The Transformation Toolbox: What I learned leading a change project
Between 2017 and 2021 I led and designed a major change process. The challenge: We created a new home for a regional, public media brand, including new, redesigned newsrooms, new workflows, and with around 350 colleagues involved. We moved our information and news departments from two locations and from three buildings in order to work in crossmedia processes in the future. Our goal: to continue to reach people with news and background information despite the foreseeable decline in linear distribution – in the language, with the products, on the channels they use.
We started the process – and ideally we never want to end it. Nevertheless, looking back today, we learned a lot: We made good mistakes and some things we did right in the first place. Many colleagues have been involved in this process, and many have been available to offer advice and support – from outside as well as within the company.
Which tools, ideas and tricks – and which attitude helped us on this way? Some details are certainly specific to this change process. Others translate well to other companies or even industries. I have summarized my most important ones in the following paragraphs.
(The following headlines expand to short paragraphs.)
Contact & Skills
These two topics are something like the backbone of our process. We have sent colleagues on job rotations in previously unknown areas, who are to work together in a new structure in the future. We deployed our colleagues there for up to six weeks – not on a flying visit, but as full team members. To do this, we put together teams of three colleagues each – one from radio, one from online, one from television (contact). In the first few weeks, these teams explained processes, conferences, functions and tools to each other. They then took on roles, supported by the on-site teams (skills). The most important finding: We have a lot in common, our professional understanding as news journalists is similar – no matter what medium we work for. Overall we rotated dozens of colleagues. They have gradually become ambassadors of the process. We designed this rotation together with the HR department and union representatives and improved it with regular feedback.
This may also a truism – but at every step of the process we repeatedly reminded ourselves why we are building our cross-media news house. Not because of „change itself“. Not because there was a building that we could occupy. Not because new workflows are modern or contemporary. But because it’s about our audience: We will only reach our users if we produce our content in the language and form that users want. And we have to use the channels that those people are also using. Time and again we have measured decisions against this question, user centric. And again and again we have forgotten this perspective – and have followed too much an internal perspective.
Resistance & Opposition
How do you deal with those you cannot reach in a change project? We have asked ourselves this question again and again – probably as in every project. The answer is complicated. On the one hand, fortunately, there was little doubt about our fundamental goals. Our “purpose”, our narrative, was clear – and hardly anyone has any doubts that we have to create space for journalism on digital channels in linear production. In detail, however, there was resistance, opposition, criticism, doubt – of course! On the one hand, we have tried to create forums and channels for these topics in order to give colleagues the opportunity to also let critical tones be heard. On the other hand, we took these issues seriously as equals without knowing or offering a solution for each one. From my point of view, sincere, honest communication at eye level is important. And the realization that resistance or opposition is sometimes needed to sharpen ideas, workflows, concepts and structures.
Honest, serious Involvement
We started our process with a large, two-day workshop. With around 100 participants, almost all colleagues from the departments involved who were not needed in newsrooms or on vacation were there. From the cameraman to the freelance reporter to the editorial assistant. We were supported by the consulting company “Nextpractice” to collect requirements and wishes for our process. We used the great, computer-aided tool “nextmoderator”: Colleagues sit in front of the computer in mixed groups of three, discuss questions with each other and work on solutions. They enter their results into the system and at the same time evaluate the results published by other teams. In this way, e. g. the colleague who always stands up first and sets the tone does not dominate the debate: those who don’t like speaking in front of a large number of people have the same chance of being heard. What counts is the joint, democratized weighting and evaluation of topics. After the workshop, many colleagues reflected on how appreciative they felt of the atmosphere. We collected a lot of impulses, which we followed up again and again in workshops and information rounds. And we set an exclamation mark at the beginning, the message: „We are serious about participation on an equal footing.“ Unfortunately, we were not able to persevere on every topic: the management level developed the new hierarchical structure more in soliloquy and later put it up for discussion. We may have promised more here than we kept.
A demanding change process requires communication channels. In addition to our process structure, we have therefore opened another channel. The departments involved elected „trusted colleagues“ from their midst, democratically. I met these four of my colleagues regularly every four to six weeks. We talked on the phone and spoke openly and trustingly with each other. I explained the process steps and took suggestions with me. At eye level – the four shop stewards were an important seismograph for vibrations in the project. And in addition to the hierarchy, we opened up another communication channel that helped us a lot tu understand atmospheres and ideas.
We for the project (“the common hat”)
In addition to the small project management team, we have established an important power center in the project structure – a coordination group. Three editor-in-chiefs from the departments involved were given half-time leave from their day-to-day jobs. Once a week we discussed the important upcoming issues and solved many problems. Crucially, at the beginning of our project we worked out a basis as a team, in the course of which we regularly reflected on our cooperation, our successes and potential. As a result, we have always managed to put on “the right hat” – the project hat. We argued internally, sometimes also representing the interests of our own area – but externally we went into every discussion for the common goal, for the project. We’ve always taken the time to (re-)ignite that spirit and find ourselves as a team. That was very valuable – a real “team” with the same values, goals and the same (basic) understanding of the outside world. We also talked a lot about our horizon, about how far we wanted to jump: How do we deal with systemic repercussions on the existing system? Are we ready to establish new rules of the game? Yes, if it was necessary to achieve our project goals. And we managed the process together not as a logistical or organizational process, but as a social process in our company. We didn’t develop our impulses ‘next’ to the existing structure, but activated the system itself and tried to build bridges to the new.
