Are you trying to build your plane while flying it?

I don’t know where that phrase originated, but a 22-year-old advertising campaign from Fallon for digital consulting firm EDS helped popularize it. The comical TV and print ad showed people assembling an airliner in the air and testifying to how much they love their jobs.

The ad’s tagline explained the point – that EDS could help you “build your digital business even while you’re up and running.”

Fallon created the ad as part of an integrated campaign with two other funny videos: Cat Herders, about managing the complexity of digital business, and Running With the Squirrels, which claimed EDS could help legacy businesses compete like disruptive startups.

But the “building the plane while flying it” metaphor endures in digital strategy, and it’s usually invoked when established processes or procedures change.

These days, it feels like companies are building a whole lot of airplanes.

Some version of this expression comes up in nearly every business I see developing a new content program. Inevitably, the to-do list from the content strategy meeting includes redefining roles and responsibilities, adjusting editorial approaches, setting new workflows, and implementing new technologies.

That’s when frustration sets in.

Teams realize they can’t shut anything down while they work to implement all the new ideas. They still need to publish articles and blog posts, write program materials, launch campaigns and feed content to existing channels using the technologies currently in place.

The real frustration doesn’t arise from the challenge of building the airplane while flying it. It comes from the inability to create new planes because they’re too busy flying the old ones.
Building the plane while flying it is an (overused) metaphor for dealing with #ContentMarketing change. But it doesn’t address the real struggle, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
My advice? Don’t try.

Whenever I hear someone cite the airplane cliché at the end of a content strategy process, I suggest a spin on the metaphor. Don’t try to build another airplane while you’re flying the existing one. Instead, let your existing planes fly while you build an airplane factory.

I recently worked with a client in the B2B financial services space. To say content marketing is hot in that industry is an understatement. Stripe and JP Morgan have made acquisitions, and crypto giant Coinbase announced it will launch its own media operation.

The company I worked with initially planned to tap its digital and PR teams to modify existing PR newsrooms on its website to create new content marketing platforms. But neither the newsroom nor the website itself suited the content marketing strategy. Everything from the website hierarchy to the audiences it attracted to the technology platform it ran would stand in the way of the new content goals.

But the firm’s existing governance processes and values were built to focus all digital efforts (and paid and earned media) on its website – and leaders at first resisted expanding that view.

It was as if the company was saying, “We expect you to bring us into the jet airliner age. But you can only do that by repairing and upgrading our propeller plane while it’s in the air.”

Eventually, the leaders realized the futility of reconstructing the airplane mid-flight. They agreed to create a new content innovation team with new resources, processes, and tech platforms. And once they did, the content project took off.

The existing PR team continued to update and manage the existing content “plane” (the website and newsroom). And the company built a new “factory” (a content marketing strategy) to support additional content platforms.

They didn’t try to change the existing strategy. They built a new one.
Don’t try to change an existing #ContentStrategy to support a new #ContentMarketing program. Instead, build a new one, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Sustaining vs. disruptive innovation

The idea for my airplane factory metaphor comes from Meeting The Challenge of Disruptive Change by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael Overdorf. That article (one of my all-time favorites) explores the difference between sustaining and disruptive innovations.

Sustaining innovations improve something already considered valuable (e.g., deciding to switch to original images instead of stock photography for new blog posts).

Disruptive innovations create something entirely new (e.g., deciding to launch an online university instead of continuing with your blog).

Implementing a new content strategy is always a disruptive innovation.
A new #ContentStrategy is a disruptive innovation, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
The article suggests that when you face this kind of disruptive innovation, you shouldn’t approach it as changing something that already exists. Instead, you should approach it as building something within a new organizational space.

That’s what my financial services client did. And I’ve found it particularly helpful whenever I’m advising a company that wants to develop a content marketing platform and content strategy.

I know content practitioners are a scrappy, resourceful, and innovative crew. Requests to build the content equivalent of new airplanes come in all the time, and many content teams can hack planes together and manage some sustaining repairs and changes mid-flight.

But when it comes to rolling out a content strategy, it’s more productive to set a new space for it. In the article, Christensen and Overdorf outline three ways to create this new organizational space:

  1. You can create a new team within the existing organizational structure.
  2. You can spin out a new and independent organization from the structure.
  3. You can acquire a different organization that becomes a new part of your existing structure.

Creating space for a new content strategy

Every successful new content strategy follows one of those three options. Here are some examples of each approach.

  1. A new content team. When a new content team gets formalized, named, and documented, the chance of content marketing success immediately improves. Red Hat offers a great example. Laura Hamlyn (2019 B2B Content Marketer of the Year) created a new strategic team to handle all the organization’s content. The team has grown to more than 50 people (from the original six).
  2. A new organization. When content becomes its own function in an enterprise, it can grow into a powerful new business model. At the Cleveland Clinic, for example, what started as an embedded team within marketing has now become a separate, independent function. It operates its Health Essentials and Health Library as individual products, which drive revenue and support the organization’s marketing needs.
  3. A newly acquired group. I mentioned a few acquisitions in the Financial Services space already. Another example is HubSpot’s acquisition of The Hustle newsletter, one of several content-related purchases the software maker has made.

The key term in all these ideas is “new.” You’re establishing a new organizational structure – an airplane factory, if you will – to design, manufacture, and launch new things. You’ll need to work on training, socialization, and market acceptance. But that’s different from trying to fly an existing airplane as you build it.

Trying to build an airplane while it’s flying is a good problem – it means you’re already flying. But if you expect to stay in the air, you occasionally have to come back to earth and build something new from the ground up.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Rose-Colored Glasses is a new weekly column in which Robert Rose shares his view of content marketing challenges. Every Friday, he offers reasoning, rationale, and rhetoric to help you advance the practice of content marketing in your organization.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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