Change management is sometimes compared to turning a ship—the more you’re saddled with legacy behaviors, policies, and technologies, the more it’s like turning around an ocean liner. OK, so you’re never going to be a zippy little speedboat—but what can you do to make change less painful?
In this episode, we ask: What does it take for news organizations to effect change that actually sticks? Do you need a burning platform to speed up change (ahem, COVID)? And will our experience of the last year make us more change-friendly?
Listen to Hear:
- Effective strategies for implementing change management programs within news organizations
- The importance of clarity of thought when embarking on major change
- Whether the pandemic has made journalists more receptive to changes
Our Guest This EpisodeAs Head of Change for BBC News and Current Affairs, Charlotte Eimer oversees complex transformation. The most significant project at the moment is modernizing BBC News, which aims to increase the impact of BBC News journalism, reshape how it commissions content to reach new audiences, and provide value for all. Now a Chartered Project Professional, Charlotte started her BBC career as a journalist covering Latin America. She is an experienced editor who has been responsible for coordinating the daily production of news and information services across the globe. Charlotte was program director of a digital transformation that redesigned BBC Monitoring’s operating model, shifted the department to a culture of continuous improvement, delivered significant annual savings, and brought about a step change in customer metrics. The program won the 2019 MCA Award for Change and Transformation in the Public Sector.
Clarity of purpose really is core to change, and when you have that absolute laser-like focus, it’s incredible what you can achieve.
– Charlotte Eimer, Head of Change, BBC News and Current Affairs
Mentioned in This Episode
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Bobby Hain from STV joins the Making the Media podcast to discuss how news teams have handled the move to remote working and what that means for the future of news gathering.
Craig Wilson: Hi! Thanks for joining me for the latest episode of the Making the Media podcast. My name is Craig Wilson.
One thing almost everyone in the news industry has had to do over the last year or so is adapt to change. The pandemic prompted a major re-evaluation of office-based working with teams across the world, moving quickly to work from home or work remotely. But change has been a constant in broadcasting for decades, and that shows no signs of abating. If anything, it's accelerating. And what if your task is to drive not just a temporary change, but to effect lasting transformative change within a news organization?
That's the role of Charlotte Eimer, the Head of Change for BBC News and Current Affairs in the UK, and I'm delighted to say she's my guest for this episode. She comes from a journalistic background, and I began by asking her whether she felt that was an advantage when it came to delivering change within the organization.
Charlotte Eimer: I do think it helps. I mean, it certainly helps when you're working in the newsroom to understand what the pressures of the newsroom are and to understand the challenges that the change is posing for people. But I think being a journalist is also helpful because I'm sure we will say this repeatedly as we talk: So much of change is about communication. I mean really—it's about people and it's about communication and being able to tell a story, paint a picture, create a vision and really communicate effectively, ask the right questions, know when to listen—those are all really cool change skills as well as being important skills for journalists.
CW: So, when it comes to change and the beginning of a change project, what do you think are the key things that you have to consider at that point almost regardless of what the actual project is?
CE: I think you've got to do some heavy lifting up front, really. You've got to work hard to really arrive at a clear vision. You've got to know what the changes you're trying to make, and why trying to make it. And I think in the past, people talked a lot about the burning platform being essential for change, but you can also give people a real vision for the future that inspires them around something, you know, that they're passionate about. It doesn't always have to be stemming from, you know, financial catastrophe, or some other disaster. But really, that is step one in all change, and when you're doing that to also keep in mind your audience or your customers or users depending on your organization, and bring them in and collaborate with them to understand what good looks like. And I think you know that's got to be the first step.
CW: So, when it comes to that initial process and having clarity of vision, how much of that is then driven by you as a change manager or by the organization at which you're trying to change? With people who are leading that, where do you think that the balance has to come?
CE: Well, you know, that's a great question. Often you start working in change with the board or assess the stakeholders before any sort of change project, or initiative really exists, and you're there facilitating a group of people to help draw out what that change is, and what it looks like. And so, you get in very early and you play quite an important role. But it's very important to guard against the idea that you're there to do the change, you know. I mean, at the end of the day, change is led by the leaders of the organization. You know, we all sort of follow the lead of the person we work for, so change cascades down from the top. You've got to walk the walk. You've got to embody the change.
