News Leadership 3.0

July 22, 2009

The dance of change

USC Annenberg professor Patti Riley offers leaders good advice on leading change in their news organizations

Patti Riley had a lot of good advice for news and revenue executives who gathered this week for Knight Digital Media Center’s “Using Social Media to Build Audience” conference in Los Angeles. Riley, a professor in USC Annenberg’s School for Communication, has studied change in news organizations. Her findings are especially resonant with me because they are so similar to what my team saw when we worked with newsrooms to develop training programs that would foster change in attitudes while raising skills.

Riley has identified four tactics that successful change leaders use:

1. They Inject speed into any process, emphasizing that faster is better
2. They create structures that foster cross functional teams
3. They develop networks and communicate widely
4. They engineer success. They get quick wins and they trumpet them.

Urgency. Collaboration. Networks. Small victories.

Riley says it’s important for leaders to be up front about what’s going on, even in the midst of layoffs and downsizing. “We tell everybody the data, the goals and the consequences of not meeting those goals,” Riley said. “We make sure people have every opportunity to contribute to it being otherwise.”

“Help them understand how much they need to move out of Pot A into Pot B so that they still have even a chance of being around in 5 years” and avoid being the frog in the pot who doesn’t notice how much it’s heating up, Riley said.

Carlos Sanchez, editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, asked Riley about the problem of setting priorities in such a pressure-cooker environment. “A lot of priorities is no priorities,” Sanchez said.

Riley said it’s helpful to think of the goals or direction of the organization as an umbrella under which important activities must take place.

“Use the umbrella theme - this is our big vision, this is where we’re going.  Any time you add new elements—training in multimedia for example—show how these things exist in order to support the big umbrella theme. That will keep people focused on ‘This is where we’re trying to go.’  It’s got to fit together with that larger point.”

Riley also pointed to what I think is one of the biggest challenges for newsrooms: Stopping doing things that can no longer be priorities. “If you can’t figure out how (an activity) ultimately supports that final point, don’t do it,” she said. “There are unlimited needs in organizations and limited time and people.”

What’s your formula for setting priorities and advancing change in your organization? Please share your tips in the comments.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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