Thought Leaders and Gatekeepers

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Christopher G. Fox

I find myself often thinking about gatekeepers in organizations and the role they play in thought leadership operations.

The bigger an organization gets, the longer the chain from idea to realization. In that world, people still live with the vestiges of Taylorism and an assembly-line mentality, even when it comes to creative work and knowledge work.

There’s a rationale behind it. Executives of billion-dollar banks should not be setting up email campaigns, entering content into a CMS, or posting on social media. These are “hands on the keyboard” roles that would be a poor use of their time. It makes sense for digital specialists to act as gatekeepers for these tasks.

Similarly, legal and compliance review requires a specialized skill set, one that a regulated environment makes essential. For many legitimate reasons, these gatekeepers play a crucial role in the process.

In the future, automation may replace some or all of these gatekeeper roles, but they are staffed by humans for now. That’s where the difficulty starts and why gatekeeper roles end up on my mind when I think about thought leadership effectiveness.

First, as humans, gatekeepers have opinions and preferences. As humans, they don’t always remain impassive. Because of that, as gatekeepers, they can slow or stop the process — even in areas beyond their discretion or in matters of style and creative direction.

Second, gatekeepers specialize in their function rather than in the subject matter of the business. When it comes to the expertise that propels a robust thought leadership campaign, they don’t have the knowledge or the frame of reference to add value in critiquing campaign content, even if they want to put their mark on it somehow.

Third, gatekeepers responsible for the last tactical steps in getting an idea into the market typically have just a few years of professional experience. They may be competent at their jobs, but competence does not equate to wisdom. Wisdom includes the flexibility to see nuance where checklists and best practices don’t apply.

Ultimately, what I’m saying is that organizations get in their own way and erode their operational effectiveness when gatekeepers call the wrong shots, outside the purview of their gatekeeping responsibility. It happens because there is ambiguity in governance.

When organizations do not clearly map out who can make which decisions and under what circumstances, everyone ends up with veto rights. That messiness is exacerbated by the natural human inclination to have opinions and preferences and the difficulty of preventing those from spilling into bias.

These factors compound to impede thought leadership operations beyond any degree that risk management could justify. From there, the messiness chokes off initiative. Passion dies, and your best voices go silent.

In many larger organizations, cleaning up this mess is long overdue. Operational effectiveness in creating and publishing thought leadership is essential in competitive, ideas-driven industries.

The solution?

  1. Design processes and decisions as components in the same underlying goal.
  2. Be rigorously, ruthlessly clear about who contributes what and when and who owns the final decision.
  3. Codify decision rights in a meaningful way.
  4. Implement.
  5. Optimize — strip out every unnecessary step and cut every situation where people’s power or responsibility is a mismatch for their decision rights or job roles.

It takes a whole lot of discipline to do this and a whole lot of courage to look honestly at so many years and layers of bureaucratic sediment; it takes effort and resolve. But the payback is enormous.

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