen, with a foreword by Sarah Richards, the book offers practical advice around:

  • User needs
  • Publishing models
  • Planning and writing a proposition
  • How to organise your content team
  • What good governance looks like
  • Getting to grips with content design
  • Agile methodologies
  • Effective communication for digital transformation

Lead with Content is about the vital role of content strategy in digital transformation, and vice versa. If content isn’t put first, projects and organisations don’t end up doing so well. This book is an antidote to ‘content last’ experiences and ways of working. This book will help you get ready to transform your content operations and is available to download or read online for free.

The Author

Padma Gillen is a digital content consultant. He uses his expertise in content design management and agile content production to help organisations create quality content and maximise the effectiveness of their content teams.

He also advises organisations on how to set up and deliver successful web content projects, coaches them through the process, and provides content design teams to make it happen.

Previously, Padma was Head of Content Design at the Government Digital Service (GDS). He had overall responsibility for the quality of content on GOV.UK, the award-winning website of the UK Government.

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