Overcoming Fear by Teaching

I was in London last week working with one of the largest companies on the planet on a new content marketing strategy. This conservative company is more than 160 years old (at its core), so to say that it’s culture changes slowly is an understatement. Nevertheless, there we were, talking about a fundamental change in the way that they approach the creation of content for marketing purposes.

We talked about making the creation, management, and promotion of content a more strategic function, even elevating it to the same status as some of their product and service lines. We talked about rebooting their 12-person cross-functional content team, transforming it into a full-on media operation.

By the end of our first day together, you could tell that the team was feeling nervous about their chances of success in creating this change. One of them approached me as we broke for dinner and said, “I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re having trouble with what we’re talking about. Maybe we’re thinking too big. Maybe we should bring this change down a few notches.”

Fear was in the air.

I told him that I did notice and that perhaps we should bring the proposed changes down a few notches – and that, after everybody had a chance to sleep on all this, I wanted to try an exercise.

The next day, as the team gathered for breakfast, I had them try the exercise. I paired each of them with a cross-functional peer. A technical product person was paired with a PR person. A content writer was paired with a demand-gen marketer. The VP was paired with the marketing coordinator. Then, I had them pretend that the change we had discussed yesterday had been in effect and successful for the last six months. I asked them to think through the implications, what they had learned in that six months, and to think about how it made them feel. Finally, I asked them to get into their pairs and talk with their colleagues. Each person would take 20 minutes to pretend that their colleague had just started at this company, and they had to teach this person what their job was in this new, changed world. The marketing coordinator had to teach the VP. The product person was to teach the PR person. They had to explain how their jobs worked and what they did.

A wonderful thing happened at the end of the 40 minutes. As we went around the room and started to talk about it, people felt more at ease – more confident – regarding the proposed change. The interchange of positive ideas was palpable. There were some insights about things they might pull back on, but, for the most part, people realized that the change we were talking about was scary only when they couldn’t envision themselves succeeding in it. When people were encouraged to explain and, more importantly, teach the successful realization of the change to someone else, they solved “problems” they had had running in their heads.

This is a small exercise in a larger approach called double-loop learning. The idea of this exercise is that, as humans, we process information differently when we describe to others the application for their circumstances vs. our own.

The more emotional benefit was in highlighting to the team that the positive benefits from the big changes being considered were actually achievable. Their peers could immediately see the successful realization of the change in them, and they could see it in others. It made the prospect of disruption much less daunting.

By the end of the day, while the team did pull back on the timing of some of the changes, people left excited and energized for the changes ahead. And they felt like their learning curve would be shallower because they could apply this same technique: They could overcome their fear about the pending changes by teaching others about them.

Robert Rose
Chief Strategy Officer at The Content Advisory
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS.

Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.
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Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.