MMany of us treat change like it's the Wild West: a place where anything goes, where might is usually accepted as right and it's the change way or the highway.
Here's the thing, though. It's never the actual bit you want to change in a newspaper company that is ever the hard part — redesigns, coming up with new concepts, working out a strategy for delivering new content, designing an integrated organisational chart, building a business case, envisioning the future and capturing that in a strategy document.
They provide challenges, but working out what to do is the easy bit. It's getting everyone on board that usually sees the best plans go pear-shaped and the aggravation starts.
No wonder we think corralling people through the gates, surprising them with what's intended, cracking a whip and shooting the odd malcontent who strays from the herd seems like the best — and only — way to get across the prairie.
Systems thinking argues change is not one project frozen in time. It's like the Butterfly Effect theory of change management: that every single thing you change has implications on the social, cultural, environmental, economic and political parts of the business — even if the results are not immediately obvious.
System thinking says if you can understand that everything is interconnected, you can predict — and handle better — a lot of the resistance, and consequences of what you're intending to do.
Sounds like anarchy, doesn't it? Sounds way too big for one poor exhausted brain working to a deadline to handle. But there are rules. Management academic Peter Senge in 1990 wrote The Laws of the Fifth Discipline which offers guidance through the chaos of systems thinking.
With apologies to Senge, I've provided newspaper examples for each of his laws:
1. Today's problems come from yesterday's solutions.
Remember the content management system that you signed up for 10 years because it offered some improvements to the challenges you faced and tied in easily with the sales system ensuring you wouldn't be fighting a change war on the two fronts of editorial and advertising? Sure, it didn't have a strong database for circulation, and was clunky with how it managed design, and the internet was a totally different part of the business back then. That solution is very probably the problem — integrated information — that you're now struggling with.
2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And yet, so often we are surprised when we encounter resistance to what's suggested and believe the resisters are laggards who just can't get with the program. Resistance is natural — but not insurmountable if you understand the root causes of it. Spending as much time — if not more — on assessing and building readiness for change is the best way to take the sting out of reaction.
3. Behaviour grows better before it grows worse.
Really? Doesn't it get worse before it gets better? Not if the change is low-level, easy to grasp, and a bit of a “down and dirty shortcut” that takes care of the symptoms but not the disease. These are the actions we're tempted to take when the bigger picture just seems too big to implement. Senge writes: “A typical solution feels wonderful when it first cures the symptoms. Now there's improvement; or even the problem has gone away. It may be two, three or four years before the problem returns or some new, worse problem arrives. By that time ... someone new is sitting in the chair.”
As an industry that's been around for nearly 200 years, we've seen the same problems go around and around. How many more centuries need to go by before we start curing the disease and stop with the bandages?
4. The easy way out usually leads back in.
Getting the hang of this yet? Applying familiar solutions to problems and sticking to what you know best is not the way to fixing it long term. The approach of many newspapers to the new challenges of classifieds sales is a great example. Pushing harder and dropping rates to sell more classifieds has not solved the problem of the market moving altogether. A bigger discount, a hungrier sales force is not a solution if the problem is not high rates but changed customer behaviour.
5. The cure can be worse than the disease.
Any long-term solution must “strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens.” Newspapers that need management consultants to tell them what to do next miss opportunities to engage their staff in the dynamic conversations that strengthen a company's ability to change. Editors and journalists who won't engage in commercial conversations thinking such content is best handled in other parts of the business inherently weaken a skill set that is essential for them to meet the challenges of the future.
6. Faster is slower.
None of these solutions can be implemented quickly. And yes, that is deeply annoying. Business is a complex human system. It tends to evolve. Remember Law 2. Deadline junkies though we are in newspapers, even we need to realise that there are some types of coverage projects that need longer lead times. It just won't be done by tomorrow or next week.
It's not such a foreign concept. Good journalism is never created with a once-over-easy approach to interviews and background research. The kind of reporting that changes nations and institutions is the result of expertise, commitment, knowledge and time to interview extensive contacts and check and double-check.
The kind of change projects that change nations and institutions is the result of expertise, commitment, knowledge and time to talk to extensive contacts and check in, and double check in.
7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
It took me a while to get my brain around this one, but here's the summary. The things you see as wrong in your business now — and the solutions that you're therefore implementing — might turn out to be totally wrong in the long term and even exacerbate future problems.
Taking the classified advertising example again — undercutting rates might result in some short term budgets being hit, but discounting in the longer term could undermine the very thing that kept your business so buoyant for so long. Go in with your eyes wide open and a contingency plan under your belt. Change really is like a game of chess where every move has implications for the other pieces on the board.
8. Small changes can produce big results — but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
The underlying principle at play here is that if a change seems obvious, it probably isn't. Obvious changes create consequences in other parts of the business that with the benefit of hindsight, will also seem so neon-like you'll wonder how you ever fell for it in the first place.
But take heart. Taking a big picture view and asking “what's really going on here?” and looking at implications across the business — not just inside the silo — may reveal something stunning in its simplicity that could revolutionise your business. But you have to expect the unexpected.
9. You can have your cake and eat it too — but not at once.
Yes, Boss, you can have a new section. But, no, Boss, you cannot have it earning a 35% profit from day one. If I could build that, I would have built it for myself and be living off the rich proceeds of such genius. You can have a new section that, like all new businesses, makes a good solid reliable profit after realistic and fair investment in it as a brand — after 18 months at best. If this means you now don't want to build that new section because it's too “risky,” do not complain in three years time that the company is not earning enough due to a lack of innovation.
10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two elephants.
It just makes a mess. And you killed a perfectly good elephant. Think about it.
11. There is no blame.
“We tend to blame outside circumstances for our problems — someone else, the competitors ... the changing mood of the marketplace did it to us,” writes Senge. But he also advises “the cure lies in your relationship with your 'enemy'.”
Applying each of Senge's laws helps us to understand that no-one has done to newspapers where we now find ourselves. We've done it to ourselves.
The issues are not the internet or new fleeter business models or changed consumer behaviours. We've been stuck in old routines, implemented familiar solutions to badly diagnosed problems, weakened ourselves with faddish cure-alls, been arrogant and remote while the rest of the world was engaged in conversation.
But there is no blame. We just need to embrace our weaknesses, start converting them to strengths, understand that what we will do will have bigger impacts — and start thinking systemically.