The creative process in Corporate America can be chock full of…oh…shall we say…”challenges.”
Last week I heard a respected colleague mention that the challenges of gaining project approvals are even worse now because of the economy. Seriously? Don’t worry. I’m not about to jump on the “blame the economy” bus. But, I will say that the fear brewing inside American jobholders may be exacerbating decision traffic jams that already exist—making approvals and project progress downright painful.
What Causes Approval Gridlock?
No matter what state the economy is in, approval gridlock typically happens for a mix of reasons.
Cause #1: No Clear Audience
Who is your content or design serving? When teams don’t clearly define and commit to who exactly they’re talking to, reviews instantly become unfocused and subjective.
An Audience Definition phase and a resulting reference guide should be in place for all Content Marketing teams before even a smidge of content is produced. Don’t assume this will be something you’ll pound out in a day or delegate to a writer. This process takes time and sets the stage for all your Content Marketing efforts. Don’t skimp. Do it right.
Cause #2: Lack of Planning, Preparation and Communication
This one gives me hives because it is oh-so avoidable. It’s also the most common.
Listen up. Any corners you cut today to “just move on” with getting the creative process going will bite you. A recent study shows that only 3% of content managers, designers and writers have magic wands. Only 4% have mind-reading abilities. Okay…so I made those stats up. Sounds silly, right? Yet, time after time too many project teams jump into the creative process simply “hoping for the best” or insist on taking the “we’ll figure it out as we go” road. Why? Because they lack the discipline, patience or processes.
Give your creative teams the tools they need to deliver awesomeness. Pull together a thorough brief with background, objectives, links, relevant wire frames, examples — everything they need to literally “become one” with the project or task. In addition to informing creative members, it forces the strategic team to think through the details and commit to decisions. Yes, it can be painful. But, it’s a good pain — at least compared to that of dreaded gridlock.
Next, discuss the details in person or by phone whenever possible. That’s right… you actually have to talk to each other to do this right. This gives everyone the chance to ask questions, address gray areas and read the subtle nuances of what the team really wants. Good writers and designers are masters of the nuance-reading. They can be so good, in fact, that others mistake that gift as a magic wand. We’ve already covered that. Don’t go there.
Cause #3: Fear of Failure
This one is simple but mighty uncomfortable to look at. Whether you blame the economy, the state of the company…whatever… the reality is this: When people are afraid of losing their security and their livelihood, they sometimes feel like they must justify their existence. But, let’s be fair. This isn’t limited to approvers. This human-nature response can happen to everyone on the team. Just as the approver feels they must be uber-critical to appear significant to the organization, a writer or designer may over-engineer a simple request in order to feel like their talents are important. This is not to say everyone operates this way. But, where there’s Approval Gridlock, there’s often fear.
- Acknowledge each person’s input and value they bring to the team.
- Revisit the project objectives, goals and direction. These often get lost in the cycles of review.
- Make it safe to “just say yes” to the simple solution. Some teams collectively churn up complexity and feed off one another. Be the voice of reason. Encourage the team to “step back”and see it from a simpler point of view.
Cause #4: Lack of Ownership
Often tied to #2, many team members are afraid to have the buck stop with them so they keep lobbing an approval back over the fence. They fear that if any blame game happens down the road, all eyeballs will be on them. This is often the symptom of deeper cultural or political issues — but the reality is, it exists.
Insist on having one final decision maker for each content area. We find that “breaking up” ownership (Amy owns “A”, Matt owns “B”, etc.) helps ease any pressure. Mapping ownership with expertise on the content also makes sense and causes others to feel proud of what they know. Be sure your agency or Project Manager enforces this ownership.
Cause #5: No Clear Process
We’re all crazy busy. If you don’t make it easy for your team to review and approve content or creative elements, they’ll eventually throw up their hands and stop caring. Their focus on quality and accuracy will quickly become disrupted by unclear next steps, kludgey review parameters and unknown expectations. This often creates a bottleneck and frustration — causing deadlines to pass and approvals to sit dormant.
Ask anyone on the Well Planned Web team about process and they’ll probably get all warm and fuzzy. We are obsessed with it. We believe that great content is born from clear structure, a clearly defined outcome and tons of collaboration. That collaboration requires process. Without process, collaboration dies and quality content dies with it. And, let’s face it…mediocre content becomes words and pictures designed to fill a page. Yikes! Pass the Rolaids.
Be sure your Project Manager clearly defines checkpoints, handoffs and collaboration points. And, by all means, get the review streams OUT of email! Today, project collaboration platforms such as Central Desktop, SharePoint, Huddle and other tools make it easy to create work flows and structure to make reviews efficient and convenient. But, don’t let the tool replace in-person or phone communication. Mark my words — you will run into speed bumps. A good PM flags the trouble spots, facilitates a quick call and gets `er done. A good PM also recognizes when the process needs to be tweaked or refined. It’s critical the team flexes right along with it.
For us, we average 90% of approvals completed within Central Desktop (our tool of choice). But that’s because we have a process for bubbling up the other pesky 10% — which is reassuring for everyone.
Note: Do not assume a traffic manager or coordinator can act as a Project Leader or Manager. Tackling the facilitation of gray area content or “stuck” approvals requires an experienced, proactive and efficient manager who knows Content Strategy and can bring peace to the process, rather than chaos. That’s a special skill — not one that I’ve seen too many traffic managers possess.
What If You’re Still Stuck?
Feel like your team is still cycling round and round?
- Ask yourself, “Is this really gridlock? Or are we genuinely collaborating on a hard concept?” Recognize how to tell the difference between an approval traffic jam and a push for excellence. Many managers and approvers get impatient when teams are further defining a message or exploring ideas — and they often jump in wanting to “fix it.” Sometimes the exploration of certain concepts or ideas are the best thing that can happen to “stuck” processes. However, if this has to happen for every single project for hours at a time, revisit your direction and briefings process.
- Don’t fight an instant approval — Really. It’s okay to say, “Approved” or “I Like It!” In fact, it’s usually the result of clearly defined requirements and goals. If you fear that an instant approval will appear as “lazy,” don’t search for things to nitpick. Take the time to explain exactly why you think the content, design or concept works — mapping it right back to the defined objectives and requirements. It will not only ease the process, it will give the team confidence and make future discussions easier.
- Ask your PM to outline the process once again. Sometimes “stuck” approvals are a symptom of folks just not understanding what they’re supposed to do next. Asking for a review of the process often gets everyone back on track. This is often the time to address any questions with any collaboration tools you may have.
- If you’re outnumbered, let go of the grudge. Sometimes, even if you’re right…you’re just outnumbered. Unless you’re the final owner of the decision, let your peers decide, then let it go.
- Focus on accuracy and facts, not subjectivity. Challenge any team members who stalls an approval based purely on subjectivity. Opinions really are like belly buttons — everyone has one. And, when any of the fears listed above are at play, it can be easy to hide behind opinion rather than aim for a productive solution.
- Ask for someone else to take a stab. If a content producer, writer or designer is struggling and you feel like the team has given absolutely clear, constructive direction, it’s time to move the project or task over to someone else. At first, you may chalk it up to a learning curve . That’s fair. But, if your team has its act together and there’s still a constant struggle, it’s time to review whether he/she is truly the right fit.
Are you a client, content manager or approver? Do you ever face gridlock?