Your assignment: get a project through your company’s approval process.
It usually feels like an uphill battle to win approval for a marketing project. As one marketer told me,
“I’m supposed to be director of marketing. But most days, my job feels like director of getting approvals that are almost impossible to get.”
Over the years, I’ve seen many well-done marketing and communications projects get delayed in approval hell for weeks or even months.
All because one person would not say, “Yes.”
You hear every excuse for slow responses to review requests.
- Is too busy.
- Has many higher priorities.
- Knows that you don’t have the subject-matter expertise to argue with him or her.
- Needs to check something with a client or boss.
- Must resolve an unsettled dispute first.
So, you get no response. And your project gets stuck in approval hell.
Marketing is responsible for running the trains on time, but everyone on the approval list has a hand on the emergency brake. Anyone outside marketing can stop the approval train any time, on a whim.
Welcome to approval hell. How can you escape?
Here are four ideas for how to escape approval hell and get marketing projects back on track.
These hard-won lessons come from decades of managing approval processes for marketing, employee, news media and investor communications. One or more of them may work for you.
1. Convene all the approvers and win advance agreement on the mission, strategy and message.
Often, approval delays have nothing at all to do with your particular project. Instead, they stem from a lack of alignment in the company about marketing’s role, or they fall victim to various internal political disputes.
When you’re new to a job, don’t wait for your first project to go to the approval process.
Instead, convene the key decision-makers and get their input up front. You’ll probably hear how hard it is to schedule a meeting with all the top people. Insist on this meeting anyway — it’s your ticket out of approval hell.
When meeting time comes, take half a day or a whole day to align and agree on the strategic elements of marketing. It’s absolutely worth the time and effort, since these hard-won agreements can save you oodles of time you’ll otherwise spend in approval hell.
Focus on winning alignment by co-creating strategy in real time in these areas:
- Marketing mission: Spell out what exactly you will deliver, to what audience, on which topics, and how it will help them succeed. Use this one-page marketing mission template.
- Marketing strategy: Identify the company’s objectives and goals, align marketing strategies and metrics with the company needs, and flesh out details about your audience and calls to action. Use this one-page marketing strategy template.
- Message Map. By agreeing on one consistent message for a company (or product) up front, you head off nitpicking that can emerge in reviews. Here’s more on Message Maps.
It may be infeasible politically for you to convene this team by yourself. In that case, enlist help from a sponsor or boss. Bring in an outside facilitator to resolve differences and act as a change agent.
2. Don’t get trapped in battles between subject-matter experts.
People use marketing approval processes to air their disputes about the business, products, technology and customers. When they disagree on a fact, an interpretation or a worldview, subject-matter experts (SMEs) may face off in a battle – casting your marketing project into approval hell.
Since marketers may lack the technical expertise of the engineers or lawyers who are doing battle, we can’t resolve such disputes on our own. But we also can’t afford to let stalemates make our projects fall behind schedule.
Here’s what you can do when there’s a battle brewing: Convene an urgent conference call with all the approvers to hash out their disagreements in front of the others, in the light of day.
Just convening the call may cause one side to back down. But if no one backs down, use the call to have their ideas duke it out publicly. Make both sides present their best arguments, and use the other call participants as a jury.
In the end, the obstacle may turn out to be a simple misunderstanding. Or it may be a serious disagreement that must be mediated by a team that can reach a decision and make it stick.
Don’t take sides in SME battles on topics you aren’t expert on. It’s better for marketing to show up like Switzerland – absolutely neutral about the debate and its outcome. Facilitate the call and enable the others to work it out. Don’t get trapped in the middle of the battle.
3. Set firm deadlines for approvals. Default to action, not paralysis.
When you have an agreed mission, strategy and message — and you follow them — make the assumption that your marketing project is good to go. Inform reviewers that they have a fixed amount of time (an hour, a day or a week, depending on the needs of the business and the needs of the moment) to complete a review and respond.
If reviewers don’t respond in the allotted time, move the project forward with or without their input. As reviewers start to see that marketing’s default mode is to move ahead, they learn to respond in a timely manner with key input.
When reviewers see that marketing can’t or won’t move forward without their ok, your project can get stuck in approval hell forever. Ugh.
4. Hold people to their agreements.
Now that you have a pre-agreed mission, strategy and message; a way to meet mediate disputes as a neutral party; and a way to enforce review deadlines by making action the default mode, you must hold people to these agreements.
Don’t let any one approver hijack the company’s mission, strategy, message, SME agreements or deadlines. Insist on upholding each agreement that has been put in place.
If all else fails …
If all else fails, present your reviewer your “Escape from Approval Hell” card. Maybe you’ll get a laugh that springs your project out of approval hell.
Feel free to print as many cards as you need. Here’s a spare one you can keep in your wallet:
That’s how projects can escape approval hell, even in big companies.
These 4 ideas help you get your projects out of approval hell. I hope they make your job more bearable, perhaps even joyful, again.
As a marketing change agent, I consult with clients, lead content marketing workshops for the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), and write the weekly Simplify Marketing blog.
With experience from Fortune 500 companies such as AT&T, RR Donnelley and Tellabs, I've been named:
- Content Marketer of the Year by the Content Marketing Institute.
- Best Marketer by BtoB magazine.
- A B-to-B CMO to watch by Fierce CMO.
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