Why George Costanza should be the poster boy for newspapers in cultural transition


Managing cultural change is hard. It takes discipline, commitment, experience, strategic thinking, a willingness to engage and a preparedness to face resistance without being put off. This probably explains why the newspaper industry is traditionally rubbish at it.

As a whole, we are deeply suspicious of anything that can’t be accomplished by tomorrow’s deadline, live in a hierarchical world where The Editor is obeyed and is always right even when he or she is wrong, and where we’d prefer to view our companies in the same way we analyse the value of a news story — by seeing the issue in the light of what is wrong — not what is going right.

I am a veteran of many news industry cultural “changes” — some of which I led successfully, some of which I tried to lead and felt I failed at, some of which were foisted upon me and created resentments so deep they required therapy for everyone involved — both changer and changee.

So I’ve been intrigued to follow the debate (Earl’s blogs) on managing cultural change, whether it is necessary and why we can’t do it.

Last year, I studied managing change as part of my MBA. The course came at a precipitous time. I had just joined News Ltd. and was responsible for a major change project to drive the improvement of editorial content in an unpopular subject area (real estate) across more than 40 newspapers. To have conducted the project in one newspaper would have been a challenge. Across the entire company nationally — well, it’s probably fair to say that internally at News, the role had been regarded as a sh** sandwich that no one would ever be stupid enough to want.

The course work — which started four weeks before I began the job — was enormously confronting. It challenged and turned on its head many most of the things I believed I knew about managing change. So as I went into the new role, I decided I would do a George Costanza: I would do the opposite of everything I thought I knew. Instead, I’d follow the theory to the letter and see how that worked out.

Twelve months on and only one out of those 40 newspapers is still to commence the plan, another two are still in the process of initial change, and the other 37 are engaged in conversations about constant improvement. Who would have thought it? This managing change theory stuff really does work in practice.

So with apologies to my lecturer at the Australian Graduate School of Management (the inspirational Tim La Porte) and the management thinkers that I am about to paraphrase mercilessly, these are the key lessons that I learned that the newspaper industry needs to understand about managing change.

1. Managing change is an ongoing process.

Newspapers tend to approach change like any other editorial assignment. You talk to a few people, summarise the main ideas, produce it and move on to the next thing. This is not the case. Managing change is a process that requires constant attention, constant refinement and some primary skills in communication (genuine communication of listening and sounding out ideas — not just slapping out 400 words by deadline). It also requires strategic thinking — and understanding that strategy is different than tactics — and then being prepared to go through the entire process all again.

2. The first person you have to change is yourself.

Just like George Costanza, everything you know about managing cultural change is probably wrong. Do the opposite. Read some expert management thinkers (Kanter, Dunphy & Stace, Senge), learn from industries that have succeeded at it, have a good look at your own management style and recognise its strengths and weaknesses and be prepared to work on your weaknesses. Most importantly, understand that your title is not enough to make everyone do what you want the way you want it done, and while the fact that you have the imprimatur of the editor or CEO, that is not power enough. People need to believe in you and understand the vision you are selling. You will need to earn respect.

3. Understand where you are now and where you want to be — and plot the journey in between.

Many change projects in newspapers start from the premise that what we are doing is wrong and that you want to do something different. But we rarely analyse why it is wrong. Or have much of an understanding of what “different” looks like.

What are the elements that are no longer working? How did they come to be that way? What are the skills that you have in your teams that have led to this? How could they be repositioned? What do your readers and advertisers think?

Then think about where you want to be. Think about what success looks like, how behaviour has changed, and how old skills and talents are working in new contexts, how readers and advertisers are relating to your change.

How far apart are those two states? Next, you have to map the distance in between. Break the journey into steps — it doesn’t matter how many — take as many as you need. Just don’t expect to make one huge leap.

4. Communicate what you want to do and why — and keep telling everyone until they beg you to shut up.

Change projects that I have seen fail did so because no one knew what was really going on. Information was shared on a “need to know” basis, and the theory was that no one really needed to understand, they just needed to do what they were told. Newspapers also specialise in “surprise change,” when select small teams work on a project in “secret” and then launch it on an uncomprehending world. The last time this worked was Murdoch’s moving of his newspapers to Wapping — although even that was not without tears.

In comparison, recognising the importance of communication is essential. Create a communication plan where you identify key stakeholders and start engaging them from the beginning. Ask for their ideas — how would they solve the problem. Talk to them about what you want to do, explain what stage you’re at, create regular times to meet to discuss progress — and when everyone stops coming because they’re bored witless, smile quietly to yourself.

5. Resistance is to be expected — and that is perfectly OK.

Kanter says that the rule of thirds applies in any change project: one-third will be with you, one-third will be against you, and one-third will need convincing. Yet most newspaper change projects either over-estimate resistance (and therefore carry out everything in secret), are offended that the brilliance of their plan is not fully understood, or assume that because there is resistance it is a signal that the entire organisation is a company of luddites and fools.

But resistance is a valuable tool. It tells the change agent where your hottest touch points are — the elements of the change that you will need to think the deepest about, and address the most carefully. Resisters can be useful — they will give you insight into elements you may not have thought about, or reveal previously unexpected issues. The most important thing to understand is that the majority of people don’t resist because they’re grumpy, stupid and hate change. Most people resist because they simply don’t understand how your new vision will work, how it will impact on them, and therefore they lack the information to assess whether it will all be worthwhile.

Make sure your resisters are the first ones that you pull into your regular communication meetings. When they stop arguing with you, you know you’re on your way.

6. Get some support.

Being a change agent can be lonely. There are all those annoying resisters raising issues that you really should have thought about, or raising issues that you have thought about, but they won’t agree with how you want to solve them. You will need a person or two on your team that you can emote at, regale with complaints about how hard it all is and drink the occasional large glass of therapeutic red wine with.

A good support person is wise, will have experience in managing change themselves and will nod and make soothing noises at you until the time comes for them to point out that your detractors are correct and maybe you need to adjust your plan. A good support person also understands that moments of bleakness are part of the process and can be trusted with your confidences and will point out the light at the end of the tunnel that you might just have missed.

7. Refine and adjust your plan.

Every good journalist knows your first draft is never perfect. Change management plans likewise need refining, facts need checking, new information comes to light and you have to adjust your course. This is not evidence of failure of the original plan. It is evidence of the maturity of the change agent. If you know what success looks like at the end, the fact that you have to take a few unexpected turns and an odd pit stop on the journey to ensure you arrive safely is hardly a catastrophe.

8. Change is ongoing.

It doesn’t ever stop. See Point 1. Just when you get your restructure running smoothly, when you have launched the new product, when you’ve seen the first results of all your hard work, take a moment to enjoy it, then take a deep breath and get ready to do it all again. It’s a cliché, but the only constant in these times is change, big change, and so much more is coming down the track for our industry.

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