But who’s this “we”?
In countless organizations, there’s precious little talk about these shifts in form—much less the shifts in practice they’ll require. Which means we’re in danger of leaving too many people behind as we, the already converted, whirl away into the future of content.
It’s not that big organizations don’t think the web matters; dollars and data have long convinced them otherwise. But whether it’s in publishing or journalism or corporate communications, many are still trying to map an old mental model to this (no longer quite so) new medium: fixed, immutable webpages; time-consuming, duplicative publishing processes; background grafs that rehash information rather than build connections.
Experimentation may be where change begins, but it’ll only ever get us partway. If we want to improve things for more readers, more users, more humans, then we’ve got to bring new ideas and approaches to these bigger, messier, harder-to-shift places. And this takes different skills than experimentation—skills that are often left uncelebrated in a tech culture screaming for innovation and agility from all corners.
All eyes on the experimenters
Experimenters—those inhabiting the startups and studios that are already toying with new forms—think about possibilities. They try, fail, and try again. They’re lean, ready to pivot, capable of tearing it all down and starting over. It’s exhilarating and fun to watch—which makes it easy to think it’s how all change happens.
Case in point: I had a conversation recently with someone from a well-known design studio who asserted that those within organizations rarely change things. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the argument: innovation tends to come from outside, because those on the inside have either bought into the status quo or given up caring about it.
It is difficult to change organizations, and not every nine-to-fiver is champing at the bit to do so, true. But this perspective is also frustratingly exclusive: if your experience isn’t at a startup or a studio or an experimental news organization, if you don’t live in New York or San Francisco or London, you can end up feeling like this world doesn’t apply to you.
At least, I sure did. A while back, during a seven-year stint in the sprawling city of Phoenix, Arizona, I knew change was needed at my agency, where digital content got labeled either “creative” or “SEO.” And I knew it was needed for my clients, many of whom were struggling mightily to keep basic content like calendars and contact information up to date. But when I compared my problems to emerging conversations about things like media business models, mobile, and cross-channel, they felt so petty. So pedestrian.
I spent years feeling this way, so certain I had nothing to contribute that I was reluctant to even write a blog post about content strategy.
I was so, so wrong.
Turns out there are lots of people like I was, working in or with organizations that are stuck, and wondering where to begin applying the big ideas they see bandied about on Twitter. And the more those with prominent names and loud voices proclaim that we can’t change the status quo from inside an organization, the more we’ll all believe it—and the less often those of us who’d be really good at it will consider working in them in the first place.
This serves no one well.
Instead, we need to stop focusing all our attention on the experimenters, and start spending time empowering more people to become agents of change within organizations, too.
And you, that person out there feeling stuck, thinking that all this innovation stuff doesn’t belong to you? It’s your turn to listen up—because this next bit is all about how you can start bringing new content forms to your organization in one of two ways: bridging or infiltrating.
Bridging: connecting experiments with the everyday
Bridgers are the ones who build connections between the internal workings of an organization and the big, often scary, innovations on the outside. They’re samplers, constantly consuming ideas and approaches from multiple disciplines, industries, or perspectives, and sharing them with their teams.
You might empower the marketing team to write for low-literacy users and follow accessibility guidelines. Or educate a newsroom of deadline-driven journalists on using metadata to connect related stories, rather than filing endless disconnected updates. Or even simply get two departments with shared interests but disjointed content talking to one another. Whatever it is, when you can bridge, you make change at a micro level, one degree at a time.
If you’ve always been discontent to stay within the bounds of a single industry or discipline—if you’re constantly reading about things from multiple professional worlds and looking for ways to connect those ideas to your work—then you just might be a natural bridger, too. Here’s how to do it well:
- Find an external viewpoint. You needn’t be a consultant to bridge between innovation and organizations, but you do need an external perspective—an ability to draw connections between things that might not seem related at first glance. That could be identifying common ground between two disparate departments, or looking to another industry to find solutions to your organization’s problems, like bringing journalistic practices into a marketing department.
