The Ownership Obstacle to Content Strategy and 5 Ways to Handle it

The term “ownership obstacle” emerged recently from a brief discussion during a content strategy meetup. Several members of the group agreed that it often impedes the implementation of a content strategy. What is it? More importantly, what can you do about it?

See the Obstacle

An ownership obstacle represents actions on the part of someone engaged in your content project that are “territorial.” That is, they’ve become possessive of a particular aspect of the project, or even an entire piece of the content framework or system. In effect, they are saying, “I own this; I will do with it what I think best; and you can’t/shouldn’t interfere.” Or more simply, “I don’t have to listen to you.”

For content strategists, most of whom are collaborative by nature, this attitude is at best perplexing. At its worst, it can stop a content project cold in its tracks.

Here are some ways a content team might throw an ownership obstacle at your content strategy:

  • Repeatedly complaining that a new content strategy “won’t work” for their area of expertise or responsibility.
  • Refusing to work with a colleague from another team or a colleague who previously developed “other” types of content.
  • Working exclusively in their own “sandbox” but not sharing with others who have dependencies on or potential inputs to that content.
  • Routinely publishing content before it has completed a full development cycle, thus opening up the whole project to the charge of delivering poor quality.

Recognize the Instinct

What drives someone to be territorial about content?

Many of us (me included) might jump to the conclusion that this ownership instinct is driven simply by a rejection of authority. We might believe that not only our authority has been challenged but also our expertise. Thus we might be engaging in what Brene Brown calls “unconscious storytelling.”

Yes, rejection, personal or professional, might be part of the “real” story, and that’s unfortunate. But that’s usually not the whole story.

Fear of Change:  Because the impetus for a content strategy is often the need or desire to take content from point A to point Q, territorial behaviors on a content project can be driven by a fear of change. This fear is the nagging little voice in someone’s head that tells them that change is bad, even dangerous. It grows out of an anxiety about the unknown/unknowable and can include feeling isolated or unmoored.

Fear of Exposure/Failure: Another potential driver of territorial thinking might be fear of exposure or failure. This fear is the broad application of self-doubt to the new situation. It’s the worry – often beforehand – that an effort won’t measure up and that the missed mark will incur a severe punishment or loss, including loss of professional standing. Sometimes this fear is accompanied by the worry that work will have to be redone if the team’s output from the new strategy isn’t broadly accepted.

Need for Control/Structure: Last, but not least, is the fact that sometimes folks are driven by a desire for control, which might also manifest as a desire for structure. More psychology is likely at work here than what I am qualified to analyze (ever). But I know from experience that some folks cannot abide ambiguity and uncertainty. So they attempt to “step into the void,” to coin a phrase.

(Please note: For this article, these three descriptions represent temporary, situational fears. Long-standing phobias are not to be dismissed and should be treated by a trained clinician.)

Of course sometimes, the ownership obstacle you encounter can have characteristics of all three drivers. So what is a content strategist to do?

Regain the Impetus

One thing we all have to remember is that we can only influence a situation so much. If the resistance you encounter has at its core a company culture issue, well, do what you can to ease the anxiety. But realize that likely you are not going to change the source issue.

With that caution in mind, try applying one or more strategies in the following five areas to regain impetus when a content project has stalled.

Project Management:  Remember that – ideally – during the stakeholder analysis and alignment phase of a content project, most of the ownership concerns would have been addressed. Your first move should be to point your critics to the service-level agreement (SLA) to ensure that they understand what the stakeholders have agreed to. (SLAs can be internal and/or external.)

Next, dig out the project’s RACI matrix or similar documentation to ensure everyone understands his/her role. Finally, review the dependencies for the project’s deliverables and any related processes – to help the team gain better alignment.

Change Management: If you suspect the resistance is rooted in a fear of change, some good, old-fashioned change management might be called for. When managing change, you can follow any one of at least half a dozen change management models.  All have three important commonalities:

  • Communicating regularly and acting upon feedback
  • Training the team on the how of the change as much as the why*
    (*A better way to lead large-scale change from McKinsey)
  • Promoting acceptance through, for example, team-building and role-modeling activities

Note that most good content project management already incorporates change management. That said, you might want to revisit the change management model used by your organization/client to see what additional tips you can uncover.

Crucial Conversations: To address the fear of failure or exposure, start with the “A” in the RACI matrix – accountability. The folks listed in that column own the success or failure of a task or functional area. If the success of a task/area is at risk, address the risk with the owner in a businesslike way. If you are the owner and are depending on others to deliver, well, then you might want to have one of those crucial conversations that we’ve all heard about. You can find some good tips in Deborah Reigel’s article at Inc.com.

Engagement: To address the need for control and/or structure, recall that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that most folks seek out connection (love) first and then esteem. Sometimes the two overlap or even get confused. So it’s best to untangle them and help folks find common ground – shake some ivory towers, so to speak. One effective way I’ve found is to engage team members in a white-boarding session, through which we sorted out options and planned next steps together.

Wisdom of the Ages:  Sometimes the old adages still apply. In English/American traditions, we say “a barking dog never bites,” so “don’t cut off your face to spite your nose,” and “damn the torpedoes!” In other words, be sensitive, but not overly sensitive, and keep moving the project moving forward.

On a final note, remember that ownership itself is not a bad thing. Taking responsibility for a task and seeing it through to completion is a good thing. You only want to intervene if someone is unnecessarily territorial or uses their ownership to abuse or excuse.

What tips do you have to counter an “ownership obstacle” that has stalled a content project?

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