Change can also bubble up from teams innovating on the ground—it's not a one-way street. But if you're really trying to lead a major change, then you know, it's the leaders of the organization who need to own that change and embody that change and drive it, and the change experts facilitating bringing tools, techniques, helping with coordinating and driving that change. But really, you're equipping the business you're working in to make the change. You're not doing it to them.
CW: The BBC is a very large organization, but do you think the principles apply regardless of the scale of the organization that you're involved with?
CE: Yeah, I mean, the BBC itself is huge, but often, change projects happen in small pockets of it, so you can have very wide scale change or corporate initiative, or you can be working quite a small team or department. And I would say that the principles apply to any change, even if your change is to you know redecorate your home, you still need to be clear about which areas are priorities and what your budget is and what you're setting out to achieve and what your timeline is, and who's going to live in it afterwards and how it needs to work for them. So, in all change I think it's key.
CW: You mentioned earlier on about coming from a journalism background and understanding how the newsroom works is important. So, one of the key areas I think people—perhaps you don't work in news don't really understand is how quite complex news is—it’s something that's always on the go. It never stops, particularly organizations like the BBC have 24-hour news channels and everything else.
So, are there unique challenges about news that make implementing change more complex?
CE: I would always say yes, of course. It is a very complex environment. Buzzword in change at the moment is you hear a lot of people talking about VUCA. The VUCA environment, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, and that is intended to describe the situation of sort of constant, unpredictable change that is the norm—definitely in in the media and in lots of other industries. But as you say, it's also the norm when you're working in a breaking news environment. And you know, things are very complex and shifting, and you're working to deadlines.
So, I think that does bring all sorts of challenges that are specific to the news environment. Trying to pull people away from their day job is very challenging. The news doesn't stop if you walk away from it. So, just being able to take time out and work with people is a constant challenge. I think that the culture of that news environment means that people can be very, very, deadline focused and often quite transactional in the way that they work, because that's a requirement—you've got to hit a deadline.
People can also be quite perfectionist in the way they work because you've got to be broadcast ready. It's got to be perfect when it goes on air or when you publish it or whatever it is you're working on and that also makes change difficult because in change I think striving for perfection is the enemy of progress, and you need to get out there and get started and see how things go. So, there are definitely specific challenges to that complex environment and the culture within it.
CW: We've spoken to various people on the podcast and obviously over the course of the last 15-16 months there's been a huge amount of change because of the nature of what happened with COVID, and some people feel that that's perhaps made staff more willing to adopt things that perhaps they wouldn't have considered before. You know, we're doing this working from home, for example, which a lot of people perhaps wouldn't have done before, so I wonder if you could reflect a little bit back on how things went through that period. Maybe March-April time last year within the BBC. And then why do you think that maybe has a longer lasting effect—or not—on people's willingness to adapt to change?
CE: I mean, this is a fascinating conversation. How long is the podcast? I could talk for hours about this. I really think that crisis management and change management are not the same thing. But they are both complex and there are tools and techniques from change that can work in both situations. So, the pandemic, the immediate lockdown, that crisis as we were just discussing in a way plays to the newsroom strengths. You've got this fast-paced breaking story, immediate deadlines, loads of pressure, you know, and we all sort of love that in the newsroom. That's what we get off on. Change is slower paced. It doesn't always feel like that. So, it's a different game for me.
I think, in the pandemic, in BBC News we moved into crisis management, and we handled that. Yeah, I personally think we handled it exceptionally well. You know, we took some very immediate first steps. Some of which are transferable to a slower change program, but not all of them.
So, we empowered our decision makers very quickly and we made them accountable, and they were clear about what they had to do. We had daily incident management. We were identifying trouble areas, you know, really, super-fast. We set up a cadence of meetings and a clear escalation process and we really over communicated both the process, the progress, what was going on, and this all happened at lightning speed. In a way, you know, moving to a remote workforce happened in about 72 hours. And often that level of change would take three years and might or might not succeed.
