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.”

Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed 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.