Lessons in change for newspaper companies


Change agents of the world of newspaper companies, unite! And strap in. It could be a bumpy ride.

Because the current subject I'm studying for my degree is “Managing Change” (regular readers feel free to snort with laughter), I've decided to share the love and see if we can't affect some industry change.

Lesson 1: Will it work?

Probably not. But don't get me wrong, I'm not being negative.

In 1992 management academics Porras and Robertson released research based on a 20-year review and discovered that change had a negative impact 10% of the time, no impact 53% of the time, and a positive impact only 37% of the time. As recently as 2004, Boonstra found that 70% of change programs in organisations stalled prematurely or failed to achieve their intended result.

Now I know newspaper executives who would look at those numbers and despair. Why bother, really, when the figures show we're probably doomed?

Yet the same people would have no hesitation popping a bet on a horse with a 30% chance of winning if the odds were good. So the question is not “will it work?” but really “how much do stand to gain if it does work?”

Lesson 2: Nearly everyone will hate it and hate you for it — but they probably won't tell you

“The one kind of power that is universal, held by every person in every role in every organisation, is silent veto power,” writes R. Kantor in Leadership for Change: Enduring Skills for Change Masters, published by Harvard Business School. Kantor argues the most effective way that people stifle change is to simply ignore it. Smile, nod, attend the meetings, yes, by all means. But when it comes to actually doing anything to support it, the tendency is to not lift a finger.

So push on, but expect to push on alone initially, selling the idea to everyone who will listen. But privately prepare for objections, or objective behaviour, or simply no behaviour at all.

Kantor also claims there is a “rule of thirds” with change — one-third of the team will be with you, one-third will be against you, and one-third can be converted (either way). Converting that last third is key: encouraging them to incorporate what you are recommending as part of their immediate goals and day to day work.

The time when the opponents will be most virulent is when you are in the middle of the project, and success is on the horizon but still far away. “The critics, sceptics and cynics will challenge you not at the start necessarily, but in the middle of your efforts, just when the project itself is not quite ready and most vulnerable,” Kantor says.

Nice, eh? The thing to remember is that this is human behaviour generally and companies in every industry around the world — not just newspapers. Maybe it's me, but I find that comforting.

Lesson 3: Get people ready for change

I was once asked to undertake a major departmental change without the staff who worked there knowing about it.

The managerial argument was that if we told everyone, we'd spend all our time managing the fallout rather than focusing on the important stuff, which was introducing what we wanted to do and getting the idea perfected.

I followed the instructions best I could, but it still had a period of going pear-shaped — until the concerns of the staff were addressed. Now I realise that “managing the fallout” was actually the important stuff — the idea was always going to be perfect, it was where it impacted on the people that it got all curvy.

“Change masters must be willing to reveal an idea or proposal before it's fully developed, following the rule of 'No Surprises',” Kantor says. The biggest effort, he argues, is in selling the idea internally, externally over and over again to every stakeholder, including those higher up who can support you politically. Letting people in on the proposal gives them an opportunity to put forward their views, which can often be valuable. You can, after all, always ignore feedback that is simply negative.

Lesson 4: There are perfectly good wheels out there

Change is a lonely thing for those charged with pushing it through. Especially in the dim, dark middle bit that Kantor describes when you have not achieved what you intended, your critics are at their most virulent and the project has gone on for so long, that you're tired, tired, tired of the whole damn thing and would like to walk away.

But that is the time to take heart. You're not the only one and others have gone before you and will go again afterwards. Take note not of the lessons of what to avoid next time (although they're important) but pay particular attention to what works.

The special lesson from this for newspaper companies is that the research we do for change projects should not just be about the industry or the change we're trying to implement, but about the management of that change — to learn from the experiences of others who have succeeded and/or learned from experience.

Yes, sure, every change project is unique because it matches the circumstances of the company, people, opportunity and industry, but the process of change is pretty similar because the process is based on human behaviour and how we all respond when things are shaken up around us.

Any change project that involves people, as well as newspapers or news sites or mobile information will have a precedent somewhere that can act as a case study.

Lesson 5: 5% inspiration, 95% perspiration

Ideas to change often start out as a “brain explosion.” They are big and audacious and sparkly and people look at them and say “ooohhhh, ahhhhh, niiice, great plan, let's do it.” And then, of course, the hard work begins.

There are also times in every change project when someone will ask “Who's bloody idea was this? Can I kill them please?” (Or maybe that's just me). This would be the middle bit Kantor was talking about.

The idea to change is 5% inspiration which needs to burn brightly as a guiding light to justify the 95% perspiration that everyone needs to see it through successfully. While the honour and the glory goes is awarded to the 5%, it's the rest of the hard grunt that really deserves the accolades — the continuing on when you want to stop, the smiling stoically in the face of opposition, and the thought bubbles about killing people that you realise you've just spoken out loud but happily failed to act upon.

My point is this: don't underestimate the very, very hard work. Make sure that the plan is inspiring enough to make it worth it.

Lesson 6: Have fun

My dad told me that life was too short to do a job you hate. Everyone who inspires to lead change is doing it for the big game:


  • For the thrill of adrenalin when an audacious idea is revealed.

  • For the beauty of a project that solves so many things that are outdated or not working.

  • For the satisfaction of seeing something dysfunctional become functional and smooth again.

  • To create a future when the naysayers claim none exists.


Feel the fear and do it anyway? Let's face it, transforming the newspaper industry could be fun! Who's with me?