So, you know, once the staff are at home and their schedules are pared down, then we moved into something that I think is more akin to change management and the Director of News, Fran Unsworth immediately identified the two objectives that we're going to sort of drive us through the first lockdown and guide all of our actions really. And that's where you come back to that clear vision at the top of a change. And for us those were stay on air and protect our stuff. And everything else fell away. And I think one lesson you can take from that is that clarity of purpose really is cool to change, and when you have that absolute laser like focus, it's incredible what you can achieve.
But I do think there's an interesting conversation going on at the moment, as we all start to think about hopefully some sort of return to work. And you know the truth will tell whether all of this change sticks, or how quickly we actually revert to the old ways of working where everyone's back in the newsroom, back in the office. And you want to be there and flexible working and working from home sort of falls away, or whether some of the benefits of this really stick. And I think that's going to take a bit of time to see how much of this sticks.
You know that there are lots that I could talk about operationally about how we handled the pandemic, but also, I think you know, news was fortunate that we had already got some ambition and some change plans in place to create a more remote, capable, if you like, connected newsroom. And so, we were able to piggyback off that and drive some really rapid change.
But we also really encouraged innovation in our teams, which I think is key to change in a complex environment. And so, we let people rise to the challenge. How can we keep doing high-quality broadcasting for audiences when people need news more than ever? I mean, the news was so critical in that first lock down—more than ever. How do we also keep our audiences entertained, enlightened? How do we still keep them involved with our broadcasting?
We had to develop suites of virtual production tools. We had to find ways to gradually return a live audience to some of our best loved radio shows. There was constant innovation going on. I think some of those changes are here to stay, but it will be interesting to see what sticks and where working practice reverts back, because it was a crisis management response rather than a considered change program delivered over time.
CW: Yeah, I think there's a couple things to see around that. Because I think you're absolutely right. Again, speaking to other people, they were kind of making it up as they went along to an extent because no one had faced this kind of scenario and they have reached the point where it's going “OK. What worked, what didn't, and what are the things that we want to take forward?”
But I wanted to pick up on one phrase that you mentioned there you talked about clarity of purpose. I wanted just to ask you a little bit about that when it comes to a change project. Would you say it’s like the number one thing that people have to have is clarity of purpose? Because if you don't have that, then everything else can be problematic.
CE: I think so. There is a statistic that floats around that says something like 75 or 80% of change programs fail. And that number seems to stay pretty constant over the years, so you know, I don't know. I don't know exactly how it's derived, but it's a pretty constant number that you hear. And I think without clarity of purpose, the risk of failure increases quite dramatically, because in my experience, you know, success is when you can trace every action you do back to a clear objective. So, in the pandemic example, you know, are you doing something that's going to protect our staff? Are you doing something that's going to help us stay on air? If you're doing something unrelated to those, do two things, we’ll stop. Because that's not going to drive the change. And I think that really is a big success factor.
Sometimes you can see change projects where that clarity emerges overtime. Sometimes there needs to be some… you know, you get new people coming in, new thinking on the board, you might get a change at the top. I've experienced a lot of change in leadership in change programs I've been involved in. You know, you might get two or three program sponsors. You can get some pretty volatile situations where that clarity emerges or shifts overtime, and you can work with that, but it definitely makes things harder.
CW: And what about staff willingness to adopt, change? Do you think that has changed because of what happened last year?
CE: That's also a really interesting debate. I think among the sort of non-change expert’s community, there's a feeling that, you know, look how we handled the pandemic—"we’re great at change. We've got it now.” I think many change professionals might be more considered about that. I think how you respond in a crisis is of course going to be different to how you deal with change in your day-to-day life.
