A 12-step approach to move from content chaos to recovery


"Hi, my name is Big Corporation and I’m a content addict."

  • By Kathy Wagner
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  • Nov 23 2016
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  • Categories: Articles

Many, if not most, companies have an unhealthy relationship with their content. They’re addicted to creating content—always more and more—long after it’s become a problem. They have dysfunctional relationships between teams, blaming others and denying responsibility. They feel out of control and overwhelmed and don’t know what to do about it.

As a content strategist, I love frameworks that help organizations be better at content. Through a person very near and dear to me, I’ve recently come across a framework designed to move people from active addiction into long-term recovery. I see a lot of parallels between addiction and how organizations manage their content and the steps needed to recover from the chaos of content dependence.

Yes, there are 12 of these steps. People have strong opinions about 12 Step programs, but whether you love them, hate them, or have never heard of them, I think they have a lot of wisdom to offer the content world. So, here’s a very brief introduction to the 12 Steps dramatically adapted (some would say bastardized) to apply to content recovery—also known as content strategy.

Step 1: We admit that we are powerless over our content and it’s become unmanageable

A lot of us have a hard time believing we’re powerless over our content. How can we be? It’s our job to make content, to approve content, to manage content. We may be accountable for all content and therefore have all the power. Right? Not necessarily. We need to ask ourselves these questions:

  • Have we tried to make changes to content but were unable to carry them out or unable to sustain them over time?
  • Have we tried to make content decisions that we had no actual authority or ability to execute?
  • Have we tried, unsuccessfully, to get senior management or other teams to understand that there’s a better way to make content?
  • Are we continuing to see the same problems in our content no matter what we do?
  • Do we currently create content in a way that’s chaotic and stressful for ourselves or our team?
  • Does the sheer volume of content make it unmanageable?

If we answer “yes” to any of these questions, we have a problem that we can’t deal with alone. If we could have, we would have.

Step 1 is admitting we have a content problem and need help.

Step 1: We admit that we are powerless over our content and it’s become unmanageable Click To Tweet

Step 2: We believe that there is something bigger than us that can restore us to content sanity

This is where content strategy comes in. As an approach. A discipline. A community. Being able to remove our organizational blinders and see what’s happening in the content strategy world is enlightening. Connecting with other companies who’ve recovered from content chaos and listening to their stories is inspiring. And talking to content strategy experts who’ve helped other organizations to recover provides hope.

We see that there’s a whole discipline built around helping organizations to improve their content and that the content strategy community, ideologies, and practices can help us.

Step 2 is believing that content strategy can help.   

Step 3: We make a decision to turn our content over to the care of content strategy

This is not just a decision, but a commitment. It’s a commitment to invest the time, budget, and resources needed to get started now, evolve our approach as we go, and keep things on track in a sustainable way over time. It’s a commitment to practice content strategy in-house and continually strengthen our content practices. If we’re not already a content strategy expert, we benefit from having a sponsor – I mean consultant – to help us get and stay on track, to hold us accountable, and to coach us through the inevitable tough times.

Step 3 is asking for help and committing to doing what’s needed.

Step 4: We make a fearless and searching content inventory and audit

Now the actual work begins. When we think about this one, we often feel fear, uncertainty, guilt, shame or simply feel overwhelmed. These feelings may seem odd in the context of content, but they happen all the time. I know a content manager who quit his job after doing this step because he felt so guilty about seeing the same content problems that were there when he started six years earlier. Most of us feel some degree of shame or embarrassment in the current state of our content. So, even though it’s only content, and it’s not personal, there may be an emotional element that we need to push through.

First, we figure out the full scope of the content we’re dealing with and can commit to changing. Then we list the characteristics of the content: good and bad, qualitative and quantitative. We learn from the many articles out there on content audits — we may even buy a great book on content audits. We can’t fix problems we don’t know about, so we don’t hold back. We’re honest and detailed, but also gentle and understanding with ourselves and others. The point is to understand, not cast blame.

Step 4 is creating a detailed content inventory and audit.

Step 5: We admit the exact nature of our content problems to others

Sometimes it’s tempting to look at the audit and not show it to anyone. We can slowly pick away at making improvements as time allows, right? Wrong. We need to share this burden with others who will understand, help us, and hold us accountable.

We make it our mission to communicate our content successes and problems with humility, openness, responsibility, and honesty.

We communicate them to our executives to help them understand the realities and challenges of content. We reach out to the content strategy community to get their support and advice. We share our insights with our team to get them on board to make changes, together.

Step 5 is communicating with others, taking responsibility, and building strong relationships.

Step 6: We’re ready for content strategy to work its magic

Okay, content strategy is not magic but, when we trust the process, magical things can happen.

In this step, we’re ready to give up our current methods, approaches, or mindsets around content that aren’t working, so that new practices and the content strategy community can guide us to where we need to be.

It’s about letting go of the barriers, roadblocks, excuses, and fear. It’s about letting go of the need to control everything (how well has that worked for us, anyway?) and to stop being a victim of situations beyond our control. This step isn’t easy—it takes practice and an understanding and acceptance of the things we cannot change. “Live life on life’s terms” is a phrase that’s used in recovery to acknowledge that life can throw difficult situations and circumstances at us, and we need to accept them and continue to do our best. We don’t turn difficulties into excuses.

