Ironically, a difficult thing for creative marketing and content teams to do is the one thing they want (and must) do frequently: Inject new, creative approaches into their work.
I always see this challenge in my consulting, especially with companies building internal capabilities. In most cases, they do not lack a desire or acknowledgment for more creative ideas, higher-quality content, better-implemented technology, or even more precise strategic objectives. Usually, the challenge arises because they lack a conscious responsibility, charter, or even recognition that the teams can make such fundamental changes.
The team leader may even explicitly encourage them: “We need new energy, creative approaches, something that will get us out of our rut.” But the team struggles to respond. It’s hard to move beyond what they do or think they were hired to do. They believe they are too busy to change to something new, and they’re not wrong or right. They’re not shirking their responsibilities. They just don’t know.
It sounds crazy, given how much marketing content is demanded and created by most businesses. But ask most people in most businesses how they create or innovate their content, they’ll just shrug and say, “We create it. Content just … happens. I do my job. It just works.”
Or, more likely, the team leader ends up outsourcing it.
I’ll come back to that, but let’s first look at why this challenge happens.
Do you ‘ship’ your marketing team?
Almost 25 years ago, Steven Sinofsky, product marketing expert and former president of Microsoft’s Windows division, led the launch of a new version of Microsoft Office. He talks in his podcast about a big lesson he learned, “We were determined to embrace a new mantra: Don’t ship the org chart.”
This invaluable lesson means you should build your offering— whether it’s software like Microsoft Office, a product, a consulting service, or something less tangible like marketing content and customer experiences — to satisfy customer needs and desires. Don’t build it by reflecting on the internal organizational structure, silos, turf battles, budget constraints, or other internal limitations. That takeaway makes sense.
Have you ever dealt with a customer service representative at a large company who must transfer you to another department or, worse, give you a different number to call to facilitate your request? That’s shipping the org chart.
With marketing content, you ship the org chart when a prospective customer registers for the email newsletter and learns in-depth from your brand’s expertise for a few months. Then, one day, they reply to the newsletter email asking to speak with someone to help with a purchase. In return, they get an automated response that includes a phone number for the sales department. And, when the salesperson answers their call, the newsletter subscriber is treated as if they have no idea about what the company does or how it goes to market.
That’s shipping the org chart.
You can’t not ship the org chart
On the surface, Steven’s warning, “Don’t ship the org chart,” can seem like a caution to ensure brands are aware of the experiences they create and run them through a kind of “quality check” to ensure they don’t reflect organizational silos.
But, when Steven says, “Don’t ship the org chart,” he doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ship the org chart. He means the opposite. Avoiding the org chart is unavoidable. You will ship the org chart every time.
It is inevitable. Inescapable. Pre-ordained. In fact, Steven deliberately invokes Conway’s law, an observation made by computer scientist and developer Melvin Conway. In 1968, he noted:
“Organizations that design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”
In other words, your team’s design (how you structure the teams and what they do) is intrinsic to how you communicate. So, changing your manner of communication first requires changing the structure of your communication teams and what they do.
However, that brings up more insidious and truly difficult challenges. To change the structure of your communication teams and what they do, you must know what and how to change.
Adopt a new creative idea supply chain
In businesses large and small, marketing and content teams (your org charts) are usually structured in a linear “creative idea” supply chain. Most don’t, can’t, or won’t originate creative ideas. Idea generation or innovation is usually saved for a precious few.
According to the roles assigned in the org chart, most marketing and content teams are empowered bottom-up. Few, if any, of those roles have anything to do with coming up with creative or innovative ideas.
A classic example of this idea supply chain sees the creative content or marketing team getting their “orders” from other parts of the organization. Primary messaging has been set elsewhere. The format being requested comes from another team. The explicit (or implicit) deadline indicates where and how creative the team can be. Innovation or creativity isn’t a part of the idea supply chain.
Marketing team managers don’t feel they have the right, or frankly the responsibility, to do risky, dumb, or innovative things that could break the idea supply chain. They focus only on what happens locally — their direct manager’s expectations, deadline dates, technological activities on their checklist, etc.
Even if these team leaders are explicitly told to “get energized” or “shake it up,” without a definition of what that means or a change in current approval methods, they see no upside in doing it.
So, what’s a leader to do? They find an innovation and/or creative expert.
And that brings back the outsourcing question.
Remove the old to make room for the new
Smaller marketing teams frequently ask me how they can make the time to do new and full-scale innovative approaches, such as content marketing, a new customer-enablement program, or new technology like generative AI.
Sometimes, they phrase it differently, “How do I get my internal team to break out of their rut and care more about going outside the box, breaking the rules, or just inserting themselves willingly into the creative process?”
They want to know, “How do we stop shipping our current org chart?”
The complaint (and it’s real) originates because the team is so locked in doing what they do (e.g., managing the existing idea supply chain) that they don’t feel or have the will to assume the responsibility to break the mold or devote time or resources to communicating something way outside their org-chart box.
Leaders of both big and small teams tend to outsource the new, innovative thing. They see themselves unable to get out of their own way, so they bring in an external source to help “see the way.” An agency can help them develop a more creative or interesting approach. A subject matter expert can tell what they should be talking about.
Now, to be clear, this isn’t always a bad choice. Hiring a creative expert, consultant, or subject matter expert can help your team see things through a different lens.
However, if you acknowledge (as I said in the beginning) that you don’t lack a desire (or acknowledgment) for more creative ideas, higher-quality content, better-implemented technology, or even more precise strategic objectives, then I would say to do the opposite.
Clear out the old tasks to make way for the new ones. Outsource the things your team knows how to do — the elements of the idea supply chain with which everybody is far too comfortable — and make room for the things they don’t know or have time to do.
Let’s say your team spends most of its time editing executive thought leadership, web copy, and emails, formatting them into blog posts, posting them in the system, and optimizing the technology buttons so everything is just so. Why not outsource that? Hire help for the downstream supply chain, so these marketers must spend more time on the upstream creative aspects of marketing and content ideation.
This strategy sits at the heart of the promise of technology, especially generative AI, for marketing teams. Ironically, many marketing teams spend most of their energy becoming experts at configuring that technology and then creating ideas to put into the tech.
They’re shipping the org chart.
Now, there’s one catch to outsourcing the old to make way for the new, and it’s an ideal place to consider bringing in an outside expert. As a team, you must truly understand the definitions of old and new in your priority experience.
In other words, you can’t just say, “Content happens. We don’t know how,” when someone asks how your creative or innovative stuff is created. You must understand what “new” really means.
Step with these steps
Make room for the new approach with these three steps. First, understand where you are. Then, you can better decide about where you want to go. And then, and only then, can you understand the obstacles in your way.
But when you’re locked into shipping your org chart, external help can make tremendous sense to help you understand where you are. That person will ask all the “dumb” questions to help you recognize the org chart you’re actually shipping.
Remember, you can’t stop shipping the org chart. But you can design an org chart that you want to ship.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute