two women conducting a search in a web browser
PHOTO: Kobu Agency

“So we want to better organize our content,” the manager told me one day. “Get rid of all the old and irrelevant stuff and rewrite what’s important in more customer-centric language.” Everything sounded good so far. “We want to simplify the navigation and really improve the search.” This manager was making a lot of sense. And then he said, “And we’ll need to deal with services as well.”

“Services?” I was surprised.

He was surprised that I was surprised. “Yes, we have lots of services.”

“And those services have no content?” I asked. He paused and thought for a moment.

“Yes, I suppose, they have …” he was going to continue, but I interrupted him.

“And these services need to be found and understood?”

“Yes, yes,” he replied, a slight weariness in his voice.

This was a good manager who really wanted to do the right thing. But the organization had worn him down. Over time, the organization wears almost everyone down, and those who resist its relentless pressure to conform — to stay within their silo — are nearly always disposed of, demoted or fired. The organization sucks the will to fight out of you, because you know that you cannot change it, that it is the organization that changes you, rips out your enthusiasm and grinds you down.

Except ... except that sometimes organizations do change. Slowly, of course. Organizational evolution is much slower than career evolution. That’s why so many of us think nothing is happening, that all our efforts are in vain. But they are not. Every time we do the right thing, it matters. Every time we raise our voice against traditional organizational thinking, it matters. Every time we explain why the organization must change, it matters. Because now, this period, today, is a moment. It is a moment that does not come along very often. It is a moment when society is shifting, when the world is changing in profound ways. Customers are changing, but organizations are not. Organization must change or else be disposed of, demoted, fired or made redundant.

“Let me tell you what’s happening here,” I said to the manager. “This thing you call ‘content’ is the stuff that you control. This content belongs to your writers. It belongs to the communications and marketing department. Isn’t that so?”

“Yes,” he replied, after several moments of thought.

“And the ‘services’ don’t belong to you. They’re not in you control. They’re probably in multiple organizational silos. In fact, there may be services that your organization provides that you’re not even aware of.”

“You’re probably right,” he said, smiling.

“And you’ve been told by your boss to ‘fix the content.’ And you’ve got a budget to ‘fix the content.’ Am I correct?

“Yeah, I suppose,” he replied.

“But you’re not going to fix the problem that your organization faces. You know that, don’t you? Your customers can’t find what they’re looking for and are coming across lots of replicative, out-of-date information. Even when they get to what they want, either the content is organization-centric or the process is clunky. So, if you want to fix the problem, first we must fix the organization. First rule of thumb is no more content, no more services. Just customer tasks. The organization must organize around the customers’ tasks.”

Now, that’s hard. But it’s not impossible.