A Clear, Easy Roadmap for Change

Edwina LuiBy Edwina Lui, Director of Content Management and Strategy, Kaplan Publishing

Yeah, I admit it—I suckered you with that post title.

It’s no secret that change isn’t easy, nor is it patient or forgiving—case in point, I had intended to tap out this write-up of the Driving and Achieving Change: Practical Guidance from Practical People panel from last month’s Tools of Change Conference a few days after it ended, but was quickly derailed by the unstoppable inertia of change in motion.  Luckily, one of the key tools of change is the ongoing conversation about the evolution of publishing models, and that conversation doesn’t end with the conference.

The panel featured Allison Belan (Duke University Press), Bill Kasdorf (Apex Content Solutions), Scott Lubeck (Book Industry Study Group), and Maureen McMahon (Kaplan Publishing), and true to its name, they were full of practical insights and ideas.

Here are my three takeaways on the major components of an effective change process.

Alignment:  Goal-Driven Processes Minimize Drift

Any change process is susceptible to drifting focus, just by nature of working towards variation.  Plus, change doesn’t happen in a vacuum—all of your change agents may be actively involved in their existing roles, and may have difficulty juggling priorities.  It’s important to reduce opportunities for loss of focus or expansion of a change process beyond your organization’s resources.

  1. Strong Leadership:  For any change process to succeed, your leadership team must be enthusiastic about change.
  2. Clarity of Purpose:  Identify clear goals and make sure to document and message them to all.  It’s important to note that where change involves technology, the technology itself is not the goal, but a tool towards a goal.
  3. Iterative Change:  It’s tempting to make sweeping changes to processes or organizations, but doing so doesn’t just create chaos among your stakeholders, it also leaves you open to risk and undesirable detours.
  4. Integration:  Make sure to implement beneficial changes throughout the rest of the organization, and to consider your existing customers—both internal and external—when planning the change process.

Experimentation:  The (Pseudo) Scientific Method

If you recall those bygone days of high school (or college) science laboratory sessions, you know that the key to testing a hypothesis or making a new discovery is experimentation via the scientific method.  By carefully laying out a plan for the experiment, testing its permutations, and studying the results, all the mysteries of science could be uncovered as a finite list of conclusions.  If only publishing were so predictable.

Still, those long-ago lessons hold true, and trial-and-error often yields the most effective learning experience.

  1. Mini-Pilots:  When you plan for change, think big, but when you implement, think small.  Running a small pilot as your first step will minimize risk and keep your current business on track.
  2. Failure IS an Option:  In fact, failure is nearly a given.  Without the benefit of clairvoyance, you’re bound to stumble at some point.  Expect failure and embrace it—there’s much to be learned from what went wrong.  Study every backwards step and make sure your staff knows that their fates don’t hang on the success of a pilot project.
  3. The Pre-Postmortem:  Not only is the term postmortem a bit morbid, putting off a project assessment until the pilot is ‘dead’ may yield you nothing but flies (sorry, I had to go there).  Discoveries and insights can occur at any point.  Capitalize on those eureka moments and keep your pilot project adaptive.
  4. Agility:  Are you tired of that word, yet?  Building off the previous point, make sure to remain nimble in your pilot.  Unexpected insights crop up throughout a good pilot, and you should be ready to modify your goal, rather than doggedly pursuing a potentially outdated goal.  (What do they say about best laid plans?)  More importantly, identify a stopping point, which may or may not be the planned ‘end’ of the experiment.  You may reach a good stopping point halfway through a pilot, and be ready for the next stage.

Conversation:  Socializing Change

If your business is undergoing a change process, it goes without saying that it will have a ripple effect throughout the organization.  In order to ensure that those affected by change aren’t also blindsided by it, it’s best to get them involved early in the process. There is, of course, a narrow path between providing too little information (What is change?  It’s a mystery!) and providing too much (Change is coming, run for the hills!).

  1. Broadcasting Change:  Just as documentation and messaging are important tools for keeping a change process or pilot aligned, they also help to minimize anxiety or fear among both the pilot participants and staff who are not directly involved in the pilot.  Non-pilot participants are also encouraged to understand how the pilot outcomes will affect their own roles and responsibilities, and may volunteer their own insights.
  2. Naysayers’ Wisdom: Don’t simply dismiss the eye-rollers in your organization.  Their concerns may be valid and could point you to unanticipated hurdles or missteps.  If their resistance is unfounded, consider it a lesson in implementing change beyond your pilot team.  If you can win over your early detractors, you’ll roll out the change process more smoothly.
  3. The Unlikely Cheerleader:  Keep an open mind when designating change agents or members of the pilot team.  Sometimes, the technical ‘wizard’ may also be the greatest skeptic.  Good change agents come from all quarters, and those who are less experienced may be the most open to new ideas.
  4. Network, Network, Network:  Maintain lines of communication with other businesses and share both failures and successes.  Conferences are great places to learn from others and generate new strategies.  Build relationships with innovative, well-connected vendors.  The best vendors meet your immediate needs and keep you connected with new information and growing networks.

These three buckets of advice don’t quite deliver a blueprint, but they do offer a sound starting point for any change process.  We’re all learning as we go, so keep those conversations going.

Edwina Lui is Director of Content Management and Strategy at Kaplan Publishing.  When not working on Kaplan’s evolving content strategy, workflows, and systems, she spends her time seeking out dangerous activities and occasionally attends publishing conferences (possibly one and the same).  She tweets sporadically as @edwinalui, dividing her time between publishing/tech morsels, world news, and native New Yorker rants.

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