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Do we achieve culture change by doing things differently — or doing different things?

This blog was set up under the title “Culture Change.” It seems there is a general consensus that cultural change must take place in news organisations. However, what exactly this means and what exactly should change is often not quite as clear.

The greatest challenge presented by digitalisation is how to increase the agility and innovative strength of an organisation. In an industry in which research and development (R&D) departments are practically unknown, survival nowadays means developing the digital news products of the future. To achieve this, organisations must attract digital experts who have up until now shown very little interest in them and create an environment capable of retaining such experts once they are on board.

What culture needs to be in place to make this happen?

In an attempt to bring together previous experience and knowledge of this area, I have identified five ways in which cultural change has to happen and have outlined them below. I call them the five “From-Tos”:  

1. From avoiding failures to appreciating failures: Perfection kills creativity. And this would appear to be one of the main cultural challenges. Most organisational cultures tend to focus on optimising current processes and on avoiding mistakes at any cost.

The downside to this is that such organisations find it very difficult to start innovating. Therefore, if they want to turn innovation into an integral part of their culture, it is vital that they develop a culture of experimentation in which trial and error is explicitly wanted — and where errors are not seen as failures.

What is needed is the courage to try out new things and do things differently. When we attended the Stanford Design School during our Silicon Valley visit, a sign caught our attention. It read, “The only way to do is to do it.” Other mindsets and behaviours that would go a long way towards fostering a climate of innovation are:

  • Experimenting and “playing” with new ideas are explicitly allowed.

  • Have the courage to work with the imperfect and with early prototypes.

  • Failing or making errors is good, because it presents an opportunity to learn..

  • Failures are explicitly tolerated instead of being punished.

  • Nevertheless, fail fast, i.e. learn fast from your errors.

  • This also includes getting and giving fast and honest feedback.

2. From control to trust: The leadership or management culture is one of the most important catalysts within a corporate culture. How members of management conduct themselves in a digital and agile organisation must be founded more strongly on trust than on control. Employees must feel appreciated and trusted by the people who lead them.

The digital world is developing rapidly, and digital experts tend to be highly independent personalities. Such employees must be treated as “knowledge workers” and not as “industrial workers.” This means the competence and motivation of the employee must be seen as givens; employees can and must be given freedom to shape their work and make decisions, and not be permanently monitored while doing so.

This may sound trivial on the face of it, but there are far too many organisations and managers out there who subscribe to a very different mindset. The job of managers, of people in leadership positions, is to create the ideal environment for an expert team to work in. In extreme form: Managers must see themselves as service providers to their team.

Here are some examples of attitudes and modes of conduct that exemplify this:

  • Members of management need to relinquish control and yet still maintain leadership.

  • Members of management formulate targets, but allow for freedom in choosing how these are achieved, and in decision-making.

  • Members of management coach and inspire their employees.

  • Members of management coordinate and create good framework conditions.

  • Employees enjoy flexibility in how they get their work done.

  • Employees are encouraged and can develop on the job.

3. From hierarchy to a fast-paced network: When an organisation changes from a steeply-sloped pyramid to a flat network, this is primarily a question of structure and organisation. However, even flat hierarchies have to be accepted and lived by the people involved in them. This represents a real challenge for editorial teams in particular, who are used to working in strong hierarchies.

A former editor-in-chief once said, “A good editorial team must function like a dictatorship.” This sounds pretty far removed from an organisational structure based on the network principle. Changing a culture of this kind certainly does not happen overnight.

It is important to remain honest in this respect. When it comes to putting decisions into practice and to fulfilling established work tasks, a hierarchy is often more efficient. However, when it comes to bottom-up feedback and innovations, and to finding new ways of doing things, a network promises greater success. Experts and employees further down the ladder often come up with ideas or innovations, but these do not find their way through the hierarchy.

And last but not least, the digital experts of today simply do not want to work within a hierarchy. They expect a fast-operating network that is geared toward the customer and the product.

The following mindsets and modes of conduct are typical for cultures with a flat hierarchy:  

  • Decisions are taken fast, and at a grassroots level.

  • Ideas and decisions are not always delegated to the top tier.

  • Experts and specialists carry out a direct exchange with one another instead of via hierarchical levels.

  • A person's status is not dictated by his or her position within the hierarchy, but according to his or her expertise in the matter at hand.

  • Managers do not lead based on formal authority, but based on their own value propositions.

  • Managers communicate in a process of dialogue and not using “orders and obedience.”

  • There is an overriding sense of trust in the network’s ability to organise itself.

4. From silos to interdisciplinary collaboration: Most companies are trapped in pretty rigid departmental structures, and these often stand in the way of communication, slow down decision-making processes, and impair cooperation. This is not a new phenomenon. Faced with increasingly complex and fast-changing product diversity, it is becoming ever more difficult to manage the challenges this brings forth and develop new solutions if you have a functionally one-dimensional approach.

This also applies in news companies to the rightfully cultivated division between the newsroom and the business units — something that was dealt with in detail in the New York Times Innovation Report. The Times report concluded: “Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence.”

When developing digital journalistic products in particular, collaboration between editors, software developers and marketing experts is urgently needed. The following attitudes and modes of behaviour belong to a culture of collaboration:

  • Products and innovations are developed in interdisciplinary teams.

  • Colleagues from other divisions can be contacted along uncomplicated and direct channels of communication.

  • Employees orient themselves towards the overall interests of the company and the customer and not towards the interests of the department.

  • Everyone in the organisation has a strong sense of community and identifies strongly with the company.

  • The workplace is designed to provide opportunities for encounters, uncomplicated exchange, and co-working.

  • All employees are closely connected and virtually collaborate through IT systems.

5. From information politics to transparency: Of course, in the world of news, exclusive journalistic information still remains a fundamentally precious good. It is what journalists and news products feed off of. However, when it comes to the internal workings of a news organisation, information barriers get in the way. Keeping information to yourself in order to use it to your own advantage when the opportunity arises is not expedient and in many cases no longer possible.

In the era of the connected world, having an information advantage is becoming increasingly rare. Decisions and innovations come into being far more quickly when there is a free flow of information. The “power through information” that management once enjoyed is disappearing, even vis-à-vis their employees.

Today’s working ethos demands more transparency and an attitude of partnership from managers. The following are properties that belong in a transparent organisation:

  • Knowledge is highly available and flows via networks.

  • Checks are not carried out as to what information can be disseminated freely,  but rather concerning what information actually needs to be protected.

  • People who possess knowledge and experts are visible and approachable; they can be brought into processes without too much red tape.

  • There is a general awareness that knowledge is often personalised and often cannot be expatiated or codified.

  • People in positions of responsibility act openly and transparently - without hidden agendas or “political games.”

This list is certainly not exhaustive, not mutually exclusive, and often simplified. But as I have suggested above — we need the courage to work with early prototypes...

About Tilmann Knoll

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