It was the philosopher Laozi who spawned a million motivational posters when he said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

It’s a great motto except that it glosses over the fact that, for many media houses, it’s precisely that first step that is the most daunting. This is particularly true when the journey is one of deep-rooted transformation such as digital integration which, for many, means navigating alien terrain, and, on the way, redefining what progress means.

Integrating digital transformation into a corporate strategy requires a specific plan.
Integrating digital transformation into a corporate strategy requires a specific plan.

It is often not surprising that so many newsroom change projects end up stuck on the starting blocks, or else haring off randomly with little or no focus on the end goal and the big picture.

Transformation is daunting, but experience in dozens of newsrooms across the world tells us that there is a systematic route to success. Only, it doesn’t begin with a single step. It begins with three.

Step 1: Paint a powerful picture for the entire organisation.

Imagine the day three years from now when someone very important comes to visit your enterprise. What will you show her? As you walk your media house and show it off, what will you be describing in terms of editorial, marketing, commercial, people, and technology? What, exactly, will it look like, down to the numbers of chairs in the room and the figures on the spreadsheets in accounts?

Many transformation projects start off with only vague and isolated ideas for their future. For example, “We must buy a new system that will make us a digital company” or “We will start a series of apps that will solve our digital revenues questions.”

We have seen more success where every department goes through a thorough process of defining in a powerful and tangible picture of how its future success should look.

At its core, this picture includes a clear idea of what the results should look like from the outset, focusing on market developments and customer expectations. Competitor developments, technological developments, regulations, and even political considerations must all feature in this final picture.

And, even if we can’t predict the future, educated assumptions help so we begin to answer the questions of what products, people, organisation, and technology will be needed.

The New Zealand Herald, for instance, started off with about a dozen distinct statements that paint a picture of the future to bring the entire organisation on to the same page of where it wants to go.

Such statement were: “Audience focus and content planning are integral parts of our journalistic culture” and “All our editorial staff are proficient to create and produce content for at least two platforms of the New Zealand Herald brand in the same high quality.”

The art is to strike a balance between being sufficiently concrete so as to be useful but not so restrictive that you limit creativity. It is important that all staff are able to digest these statements and see from the start how this process could have meaning for them. At this stage, it’s mainly about getting a shared picture and a commitment across the entire organisation.

Step 2: Decide what aspects of the organisation will be affected and how these aspects interrelate.

Once a clearly defined future-picture has been created, it’s important to look at the next stage. This involves identifying what aspects of the organisation will be affected, and, equally important, how these aspects influence each other. Some aspects of transformation stand out — technology and people, for example — which can lead to organisational tunnel vision if the focus is isolated.

For instance, a decent technology specification is not possible if the workflows are not defined. The workflows, on the other hand, depend on the products and services the media house wants to offer: the products themselves with their architecture and design depend on the target groups, and so on.

Market, products, people, workflows, structures, infrastructure, and technology are not separated parts. They are just different angles and views on the same thing.

CN Group in the United Kingdom defined six different so-called project streams that comprised of the relevant aspects of the change programme. They called them, for instance, audience, revenues, technology, and content. Kleine Zeitung in Austria had three major streams, which focused on product transformation, structures, and newsroom architecture and tools.

In both cases, the relationships between the aspects and streams were analysed and defined to keep the eyes on the whole picture and not to run into walls because we didn’t look left or right. There is never just a “CMS project” or “relaunch” or a “training programme.”

Especially when there are fundamental changes planned and implemented in a transformation project, the success is to get all aspects right, not just one or two.

Step 3: Decide and define now who is going to do this.

Every idea or concept, no matter how visionary, is only as good as the people who put it in place. Experience tells us over and over again that only a dedicated person with clear responsibility can successfully steer transformation.

It’s an enduring myth that these complex operations can be done in tandem with a day job. It is just not possible, and it is certainly unfair to a person to expect them to do their day job while also managing transformation.

One other issue to bear in mind while assigning responsibility is that transformation is about finding solutions, not simply administering change. That means you will need project management skills, but that doesn’t mean an individual who is a genius with MS Project is right for the task.

The key individual(s) will need to be able to get their hands dirty with proven problem solving abilities, have the right experience and mandate, and be highly respected throughout the organisation.

This brings many media organisations to a difficult position. Traditionally a media house has no transformation specialist or a pool of project managers or a large number of true leaders than can easily be taken out of the daily business. So what to do?

New Zealand Herald, again, for instance, hired new people with the right skills to get the right resources in place. It created a mix of new people from outside with a proven track record of managing successful media transformation processes and took a couple of internal people to form the project team. And the vast majority of them worked 100% on the project. The result was that the project progressed on time, and the quality of the output was high.

The team that worked at the first fully integrated newsroom transformation project back in 2006 at the Telegraph Media Group consisted of six people who worked full time for a year on the integrated newsroom concept and newsroom design.

All of this may sound daunting but a true grip on the big picture can only come from an understanding of all of these elements. If any of them aren’t in focus yet, then it’s time to take a harder look. Where publishers have taken the effort to embrace all three steps from the word “go,” then transformation is on track with a strong foundation, and, no matter how far reaching, success is more likely.