News publishers should beware these 5 barriers to organisational change

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


As publishers navigate the uncertainty of digital transformation, it’s critical to have a roadmap to guide them. 

During the INMA Media Subscriptions Town Hall on Thursday, members heard from David Rogers, a professor at Columbia Business School and author of multiple books. His most recent book,The Digital Transformation Roadmap: Rebuild your organization for continuous change, examines how businesses must adapt to a rapidly changing, technology-driven world. 

In a conversation with INMA Readers First Initiative Lead Greg Piechota, Rogers tailored his comments to the news media world and explained what organisations should work on to thrive.

He frequently referenced The New York Times’ transformation journey, noting that publishers of all sizes can benefit from its tactics.

“The specifics of what your business model is going to look like — what your market is, who your customers are — is going to vary,” he noted. “But I think what every media company has to do like The New York Times is to start by focusing on the customer’s needs and looking carefully at what is our value proposition to them. Why are they even reading us, watching us, listening to us?”

It’s vital as an organisation to have what he calls the North Star Impact: a clear sense of purpose and what the company wants to accomplish. Every company needs to have a guiding vision of why it exists and what it does better than any other organisation. To define that, Rogers often asks CEOs and boards to answer one question: Why would the world miss you if you were gone?

At the same time, leaders must focus on rebuilding the current business model to embrace digital transformation and make it financially sustainable in the future. The New York Times, for example, has created profitable verticals like Wirecutter and The Athletic, as well as its games and cooking subscription options.

“Look at what are new business models that we can build and experiment with that may be able to further bolster the economics of news — because the economics of news is extremely, extremely tough,” he said.

Five barriers to organisational change

Making such changes clearly requires organisational changes, and Piechota asked Rogers what barriers he had seen in this area. 

Organisational change has been an area of heavy focus in recent years, and he discovered it’s not specifically a media problem: At least 70% of digital transformation efforts fail to add lasting value to the company. And as Rogers studied the differences between companies that failed at digital transformation and those that succeeded, he discovered five underlying root causes of failure.

“In every company I see struggling with digital transformation, one or more of these things is at play,” he said.

  1. Lack of shared vision. Oftentimes, the vision has not been clearly defined or shared or understood by everyone in the organisation. “There needs to be a clear understanding of where we are going and why,” Rogers said.
  2. Lack of priorities. The ever-expanding digital universe offers “a million opportunities and directions to go in,” Rogers noted. “We're seeing this now with this sort of excitement around generative AI and everyone has 100 ideas.” However successful companies will stay focused on their priorities instead of getting caught up in the excitement of the next shiny thing.
  3. Failure to embrace experimentation. Oftentimes organisations get in the rut of following established procedures and are reluctant — or simply don’t know how — to test and learn as they try new things. “This is absolutely critical, [given] the level of uncertainty we’re facing with every new digital opportunity,” Roger said.
  4. Governance. Oftentimes, companies remain fixed in what Rogers referred to as a “business as usual” way of operating, allocating resources, etc.
  5. Capabilities. Companies that are hoping or seeking to transform must invest in the technology, talent, and culture needed to succeed in the long term.

The companies that succeed, he said, prioritise those five issues. They must stem from vision: “This change of any organisation is going to be an iterative process, but it sort of flows from the vision. You start with needing to align people in the organisation around a distinct view of where is your world going?”

With that vision, media companies and the people who work in them can define what role they will play in the future and then take ownership, accountability, and responsibility to drive that transformation.

“It is critically important to define this and make sure that everyone in the organisation is aligned around it and motivated by it and sees that they themselves, at every level of your organisation, are going to be the ones who make this happen, who make it succeed or fail,” Rogers said.

Driving company-wide change

To create an environment that supports change, Rogers said companies need to look at two critical kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Both are important but serve different purposes.

Intrinsic motivation speaks to purpose and mission — the “why are we doing this” and “what impact will we have on readers’ lives” questions. Extrinsic is the equally important economic rationale — how these changes will pay off and what it will mean to shareholders.

These two types of motivation must work together to successfully motivate people across the organisation.

“If all you do is you make the financial case … that’s not very motivating for most people in the company,” he said, pointing to the work that will go into learning new skills and reinventing the way they do their job. “Now they’ve got to work in a really different fashion that’s not very personally motivating. They need that mission, that purpose, that North Star.”

At the same time, companies must address the financial aspect to get the support of investors and show sustainability, he said: “You’ve got to do both.”

Advice for leaders

Piechota asked Rogers what news media leaders should be focusing their efforts on today, and Rogers said they should be encouraging people in various departments to experiment with generative AI and sharing their results. But more importantly, leaders should be focusing on their people: learning from them, seeing what their roadblocks to success are, and communicating — over and over—where the company is headed.

“Great leaders spend a lot of their time just going around removing roadblocks to people in the organisation saying, ‘What’s in your way? What’s slowing you down? What’s preventing you from doing your work better and moving faster on solving this problem?’” he said. “If you really focus your energy that way as a leader, I’m convinced your people will carry you where you need to go.”

About Paula Felps

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