It was important for our project to have a framework that we could always refer to. These „guard rails“ clearly spelled out the goal: how far we need to jump. They commissioned us to create new cross-media units and workflows – and didn’t leave it up to us. The framwork made it clear that we have to strengthen digital channels. It was clear from the start which units would be part of our process and which would not. This has helped in many debates: “No, the question is not whether we create new workflows, but what they look like.” We have prepared these guidelines intensively – with colleagues from all areas involved. It took us about half a year – time well spent, before we started the project. Because only this framework, which was initially negotiated and later specified, has made us free in our work without losing sight of the goal. The guard rails have kept us on the path and given the change a binding direction, which is particularly necessary with such complex projects and a lot of room for maneuver for orientation and security. Ultimately, this framework was laid down by a decision by the management – that was also important. Because this gave us the support of the decision-maker level. We needed this support for some challenges, and it was also an important signal: we all believe that these guidelines are realistic and correct.
Shaking Things Up – and Affirmation
We have split up the work on editorial workflows, technical requirements and interior design into three working groups. The staffing of these project groups followed a three-fold logic: On the one hand, we involved team leaders – those who run editorial departments or departments today. On the other hand, we also involved freelancers and editors who do not lead, but shape their areas because they stand for the cross-media goals of the process. And we involved colleagues who work in related areas or elsewhere in the company, but who are already driving the company forward with good ideas, impulses and cooperative talent. In this mixture, the working groups (with around a dozen members) developed new ideas and approaches on the one hand, but also measured them against reality. In addition, all members of the working groups regularly told their colleagues about the project work. In this way, we gained more ambassadors for the process. And: We didn’t let the hierarchy develop the new working methods, but rather the colleagues who keep our newsrooms running today and later.
Impuls and Feedback
We regularly reflected on the work of project groups in larger workshops. With 30 or more colleagues, we collected requirements for future technology as well as wishes for our future rooms. We have explained and discussed concepts, adapted and discarded ideas. Colleagues could register for these workshops based on their interest. We’ve overturned newsroom schedules and tried to allow as many as possible to participate. The result was an ongoing dialogue between smaller project groups and larger workshops – making sure, collecting new ideas and explaining. And a “pass it on” – we also asked every participant to tell others about the workshops.
We tried to make the upcoming change tangible. So that colleagues not only hear theoretically what their future could look like, but also feel it. To this end, we have created a series of events that we have named “Studio [N]” (for “News”): one-hour after-work impulses on exciting future topics – from podcast production and audience development to messenger services. We always asked an external expert for his or her point of view. But we also put colleagues from our own team on stage who had gained initial experience in the respective area. A juxtaposition of “thinking ahead” and “we can do it ourselves”, head-opening and appreciative. We also provided opportunities for encounters and networking: over a beer afterwards. And our big “Open Space” conference we developped new information formats together with students from Hamburg university, start-ups from a local accelerator and many colleagues – from service departments to the editorial assistant. The result was not only a large collection of impulses and products for further product development, but above all a spirit that facilitates change. Experiences make you courageous, give you inspiration and arouse your desire to get involved. They help to get to know each other, to break down hurdles and to try things out with pioneers.
Lighthouses along the way
Because our change process was long (4 years, see below), we tried to start small projects along the way that made us proud. We founded a new, joint information brand more than a year before moving into the converted building: TV news got a new name, radio news had new jingles and the website got a new logo. And we´ve build a new app and shared social media channels. For this, we created a joint social media team: Colleagues who previously worked at two locations in three buildings for different social media channels formed our first joint team ever since. Because they also work in shifts in the “classic” linear editorial newsrooms , they are ambassadors of our common project. And we share the happiness about first success. A cross-media technology podcast has also been created, a production with a new spirit: a colleague who used to work mainly in radio has teamed up with a television author. The two females present a successful podcast for an important target group – mainly young women, but generally young users.
We tried to create a common identity even before moving into the new, cross-media newsrooms – a shift in “Who are we”, away from our own small department towards the new, common team. To this end, we have assured ourselves of what we have in common across locations and editorial borders – externally through the introduction of the common news brand that we all work for. But also internally: At the start of the process, we had everyone involved vote on what name we would give ourselves as a team – a name that created a common ground, gave the process a somewhat more catchy name than “Process Crossmedia News House”, and above all: a name originated from our midst, from all of us. This name stood for eye level, for togetherness, and for new beginnings. We failed to formulate and codify this self-image. It is more likely to be read between the lines of our documents, information rounds and discussions. Next time I would make such a “mission statement” transparent for the process and write it down.
