Big things I’ve learned about change in the past year (a checklist for media orgs)

I am excited to present this week at the Daily Iowan’s 150th anniversary celebration. As a University of Iowa undergrad, the DI was my first training ground in how to be a reporter and a newsroom manager. It remains an incredible experience for students.

I’ll be speaking about change management, focusing on media organizations. It’s been a year since I left my job as a digital director at a TV station to return to school and head down a new career path in change management. I’ve had plenty of “aha” moments from incredible mentors connected with Northwestern University’s MSLOC program about why organizational change can be so difficult and how to help make it a smoother process.

Plenty of news organizations continue to scramble just to get their product out, find new revenue streams and navigate ever-changing consumer behavior. It’s a tough business and the past decade has been a roller-coaster ride. I also remain deeply concerned that news companies still aren’t paying enough attention to building and growing internal change capability. There’s plenty of “we need to change” talk, but the “how” of the change — the boots-on-the-ground, step-by-step implementation that gets broad buy-in — loses steam. Many are failing to continually train new leaders or set up systems to create, share and scale knowledge in engaging ways. Some don’t have the know-how to create successful and sustainable teams, HR is buried in logistics paperwork, the emotional impact of historic industry disruption on employees is ignored and so on.

Meanwhile, business is only getting more complex. Check out this Industry 4.0 site from Deloitte.

If you work for a media organization, here are a few tactics to consider when navigating change:

Try to stay in the problem. Picture it: You’re in a meeting and a problem is brought to everyone’s attention. It’s the first time most participants in the room have heard of this problem. What does everyone do? They start suggesting solutions. Not so fast. While that behavior is rewarded around deadline-driven news coverage, it may not work best with internal, organizational strategy. Ask the room: Have we really identified that this is the problem? How do we know? Have we tested these assumptions?

Ask questions. Then ask more questions and then ask more questions. How many times do we pretend to listen to others, but are actually simultaneously formulating a response in our minds? This Harvard Business Review article has a different tactic. There is power in asking follow-up questions, which can make a participant feel respected and involved in a change process. Questions can be as much about building rapport and gaining support for an initiative as they are about getting answers. Here’s a challenge: Could you go an entire work day mostly asking questions? You do work in the communications business, after all. Take a page from journalism and avoid “yes” or “no” questions, capitalize on silence and allow the other person to expand on their comments and take care not to interrupt.

Know yourself at work. Do you know your work style? How do you react during times of stress? Can you read a room and adjust your style accordingly? Taking assessments can provide a better sense of how to be more effective in the workplace. Two of my favorites are the CliftonStrengths assessment and the Hogan assessments. Here’s more information on assessments.

Know your team at work. Did you know that teams with more than 8-10 people may not function well? Or, how about that most teams go through four distinct phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing? Have you ever considered writing a team charter so that every member is clear on how the team operates, member roles and goals? Knowing how a team works is just as important as ensuring that the team reaches its goals.

Build narrative intelligence. Organizational storytelling is the focus of my Master’s thesis and I am convinced that company leaders (especially) should continue to build skills in this area. Being able to tell the right story at the right time to the right audience to spark action will become even more critical to drive change. Storytelling can be a powerful way to steer through ambiguity.

And, please incorporate story arc, current state and future state into your presentations. This TED Talk from Nancy Duarte should be required watching for anyone creating a PowerPoint:

Learn design thinking. “This approach brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges,” according to the experts at IDEO. This method can be rolled out across the enterprise as a key way to build ideas and test solutions. It works for planning news content, discovering revenue solutions, transforming talent management and more.

To be sure, this is just a starter list. I’d love to hear from my fellow change management practitioners and media leaders on their solutions.

Stakeholder interviews, part two: Feedback that improves design

Note: I’m Working Out Loud to document my learning journey around developing a digital learning course for the Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. 

We conducted six, one-on-one interviews with MSLOC students who have a wide variety of experience in creating and maintaining a digital portfolio. Overall, there was very positive feedback. Interviewees generally found it easy to navigate the modules and felt that the structure was not overwhelming. That was a key hope, that this self-paced course wasn’t overwhelming for time-strapped students.

In a part one of this post, I identified the stakeholder interview process. This time, my favorite question was: Tell me what this section is asking you to do? It was valuable to get user’s descriptions to determine if their expectations met our intentions.

