Sorry Not Sorry: Managing Content Strategy Challenges in Decentralized Environments

Presented by Amy Grace Wells, editorial director of UX Booth, and Alaina Wiens, director of marketing at the Flint & Genessee Chamber of Commerce

One of the presentations kicking off the HighEdWeb 2018 conference was “Sorry Not Sorry: Managing Content Strategy Challenges in Decentralized Environments.” The idea for this session emerged from a panel Alana Wiens and Amy Grace Wells participated in at last year’s conference. In response to questions about overcoming challenges related to teams, Alaina had repeatedly suggested “bringing everyone in,” while Amy kept returning to “sometimes you have to stand apart.” The idea for this presentation emerged from that experience, two perspectives on dealing with the biggest challenge to content management in decentralized environments: “People ruin everything.”

Bringing Everyone In

Alaina focused on preventing problems and maintaining team focus by communicating clearly about team goals and individual roles. Building a team that stays focused and minimizes drama requires making sure all team members

  • understand the team’s goals,
  • understand everyone’s role,
  • share information,
  • work together, and
  • focus.

Alaina argued that achieving clarity about where you are and where you want to be will trigger a shift in the usual dynamic involved in building a team: Instead of pushing tasks on people, you’ll be inviting them to join you on a journey that has a clear destination they want to reach, too.

Before assembling your team, however, Alaina suggested that you honestly consider what’s possible. This involves anticipating obstacles, including any of your own biases that may act as barriers. Only after analyzing yourself should you synthesize your team.

Alaina also shared that some of her most successful teams involved people from many areas of the organization doing many different things. What made these diverse and varied groups good teams was a strong sense of purpose, which, again, came from clearly defining goals, the steps needed to reach them, and all team members’ roles. A clear focus on the destination will help your team avoid dwelling on injustices, which wastes time and energy on elements that may be beyond your control.

Anticipate Human Nature
Amy agreed that it’s important to try and bring individuals together first but cautioned that people are irrational creatures. No amount of planning can change human nature. People within same organization—who theoretically share the same larger purpose—must still compete with each other for resources, students, and attention, and this can create conflict and generate bad feelings. She offered suggestions for not letting the emotional responses of others derail your goals and success or pull you directions you know you shouldn’t go.

Listen First, Then Talk
One tip she offered is to follow this template for talking to people when they demand more than you owe them or seem frustrated that you won’t give in to unreasonable demands:

“I can see/hear that you’re feeling _______. I want to help, but I’m unable to _______ because ______.”

That is, validate other people’s feelings and needs first. Let them know you understand and sympathize. Make it clear that you would help if you could, and then give the reasons why you can’t.

Call Timeout
Other times, misunderstandings may emerge when others simply don’t understand your role. This is understandable because content strategy can be confusing for people unfamiliar with it. It’s good to remember that often we work with people who have spent the last 20 years of their career narrowing their focus. We, on the other hand, often have to take a 20,000-foot view.

She suggested calling a timeout to gain understanding. “Allowing people to misunderstand gives them more power to burden you,” Amy said. So explain what you do and where you’re coming from. When people understand you, they may be more willing to come along—or even accept no for an answer.

Communicate Expectations in Writing
To prevent confusion about who does what and when, Amy urged communicating expectations in writing. For example, clarify what counts as urgent and what doesn’t, and commit to how quickly you’ll respond in each case. Also, follow up meetings by sending an e-mail laying out what was agreed upon—and enforce consequences.

Gauge Leadership Support
Unfortunately, no matter how many proactive efforts you make to be clear, misunderstandings may still arise. If you anticipate having to put your foot down with someone, have a talk with your leadership. Find out what they will and won’t back you on. It does you no good to be firm if your boss will cave.

Know When to Quit or Call Someone Out
Finally, know when to call it quits. After you’ve done everything you can, sometimes you need to walk away. Or, if you can’t, you may need to call someone out (again, politely but in clear terms about the source of the problem), not to shame them, but to help them understand what they’re doing that’s creating an obstacle in the team’s march toward its goals. Amy shared another fill-in-the blank sentence for approaching these tough conversations:

“I’m really trying to help you, but you’re doing _______ and it’s making it impossible for me to do ________.”

She also suggested giving others explicit steps that must be taken for them to continue receiving your help (e.g., “You need to respond in 48 hours to e-mails”; “You need to submit work on deadline, or my timeline will be pushed back an equal amount of time”). This preserves your boundaries so that you’ll feel more comfortable refusing unreasonable demands—and so that others feel less comfortable making them.

The bottom line was that if we are clear about where we are, where we want to go, what we can do and what we can’t, and what we need from others and what they can expect from us, we can protect ourselves from being overburdened. To do good work for others, Amy argued, we need to take care of ourselves first.