The principle of the Rubber Cuff
I stole this metaphor from a colleague (thanks, Sascha Molina). The “rubber sleeve” is the connecting link between a rotating element and its surroundings, specifically, for example: between our project and the entire company. A company and a single entity can differ in the rate of change and rotation as long as the rubber sleeves are sufficiently flexible. We were one of the first cross-media processes in the company, so we had to design a lot of rubber sleeves to connect to our environment. Some sleeves will not be able to compensate for the sometimes large differences on both sides forever. The sleeve will break if a culture change does not get under way company-wide. Or sub-projects had to slow down again, adjust goals. The rubber sleeve only helps temporarily and only if the differences are not too great.
Trying it out instead of discussing it
We decided early on that workflows can be developed on paper only to a limited extent. When we got bogged down in discussions at tricky points, we decided to first accept what seemed to us to be the best possible solution – despite the problems or disadvantages associated with it. We never said, “Now we’re done” with this workflow or any process step. We have always signaled: “We’ll try it out, we’ll develop it further and improve it.” To try it out, we developed and refined a great tool together with our external consultant: the editorial simulation. Parallel to regular operations, we set up pop-up newsrooms and tried out workflows over two or three days. In several game rounds, we subjected the conceived workflows to a reality check. And we quickly noticed what wasn’t working and corrected it immediately. In any case, the result was a shared experience – with the certainty that we are ready to improve. That the process logic of “We’ll try it this way first and if it doesn’t work, we’ll change it” was meant seriously. And that we are changing our newsrooms at eye level. “Agility” is a buzzword, but we’ve tried agile working: try it out, get feedback, make adjustments, according to the motto “Fail often, fail early, fail cheap!” If things go well, we have the foundation for a new development culture placed.
First requirements, then implementation
In our work we have tried to separate „requirements“ from „implementation“. That may be a truism, but it was crucial for our working groups. Whenever we got bogged down in the debate about solving a problem, we took a step back: we described user stories – “What does a journalist need in order to produce a TV report?” – but didn’t design the system itself . We have defined who has to work in close proximity to whom – but left settling units into the building to the experts. We then reflected on your results again. In this way, we prevented the “feasibility test” from blocking good ideas too early. These feedback loops have reduced complexity for everyone involved. But we have also achieved that mutual understanding of requirements and implementation increases. Journalists do not have to be experts in content management systems – at least not all of them. Programmers are just as unfamiliar with the craft of journalism.
New processes that last
We have already tried to create processes in such a way that we will continue to benefit from them in the future. We started the development of two information formats with journalism trainees. From the prototype to first MVP episodes, we worked our way up to a marketable product in several steps. We have tested the first results and further developed them with feedback from users in target group research. To do this, we tried out several providers of user panels in collaboration with our media research department in order to be able to incorporate feedback directly into product development. We gave workshop participants homework to talk to users about messaging. The results were often the highlight of a day, because many were surprised at how little we know about our users.
Too much time
Our change process lasted for long, too long! This was mainly due to the fact that we were to convert an existing building and move into it again. However, the “previous tenant” had to vacate this building first. And this date in turn depended on a new building project that our previous tenant was running. And then along came… Corona! – I cannot recommend anyone to link their change process to construction projects (or pandemics) in terms of time – but I suspect that reality will leave many with no choice. We didn’t always manage to keep the spirit high. Some have lost sight of the upcoming change, others were suddenly surprised at how soon it would start after all. We have tried again and again to adapt our processes in order to provide new or changed impulses, for example when the tension for change subsided. In order to remain credible in communication, we never communicated absolute deadlines, but only target corridors. And we then refined these when the construction progress allowed it. This is how we’ve remained credible – reliable rough answers are better than precise ones that need constant correction.
Play & Pause
If a project runs for a long time, actively set pauses are important. Breaks in which one part of the project cannot contribute, for example because other processes are a prerequisite for further work, or, very practically, breaks because a building has not yet been completely renovated and a changed editorial office wants to move into it. Breaks are then a sensible way to mentally turn to something else for a certain period of time without having the feeling in the back of your mind: “Actually, I should be shaping the process permanently.” Continuing meetings and processes blindly blocks valuable time and drains energy . The corona pandemic was the best example: it not only slowed down construction. We also deliberately relaxed, gave a break because editors had other things on their mind: to report a new situation under high pressure and in a changing, challenging work environment.
Calculated Information Overflow
Anyone in the company has heard of us. It was difficult to get past us. We shot from all guns and informed about our process. In an intranet blog, I regularly wrote about the status of the project and as much as possible about colleagues who shape the process. As many colleagues as possible should find themselves in these reports. To this end, we have collected all the information in an open intranet area – the videos of live streamed information meetings on the process, for example, some of which took place four times a year. We have produced a film with the graphics department that explained why we are setting the change process in motion. We sent out newsletters and invited people to the weekly “Check-Ins”, where we provided information on topics ranging from the fee system and scheduling to innovation and workflows. From my point of view, there is hardly any “too much” information, because in many workshops and discussions we have noticed again and again that not everything gets through to everyone, just a calculated “information overflow”.