Managing Change Requires More Than Empty Rhetoric
Every company in every industry ever talks about the need to change, transform, evolve, adapt, etc., etc., etc. But change is a concept that easily falls into emptiness. Without substantive action taken to alter behavior, simply talking about change is pointless. In fact, for organizations it may actually be counterproductive. The disparity between rhetoric and reality tends to be demotivating. In other words, hot air gets stale quick.
That’s not to suggest change is easy. It’s not. It’s hard. That said, I’m of the mind that that gap between talk and action should be effectively filled with education. Learning new concepts and skills is the surest way to alter our behaviors, our minds, our beliefs, and our attitudes.
When it comes to learning to change in the publishing industry, the Yale Publishing Course (YPC) is doing some of the most pertinent and in-depth education in the space. In July, I attended the course for the second year in a row.
As one intrigued by change, especially the failure to change on the part of large corporations -- whose main function is self-preservation -- I gravitated to the sessions addressing organizational change instructed by members of the Yale School of Management. These sessions were a good foundation for some of the industry faculty, which included the likes of Michael Clinton, CMO of Hearst, and Kim Kelleher, CRO and publisher for Wired, who shared how they’re changing the products they produce and the work they do.
Not to be overlooked, the sentiments expressed by the students in the course and the questions they asked were telling of the nature of publishing’s ongoing change. Generally speaking, the attendees were a mixture of mid- to senior-level publishing professionals: senior editors, EIC’s, marketers, salespeople, and in fewer cases, publishers and business owners. They were equally eager for change and frustrated by their organizations’ inability or unwillingness to support change. When we talk about digital disruption, these are the people that have been truly disrupted -- the daily “doers” caught in the machinery of publishing.
Of course, anyone who takes the initiative to attend a course on “Leadership Strategies in Magazine Media” is bound to be ready to change. I’d encourage publishing leaders to identify those among them thirsty for change and hungry for education, and enable them, enable them, enable them. Following are a couple things I learned.
How Structure Enables Change
During her session, Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management, explored why attempts by companies to change and adapt often fail and what models for change tend to be most successful. After her session, Wrzesniewski and I had a conversation about why change has been hard for publishers and the need for organizations to restructure in order to enable change.
I’d venture that as magazine publishers have evolved from print-centric businesses to multi-media businesses, confusion has arisen around what exactly the publisher’s “product” is. Especially in the early days of the web, but persisting today, publishers have treated digital content as an entirely different product from print content, sold in different ways, produced by different -- often isolated -- people. Further, publishers have put barriers between the content producers (editorial teams) and the platform engineers (web teams), often falling under separate strategic command.
Wrzesniewski offered the AOL-Time Warner merger as an example of why such separations can be problematic. “A big part of that [merger] was the idea that on the one side you have content and on the other you have a channel, and this is going to be a marriage made in heaven -- and there were a lot of things that were ultimately fatal about that marriage. One of the things was this idea of thinking about these things as two separate businesses. Unless they become truly one, which never happened, you’re always going to have two sides.”
As an industry observer, I still see plenty of publishers where old guard print editorial are reluctant to or even discouraged from, collaborating with digital teams. While acknowledging she’s not a publishing native, Wrzesniewski says that from her vantage point, the fundamental product for publishers is content and their organizations would benefit from structuring accordingly.
The business will be won or lost on whether the content is any good, says Wrzesniewski. “Everything about how you structure that organization has to be around feeding the best possible content you can get. And then you could treat print, digital, sales, as distribution channels. Then those are living and working in support of the production of content, which is very different from the decision I think a lot of publishers made, which was this whole digital thing is a completely different animal.”
Wired To Be Nimble
Wired is one noteworthy magazine brand that has made efforts to transform its organization to fit the modern era. Publisher and chief revenue officer Kim Kelleher presented at YPC on how Wired has reorganized its business and editorial teams.
In particular, Wired has adopted a flatter management structure that Kelleher says is more representative of startups and digital media companies than legacy publishing. Members of the management team (composed of heads of editorial, creative, operations, finance, revenue, and marketing) operate in overlapping circles like a Venn diagram. All parties act as stewards of the brand and have a lot of autonomy. Kelleher says a lot of trust is required, but that the team is able to move faster with less strain on the organization and ideas can be taken to market quicker. Also, following the model established at Condé Nast, both Kelleher and editor-in-chief Scott Dadich are on the same level, reporting in to company president Robert Sauerberg.
Kelleher thinks it’s more representative of how an organization actually works today. “If we have these incredible executives on these teams, why keep their purview so narrow? Let’s actually let everyone on the executive management have purview over the whole and impact in their area of expertise over the whole.”
Kelleher says the changes to the organization emerged as the leadership team was aspiring to be more nimble and collaborative. “I think that organically led us to look at how we were structured and take into account whether our legacy structure was really functioning in the way our business was realizing now and the way we want it to realize in the future. The way we’re developing content and storytelling through all the different platforms and mediums, the way we’re generating revenue and monetizing the brand -- it’s changed and we still had an infrastructure and internal architecture that was representative of long ago.”
One effect of changing structure is that there is no longer a disconnect between the product and the marketing of the product. In other words, sales, marketing, and content are in step instead of “talking about the same thing differently.”
Speaking of how things used to be, Kelleher says, “I think Wired is an incredibly strong and powerful brand and I was surprised to see the go to market not actually represent what we were more directly. I think the merits of the brand will speak for themselves and are resonating in marketplace. You can’t be everything to everyone. I think that’s a trap a lot of brands fall into.
Continues Kelleher: “I do think the advantage that we have is that Wired is a great product. We’ve come together as a team and a group -- we know who we are and we’re proud of who we are and we’re going to continuously represent us as that.”
Related story: How CQ Roll Call Uses Its Legacy to Its Advantage
Denis Wilson is editor-in-chief of Book Business and Publishing Executive. In this role, he analyzes and reports on the fundamental changes affecting the publishing industry and aims to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.