Guest post: change is gonna come

This post was written  by Jeff Eaton as part of Blog Secret Santa; can't believe I received such an amazing gift. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by me, on Santa’s list of 2013 gift posts.

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Content strategists spend a lot of time talking about change. It's not shocking: most organizations bring us in when something new is being built, or something old is broken. "How can we make this work?" they ask. "How can we bring order to this mess?" More often than not, the answer boils down to the unpleasant truth that something comfortable or familiar has to change.

Oh, clients. Oh, stakeholders. Why don't you welcome the evolution of your organization's processes? Why do you kick against the goads? After a long of day gentle (or not-so-gentle) coaxing, it's easy to dwell on the difficulties of being a change-agent, and easy to forget what it's like to be on the other side of the conversation. This is particularly dangerous for those of us who serve as consultants: most of our work occurs in compressed bursts of analysis and recommendation. At its best, this basic human tendency can lead to frustration and impatience. At its worst, it can blind us to the real cost of what we're asking our clients to do.

Over the past two years, the company I work for has nearly doubled in size to work on exciting new projects and focus more energy on new markets. It's big, thrilling stuff! Stuff that comes with serious growing pains as we're forced to change practices that have stopped working for us.

We've had to re-learn how to collaborate, how to coordinate, and how to ensure that we're all communicating a consistent message when we talk to our clients. Not only that, the technologies we work with just keep changing. It's like someone out there is determined to keep us from getting comfortable!

Sound familiar? The irony wasn't lost on me when I asked a friend, "How can I possibly keep up with all of this change?" The answer, of course, isn't magic. We work together to hammer out our most important goals, we talk honestly about the resources that we have at our disposal, and we ruthlessly prioritize. It's difficult, and it's scary, and it carries with it the risk of making bad choices. But for every step backwards, we take two forwards and over time, the progress is encouraging. We aren't just talking about the magic of change, we're living the dirty reality.

I've begun to think that the zing of fear is one of the most important things that a content strategist to remember. In a recent article on The Pastry Box, Karen McGrane described her own brush with change-a-phobia:

I was struggling to understand something that intimidated me, something I knew was important to my work, and I was scared... That flash of insight connected me with genuine empathy for all the people, all the businesses that have to understand and adapt and make decisions about how to move onto this new platform. Our clients, our co-workers, our bosses and stakeholders: they are sick of the internet. The pace of change doesn’t stop. They don’t know who to trust to help them make the right decision.

This year, I've started keeping a journal of those nerve-wracking, question-filled moments. The time I admitted that I'd been doing content audits all wrong, and didn't know where to go next. The time I realized that APIs weren't the end-all-be-all of multichannel publishing, and had to rethink everything I'd assumed. Or the time I thought I'd made a major breakthrough with a client's project, only to discover I'd unearthed a much bigger problem.

Each of us has a different list, but we often try to forget them once we've emerged on the other side. If we boil those visceral experiences down to sterile lessons and "best practice" recommendations, though, we can lose the reality of how it really feels to be under the gun. And that is one of the best ways I know of to maintain the empathy our industry values so much. Empathy not just for the readers and the visitors and the customers and the users but for our clients, who have to ride the roller coaster too.