There are lots of change theories about how we deal with change. Whether it's Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and if you display something there, how it unsettles people through change. Or the Kuebler Ross Change Curve, which shows how going through change is a lot like being bereaved, and you move through these stages of anger and denial and depression, bargaining and hopefully at some point acceptance—and that may or may not be a linear process. A crisis isn't like that. A crisis hits, you react, and you find a new way. So, I think my experience in newsrooms as well—journalists spend their life asking difficult questions, challenging, looking for the propaganda, looking for what isn't being said. It is a tough crowd when you're trying to do change and there is always a sizable minority who can be very resistant, very cynical.
Having said that, it's human nature. No one likes feeling that they're losing control of their working life or any other change that you haven't planned yourself. So, I think really what change leaders need to be is emotionally intelligent and resilient. You need to have a high awareness of the people around you. You often have to face into quite powerful emotions, and you have to be able to not panic. You have to be comfortable with not having the answers. You have to be able to deal with conflicts and uncertainty because they arise all the time in change. And I guess there's a skill in trying to sketch out a route map so that people can manage their anxiety, because there will be a period when it's uncertain.
I think you have to give peoples’ emotions a lot of space; and you have to respect them; and you have to listen hard, and not panic and shy away from them or it’ll close them down. Work patiently and try to build people's understanding without necessarily wasting, plowing a lot of energy into a small group of real cynics and resistors—there's not always a lot of value in trying to tackle that, but working with the majority.
CW: So, clearly in some change projects, there reaches a point where perhaps you may have to move ahead despite resistance that you come up against, as well. So how do you try to push projects along when there is resistance?
Say, for example, people's jobs are being relocated to another location and they don't want to move, for example. Something which I'm sure within the BBC has been the case in recent years where people will move to Salford, for example, or to other places. How you handle something like that?
CE: That's a topical one at the moment. That particular example is very difficult. When you're asking people to not just change the way they work, but potentially to uproot their families, ask their partner to reconsider their career and where they're working, what they're doing. Think about children or other dependants. Then, you know, that's a scale of change that is going to boil down to personal choice every time. And that is particularly difficult. And to me, the only way to deal with that really is gently and empathetically.
If you need to make that move for business reasons, then trying to find other options and make those available to the people who aren't able to make a move—whatever that option might be, like moving into a different team that’s staying in their location; repair reskilling and taking a different role; offering a redundancy package or whatever might be available, but trying to give people a set of options and as broad a set of choices as you can is, I think, in that particular example, it's the best thing to do. And to try and really help people understand the vision for that move and to bring it to life and to show the opportunities that exist.
And I think most of our journalists who moved to Salford didn't look back. And Salford has a great culture and is a vibrant place. And the community has really expanded the media city there, which is an incredible place to work. So, these things are always difficult in the moments. You know, the change curve is real. That anger denial. If this is a change you can't make, you've got to make a difficult decision sometimes, and so you’ve just got to really try and support people through that.
CW: So, we've talked a lot about change, Charlotte. Now I want to ask maybe a more personal question: how do you feel you react and deal with change?
CE: Well, we're all human. It's great when you're in control of it. I do enjoy change. I can't lie, I mean, I wouldn't be in this job if I didn't because I've seen a lot of people come in and work on a change project and enjoy it and then go back to the day job and breathe a big sigh of relief and tick that box—not going to do it again. And I seem to be a glutton for punishment, so I do enjoy it.
But I do still go through that change curve and it's really interesting. At the moment, I'm working within an network of journalists in news, in a building, as sort of a change network, which is something I always try to do in in a major change, you know, really build some understanding with a group of volunteers who are keen to get involved and try and work with them to improve communication in both directions into the change in the leadership of the project and then back out to the newsroom and the teams. And early in that process I ran a session on the change curve and sort of giving them some theory around how people respond to change. And you know, it's about 3 slides into my training session when suddenly the change curve erupted and everyone was furious and shouting, and I suddenly thought the training session is actually me being reminded that they're all on the change curve, and I'm the one having the training experience!
So, you know, change is hard for everybody. But some of us are maybe just a bit more excited by ridiculous challenges than others. What can I say? I don't want to make myself sound like a mad woman, but I do enjoy it. But I also go through that same emotion. It is difficult when change happens.