Step 6 is letting go of anything that doesn’t support our content recovery.   

Step 7: We trust that change can, and will, happen.

Trust in the process is critical because it’s impossible to understand or predict every application and outcome of content strategy. We won’t know exactly what it’s like, or precisely how it will work for us, until we’re in it. We need to trust the process and jump in with both feet.

We trust that we’ll keep the uniquely wonderful aspects of our team culture and personality, even as we change the parts that aren’t working. We trust in the gradual evolution and increasing success of our content and approach. We understand there will be good days and bad, and that it will take time.

Step 7 is trusting in the process so that we follow it long enough to see lasting success.

Step 8: We make a list of the people that our content has harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.

Unless we’re in very specific industries, most of the damage we do through content is minimal. Nobody dies. Nobody loses limbs or family or friends because our content is bad. But it still has an effect. To fix bad content, we need to understand its impact on customers, our teams, and ourselves, and be willing to make it right. We ask ourselves:

  • Have we been wasting our customers’ time by not giving them the information they need, when and where they need it? Are we making them work harder than necessary because our content is not easy to find, understand, or act on?
  • Have we failed to help our management or executive team to drive business success through content?
  • Have we created a poor work environment for our content team and other departments through unclear content processes, role and responsibilities, or expectations? Have we expected too much from our teams, and provided too little training or inadequate support tools?
  • Have I set unrealistic goals for myself and caused myself unnecessary stress and anxiety? Have I underachieved and delivered work I’m not proud of?

Step 8 is identifying the people who’ve been impacted by poor content and the ways that its made their life difficult.

Step 9: We make amends to the people our content has harmed, except when to do so would injure them or others

For those in recovery from addiction, this can be a difficult but immensely rewarding step. For content people, it’s easier – to make amends, we simply need to stop doing damage.

For us, the “except when to do so would injure” part means that we don’t create more junky content to tell people that we’re going to stop making junky content. We don’t draw attention to ourselves (or our company) by telling people that we’re going to talk less about our company. We just quietly, continuously, do the right thing. It also refers to not hurting ourselves or our company. For example, we don’t create amazing content that’s way over budget. We’re thoughtful and responsible in our actions.

Many people in recovery choose to communicate their commitment to make amends through an amends letter. In a business setting, a letter wouldn’t be appropriate but we still need to write it down. This becomes our most basic value system for content. We review our Step 8 work and flip those items to find our guiding principles for content recovery. Acting on these principles is how we make amends for our previous wrongs.

Step 9 is breaking our bad content habits and creating good content with integrity.

Step 10: We continue to take our content inventory and when we are wrong, promptly admit it

In this step, we continually evolve our content practices. We regularly measure, monitor, assess, and communicate. We build on our content strengths, understand our weaknesses, and keep moving forward.

This is an important step because it allows us to accept our content as less than perfect, take responsibility for it, and not take it personally. It’s just part of our content process. Faults are to be expected, found, and improved upon.

Step 10 is continually improving our content.

Step 11: We seek to improve our knowledge and understanding of content strategy

This is the step that takes us from confusion to clarity, from defeat to empowerment.

In content strategy, as in anything else, there are times to speak up and times to give in. Times to wait and times for action. Not knowing what to do often prevents us from doing anything. Having a content strategy community or consultant to reach out to helps us to take positive, measured, and thoughtful movement forward when we may be otherwise stuck. Reading and professional development gives us the skills to move forward with confidence.

In recovery, a big part of this step is meditation or prayer. For us, we remember that it’s only content. Nobody’s going to die. We take time away from work problems, create some space, and don’t get too invested in specific outcomes. It’s amazing how much easier the solutions come when we’re rested.

Step 11 is staying connected with the content strategy community and taking time to breathe.

Step 12: We carry the message to others in need and practice the principles in all our content

Now it’s our turn to give back to the community that helped us get this far. We don’t have to be cutting edge content gurus, we just need to share our experience in a way that provides hope or inspires others to make better content.

It’s not entirely altruistic. Teaching what we’ve learned helps us to understand the lessons on a deeper level. Giving to the community makes us an integral part of it. Seeing other people inspired by our accomplishments helps us to see how far we’ve come. When people look to us as a role model, it becomes less likely that we’ll relapse to our old bad habits.

This is also the time to look beyond our successes to date and see if we can extend our new content practices to other areas.

Step 12 is giving back to the community and extending our success.

We’re not finished yet. We never are.

We may have completed the 12 Steps, but the work doesn’t end here. We work through the steps again whenever we have a new, major content project or concern. We revisit specific steps as needed, and regularly return to Step 4, 9, and 12. We live in Step 10. The Steps are a simply a framework we use to keep us focused on positive and continual change and growth.

What do you think about a 12-Step program for content practices and approaches in your workplace? Find us on Twitter or LinkedIn and let us know.

If you want more information about 12-Step programs, there’s a wealth of information online, in bookstores, and in meeting rooms near you. For this article, I borrowed from Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text and Codependents’ Guide to the Twelve Steps. If I’ve made a mess of any of the fundamental principles, I apologize. Please let me know and I’ll make it right.

Further reading

The content strategy conversation is skewed, and that’s a problem

Growing your business? Take a time out from content

Our content strategy services