The five stages of CMS grief

CMS CouchAn enterprise web content management project may look good on paper, but it’s not all rainbows and roses for everyone in the organization. In fact, there are folks probably getting along just fine managing their own web fiefdom.

While a unified CMS strategy can be smart for the organization, it takes control away from independent web authors, changing web publishing life as they know it forever.

Dealing with the loss of total web authoring control and conforming to new rules can be tough for anyone. Coming to accept (and even love) the benefits of a new platform can take some time.

We’ve identified five stages of CMS grief that can occur though this transition. Organizations that can spot the signs will be better equipped to help make the process smoother.


The first step can be a quiet one. You likely just announced that the upcoming CMS project will “completely change the way we do things on the web — bringing everything into a single CMS and one consistent user experience.”

At this stage most web authors will simply ignore the project and hope it goes away like most over ambitious IT projects. They have probably seen similar initiatives crash and burn. Even in a worst case scenario, they figure it will be at least a year before anything starts to happen.

Signs: Things seem to be going a little too well. You’ve gotten very few comments or feedback after the initial announcement.

Cure: Have a well communicated project plan and give folks some small action items out the gate to make them part of the process.  Start a wiki or website to provide updates, encouragement and guidance each step of the way.


After the initial denial, you may start to see some fireworks. The CMS project after all is making some real traction. The new unified design is set and early training classes are underway.

The web authors realize the project is here to stay and start to get vocal. You get an earful on why the system will never work and how it will destroy everything folks have been building for years.

While a mistake not to listen, it’s important to separate the rational dissenters from the rabble rousers. Office politics will come into play as angry departments send complaints up through the ranks. It’s a chaotic and emotional period for everyone. Projects can often be stopped in their tracks right here.

Signs:  You’re having a lot of meetings to re-justify the project. Your inbox is overflowing with reasons the chosen CMS won’t work.

Cure: Genuinely listen to the issues and set realistic expectations for the transition. Have the data to back up the decisions and clearly articulate the value to the organization.


Cooler heads have prevailed and folks are getting smarter about dealing with the change. Your web authors are deep into training and starting to understand how the new CMS works. In fact, they are finding creative ways to work around the guidelines in building out their sites.

They propose template tweaks to better accommodate their own brands, or even plead to develop microsites that sit outside of the main site structure. It’s all well intentioned, but this stage involves a careful balance of maintaining structure and satisfying the real demands of your extended web community.

In cases of extreme bargaining, web authors may circumvent the new CMS altogether, finding their own servers and building out a site that conforms to some of the new standards.

Signs:  Someone asks for a copy of the HTML or the Photoshop file of the new designs.

Cure:  Have a well planned information architecture that accommodates an acceptable level of flexibility. Schedule drop-in labs to work side by side with end users.


All the bargaining can lead to some sad faces around the office.  After all, compromises have been made across the board.  The pixel perfect design concepts at the start of the project probably didn’t quite pan out as planned with the real content.

Frustration with the CMS sets in as web authors can’t replicate the old ways of managing web content.  Nobody is entirely happy and the many months of hard work are taking a toll on morale.

However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. A launch day is officially announced and folks are starting to plan some well deserved vacations.

Signs: Comparing the current site to the original design concepts. Off color nicknames about the usability of the new CMS.

Cure:  Start organizing a good governance plan and organize the web authors into a team for peer support. Identify and give extra attention to web authors who “get it” and give them a role in supporting their peer group for training and transition activity.


While it may have been a roller coaster ride, the new CMS is actually starting to work fairly well. The stickiest issues have been ironed out and all the content has been migrated.

Everyone involved starts to look ahead to new and exciting post-launch initiatives.  While traces of resentment exist, folks are more comfortable with the new CMS and are looking forward to seeing it launch.

Signs: Someone creates a web team t-shirt.

Cure:  Time to dust of that list of phase two items!

How have individuals dealt with a new content management system inside your organization? Leave a comment and share your story.

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

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One response… read them below or add one.

  1. Richard says:

    EXCELLENT article.  Our project is obviously in the denial stage!

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