I think when you're leading change, you have to always try and remember where you are on the journey, and that it's not just understanding the responses of the people around you, it's also thinking “Well. Where am I at the moment on this journey of change?” And “Is the way I'm feeling coloring this interaction?” So yeah, it affects us all.
CW: It also is the nature of the business that in the 30 odd years that I've been involved in journalism, and now my career with Avid—change has been constant. The broadcast industry has changed incredibly. Going back, I started on typewriters, notepads, pens, shorthand, things like that to where we get to today. Change is constant. And I don't know about you, but I don't see that changing anytime soon.
CE: No, I don't think it will ever change and often, the change that you're trying to make in a project, or a department, or an organization—the really fundamental change you're trying to make is to help build an environment in which people are comfortable learning, testing, experimenting, and continually adapting. Because that is the norm—change is the norm. There's no two ways about it, and if you can build a culture in your organization where people are open to that, open to experimentation, comfortable with the occasional failure, and really skilled at driving that conversation all the time, and enabling people to innovate, then that's the core change we all have to make.
CW: Is failure important? In some respects?
CE: Being able to accept failure is definitely important. Yeah. I mean, if you're testing and learning in a complex environment, you can't pull some best practice or some ready-made solution off the shelf and implement it. You've got to do some testing and experimenting. And experiments, by their nature, often go wrong. So, I guess failing can drive growth and new thinking, or it can close down an avenue.
But what's important is being able to accept it and learn from it, rather than feeling defensive, or somehow that you're going to be heavily criticised and punished for it. It’s having the space to occasionally fail that creates the environment in which innovation can really succeed, I think.
CW: Charlotte, my final question. It's a question I ask everyone in the podcast. What is it, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?
CE: Keeps me awake at night? That is a good question.
I think what keeps me awake at night is really to do with the impact of change on people. It's not necessarily a particularly tangible thing, but, you know, I spent my day today interacting with people who are being impacted by change, and so when I'm lying awake at night worrying, it's probably because things have got particularly tense or difficult, or there's a group of people who are feeling particularly down about the change or struggling with it in some way.
And trying to help people move through that and reduce anxiety is really important to me, to be honest. That's what worries me the most—because what you don't want to do is make people's lives harder. They’re hard enough already, at the moment. And driving change in the middle of a pandemic with all the uncertainty that that has brought to us is a big ask of people. So, if I feel like the actions I'm taking and all the work I'm doing is having a negative impact, then yeah, that's when I lie awake trying to work out how to do it differently.
CW: I'm sure you're not alone in that, Charlotte. Everyone I know in the industry is constantly striving to do things better. Another really interesting chat there, and thanks to Charlotte Eimer for joining us.
Why not check out the show notes for more detail on story centric workflows—a key driver for change these days and also hear from Bobby Hain, the managing director of broadcast at STV in the UK for his views on adapting to change in another podcast episode.
Next time we're looking at the thorny issue of trust in news, but looking at it from a technical perspective. I'll be discussing Project Origin: an alliance of four major organizations attempting to create a chain of trust from the publisher to the consumer. Let's hear from Bruce McCormack from Project Origin,
Bruce McCormack: How are we going to make sure that we can ensure the integrity of the content that a person receives? That what you've received is what we transmitted? Because there is potential for mischief in between. And how do you know that the source that sent it is the source that reports to be?
It's not just somebody with a camera saying I'm from the BBC and this is what I'm doing. They actually are legitimately from the BBC, and you can confirm that it's from the BBC. So that's what Project Origins started off to do. It's to do those two things: to ensure that you understand who the source of a piece of content is and that it hasn't been tampered with in transit. Easier said than done.
CW: Looking forward to hearing more from Bruce! Now, remember to subscribe to get notified when the next episode is released. And please share with your friends and colleagues if you like what you're hearing.
That's all for now from me, Craig Wilson. Thanks for listening! Thanks to our producer Rachel Haberman. Join me next time for more behind-the-scenes discussion about the news industry in the next episode of Making the Media.