Taming the iceberg

Our ContentEd 2019 speaker, Ayala Gordon, explores what needs to be put in place after your project is approved.


At ContentEd this year, I will be talking about what happens after a project’s approval is finally granted, by sharing my experiences of the hard work we did to persuade, challenge, negotiate and build teams in preparation for our big transformation programme:  


So, basically, I’ll be covering all the things that the business case itself didn’t entail… 

Creating the right conditions  

In a recent Twitter threadTom Loosemore had some wise words for us all. In a few lines, Tom expressed the issue most projects or large digital programmes struggle with. It is certainly something we have experienced at the University of Southampton. Here goes:  

“Before you can make a great thing…

…you need to work in the right way.

And before you work in the right way…

…you need to create the conditions inside your organisation to be allowed to work in the right way.

It’s the last bit that’s the hard bit”. @tomskitomski

What does it really take to get buy-in?   

OneWeb is an iceberg project: the website is the bit you can see, but below there are a lot of legacy systems, complexity, and unknowns that you can’t see above the surface. And because the majority of the problems are hidden from normal view, they are overlooked, and this can become very costly. 

To get buy-in, you cannot afford to work in isolation. It’s important for those of us working in digital to recognise that we work with others before any approvals and also after. We always work hard to extend our influence and expertise beyond things that are obviously digital, like websites, apps and online transactions.  

The reason I say this is because OneWeb signifies a major change to how we do things at the University of Southampton. And the digital folks among us recognise that we won’t be able to change anything if we position ourselves as outsiders. We need to bring in new ways of thinking and working to the whole of the University and our sector. Digital cuts across everything so – in my opinion – we’re in a good place to do this.  

Change gets a bad rap and, generally, people are not very keen on it. I’ve written about it quite a lot. You have to create a movement for embracing this change. 

Put yourself forward  

Meet stakeholders – as many as possible, and listen. Actively listen to complaints, challenges and be non-judgemental. Try to understand why your stakeholders feel the way they do. And you also want to leave them with something to think about. It might be a new approach, like putting user needs first. You get them to see your perspective. 

Digital transformation starts in the mind  

Dan Hon describes the 6 stages of transformation as:  

  1. Denial and isolation (our thing is not broken, we’re the only ones with this problem) 
  2. Anger (we are angry that we’ve been told our thing is broken) 
  3. Bargaining (it’s not that broken, look we’re already fixing it) 
  4. Depression (it’s too hard, we’ll never change) 
  5. Acceptance (things are broken, fault doesn’t matter, what can we do now) 
  6. Transformation (changing things a bit at a time and understanding that there’ll always be relapse)

Give your stakeholders some credit. They know what’s really going on. So, the first thing, according to Dan, is: assume everyone is doing their best. No-one wants to do a bad job. You can probably assume that people are doing the best job they can in the circumstances they’re in. This will be true of your team, and other people you meet along the way. 

The second is acceptance. Unless stakeholders completely accept the circumstances and the facts of the situation, we’re not going to get very far in the long run. Everyone must accept that we’re here now, without blame or judgment.  

The broken hearts club  

For some stakeholders, accepting the current circumstances might be painful and will trigger all sorts of reactions.  

What I saw was that people were fed up with broken promises from previous unsuccessful projects. You may find that these kinds of stakeholders want to believe you, but they are uncertain if your project (that might sound good – just like the others did), will end up in the same place 

When you find many sceptical colleagues in the room, you don’t want to talk negatively about what came before. Just remember to speak in their own language. Coming in and saying that something people have spent time on isn’t very good and that only your project will deliver on won’t help you turn them into advocates for you

Being inclusive 

People support what they help to create. There are no big surprises here. They don’t have to like it, but we do need their buy-in.  

Remember what Tom said? Creating the conditions inside your organisation is the hardest bit. True, true and true! You practice what you preach – you invite people to see your work early, you ask them for their opinions, you find allies that will help turn your story into something that works for the rest of the community. It might take a while but, eventually, people will show interest.  

I know the saying “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission” has become a favourite in digital circles. That’s good advice for teams that are chronically disempowered. But where people are quite happy with acting on their own initiative, Padma Gillen says there is a higher teaching: “Collaborate effectively and support each other. Don’t require forgiveness – it may not be granted.” 

Change is messy  

At ContentEd, I am going to share my experience of trying to do this at the University of Southampton – what’s been hard, what we’ve learned and what’s next. I am hoping to talk candidly about what the business case doesn’t tell you… Why change is messy and delivery is even messier!

See you at ContentEd!  

Ayala discussed how to plan your project after the approval process at ContentEd 2019. 

If you’d like to advance your knowledge of content strategy, you can find out more about ContentEd, book a ticket to our next conference, or take a look at our blog.


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