- Know the inside. While an external perspective is key, you can’t ignore the inside of the organization, which has its own peculiar hang-ups and histories. Knowing how an organization actually works, deep down, will let you take all those external ideas and viewpoints and apply them in specific, useful—and believable—ways.
- Be assertive, not dogmatic. It’s easy to get caught up in the right way to do things. But holding too tightly to idealism doesn’t help you bridge. While you need to advocate for better decisions confidently and passionately, organizational change takes time—time you won’t be given if you scare off executives by railing for too much, too soon.
- Speak their language. We all know business jargon is bad, soul-sucking stuff—but sometimes spouting a few buzzwords is the only way to make the CEO feel comfortable—and keep her listening to you longer. If you have to grit your teeth and “leverage opportunities in the cloud,” that’s OK. As long as, in so doing, you’re making progress toward a bigger goal.
When you can master these things, you’ll earn trust with executives—the sort of trust that gets you invited to high-level meetings and respected when you have an opinion. And it’s this sort of relationship that will enable you to convince an organization to start the long, slow march over the bridge toward innovation.
Infiltrating: the quiet disruption
Infiltrators are pragmatic, too—but unlike bridgers, they work more narrowly, and are actually careful not to be noticed by senior management. Instead, they fly under the radar and operate with intense focus, carefully tackling one thing at a time and changing it thoroughly—like updating how the press release archives work, fixing some microcopy, or cleaning up the metadata for a single type of content.
If you’re the sort of person who likes to dig deep, and who gets satisfaction out of seeing a single project take flight, then you might be a perfect candidate for infiltrating an organization that’s overdue for change. Here’s how to make change from the belly of the beast:
- Embed yourself. Infiltrators don’t walk around making recommendations; they get in and take action, finding things that need fixing—and then fixing them. Not only will you get more done this way, but you’ll also find that it’s a lot easier to fly under the radar when you’re spending your days in the thick of things.
- Be subtle. Rather than kick and scream about how bad things are, infiltrating is all about just doing your job—or at least, being perceived that way. Meanwhile, you’re quietly pushing boundaries: cutting old content, trying a new workflow, or making friends with the developers and getting your content into the new API. But being subtle doesn’t mean being sneaky; this isn’t about doing things behind anyone’s back. It’s about doing things right in front of their noses—gently.
- Find the thing no one cares about. Taken individually, it’s easy to write off an infiltrator’s changes as trivial—after all, each one tends to be small, contained, and seemingly inessential to the business. This perception isn’t a bad thing. When you address the stuff no one ever thought about (or no one wanted to deal with), you’re less likely to have your efforts thwarted—because the people in power won’t feel threatened by your proposed changes.
- Help others. Perhaps most of all, you’ve got to be good at—and enjoy—sharing what you learn with others, and making their jobs easier. By being focused on improving things for everyone, you’ll make friends—friends you’ll need if you want your changes to really take root.
Being an infiltrator gives you allies at the ground level—people already on your side and ready to help you turn small projects into bigger ones. For example, if you make content easier for the API folks to wrangle by helping them see what’s important and how it should be structured now, then later, when you’re trying to convince management to invest in enhancing that API to support cross-platform publishing, guess who’s a lot more likely to be on your side?
While it may start small, this grassroots-style approach encourages infiltration to grow, reverberating across an organization and creating revolutions that get more and more people thinking differently.
Empowering the change-makers
Bridging and infiltrating aren’t for everyone. They’re often uphill climbs through mountains of bad business metaphors and glass ceilings and people who’ll do anything to make a dollar off an unsuspecting customer. Not everyone can do this work without getting disenchanted.
Thankfully, some folks can—including, I’m willing to bet, some of you reading this right now. If so, it’s time you get started. But it’s not just up to the bridgers and infiltrators. It’s up to the rest of us, too. Rather than lavishing all our praise on startups and studios, it’s time we start encouraging and celebrating those on the inside as well.
After all, agility and innovation are wonderful. But getting new forms adopted in old, hard-to-shift organizations? That’s when all users will really win.