Yes Starts the Revolution, Doesn’t End It


They said yes. Now what?

In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing for what would become a world-famous visit with China’s leader, Zhou Enlai. During the meeting, Nixon asked Enlai for his thoughts on the impact of the French Revolution. The Chinese premier replied, “It’s too early to tell.”

At the time, the quote was presented as the perfect example of Chinese patience – how they thought about impact and progress in terms of decades and centuries as opposed to months or years. With hindsight, Enlai was likely talking about the more recent French students’ revolts of 1968.

But the point remains the same: Whether in four years or one hundred and seventy-four years, revolutions aren’t won when the bullets stop flying. They are won when the disruptive change being proposed takes hold. The inability to enact lasting change, according to many historians, is one of the reasons so many revolutions ultimately fail. Perhaps this quote attributed to Genghis Khan captures it best: “Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”

In businesses, the challenge of “dismounting and governing” is the source of many failed innovative initiatives – especially in content marketing.

Earlier this year, I worked with a client on a project they’d called “The Content 2018 Revolution.” By early 2019, the initiative had become woefully misnamed. The team had spent the better part of the end of 2017 building a revolutionary business case for content marketing as a dedicated function. They researched, built a prototype thought leadership blog, ran separate ROI experiments, and evangelized passionately at every turn.

And they won. The powers that be said “Yes. Content marketing – go do that.” 

2018 was to be a year spent hiring, creating budgets, integrating new processes into marketing, and building the new thought leadership blog. Unfortunately, that’s when things started to go awry. Implementation bogged down. Technology acquisition ran into budget issues. And balancing the new team’s time devoted to this new process vs. their “day jobs” became a struggle.

But the most pronounced challenge was the company’s perception that content marketing was no longer this specialized, disruptive thing. It had won approval as a strategic marketing function; therefore, it was seen as a part of the overall integrated marketing and communications operation. And the many implementation challenges were seen as an inability to scale it.

The challenge, of course, was not in the vision of the plan alone. It was in the vision of the plan in context with the rest of the business. 

The transition from innovative revolution into scalable governance is messy. Much of the time, you have to institutionalize processes and make decisions that pull back from the disruptive ideas that drove the initial passion. In my client’s case, the incredibly forward-leaning and cool thought leadership platform they had tested, wouldn’t work on the technology available at the enterprise level. They had to settle for a blander, static experience instead.

As revolutionaries transition to governors, they end up having to make exactly the kinds of operating and process-oriented decisions that triggered the desire for the revolution in the first place.        

Winning the “yes” for our innovative new initiative isn’t the last thing. It’s the first thing. Plan for (and recognize the leadership needed for) governing in context with the realities of your business world. That way, once you win, the more prepared you’ll be for what happens after  “yes.”

Once the disruptive, cool factor or innovative sheen wears off your new strategy, it becomes “just another thing we do.” That’s when you know you’ve really won – and the real work begins.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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