Our focus group identified key takeaways that will greatly improve the design. These included:

  • Adding in more context about what will be accomplished in each module, i.e. “at the end of this section, you will know how to do XX, XX and XX.”
  • Develop a FAQ for the resource page, making sure to add that there are no grades, address the time to complete the course and explain the “reading” tasks of each module and the “creating within WordPress” tasks of each module. 
  • Create badges that are awarded at the end of each module and ensure that they are fun and align with the MSLOC brand
  • Include more examples of WordPress best practices and explain why those examples were selected
  • Explain the pros and cons of purchasing a separate domain name and integrating it into a digital portfolio
  • Offer a “mark as done” feature so that they can track progress, most students will complete this course in small time windows, as they have the ability

Feedback was consistent that the sites should be as visually welcoming as possible and we’re working with Northwestern learning technology experts to determine what is possible in Canvas to add features. These might include:

  • Responsive banner images
  • In-page navigation tabs
  • Icons for special directions for specific cohorts
  • Tabs for additional information, including examples and resources.

A primary benefit to using these design elements is to continue to simplify the experience for users. We do not want lengthy blocks of text or lack of images or too many links to distract and discourage them from creating a digital portfolio.

Wireframe designs have been submitted and we’ll see what’s possible.


MURAL-ing to construct a user journey

Estimated reading time: Two minutes

Note: I’m Working Out Loud to document my learning journey around developing a digital learning course for the Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. Here are additional details on the digital portfolio project.  

Three possible student groups, each with its own learning needs. Up to five possible learning modules for each group. Five, maybe more, sections within each module. That was a proposed initial structure for the course.

Key questions included: What were the paths and topics for each self-directed learning cohort?What activities should students complete? Did they need to meet requirements in order to progress through the course? Would they want to measure their progress?

Time for a user-experience map – first just a sheet of paper and a quick pencil sketch to determine the main modules.

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The design began to look like a game or a choose-your-own-adventure book.

The drawing sparked additional questions: What were key milestones? Were modules balanced? Were there too many assignments? How might users feel at each stage of the process? What if a student was completely new to digital content publishing? What might their concerns be versus a student who was a more experienced blogger?

From paper, we moved to whiteboard and then to MURAL. I had experimented with this tool in earlier classes, but really came to understand its value during this process. It’s a good way to digitally co-create a user-experience map development and easily move components, add comments, use virtual sticky notes and download versions. To me, there’s something about designing in MURAL that encourages the most pared down, but functional, design. It reminds me of a former co-worker who would look at a plan and ask: What’s the least this could be? In other words, how simple and friction-less could we make this for the user?

The course architecture started to congeal.

It went from this whiteboard sketch…

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To this whiteboard map…

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Then this design using MURAL…


And, finally, this MURAL design…


The course design continues to be adjusted as we build and receive prototype feedback.

Now I just need a giant monitor with with a fancy stylus to really take advantage of designing in MURAL.

DisruptHR Chicago Webinar: Your organization should consider letting employees create how they learn

Employees can get excited and engaged – and ultimately increase innovation – if they have a role in designing their own learning. It’s important that the experience meets their interests, allows them to share their stories and includes vendor partners who can make the process sustainable, say Eric Doctors and Victor Saad.

Both hosted DisruptHR Chicago’s virtual webinar today on the topic of employee learning and engagement. It’s worth watching.

Eric and Victor also presented on employee learning at last year’s DisruptHR event:

L&D: Is your company paying enough attention to knowledge creation and management?

My graduate program took a sharp meta turn this quarter.

In a class called Creating and Sharing Knowledge, I learned better ways to build, scale, measure and align knowledge management within an organization. I am also helping the department build a self-directed course to teach students how to develop a digital portfolio website. The goal is to help participants show their practitioner point of view, learn as part of a collaborative community and showcase their work professionally. It was beyond helpful to apply class concepts to this project, especially during the design stage. Both experiences provided with me with new tools to help organizations create and share knowledge that can scale.

Here are six principles I learned during the past three months that now inform my world view on digital L&D efforts:

1. Knowledge should be co-created in a memorable way: Decades of academic frameworks exist around how people learn how to learn and how they come to know knowledge. Here’s one big takeaway from that research: Knowledge creation should be a mix tacit and explicit – and never boring or lazy. Companies shouldn’t just dump best practice documents or videos into an internal shared drive in the hope that employees will learn the information. How many times has that happened in your company and the information was simply ignored? Organizations must get more creative. There’s no excuse anymore to force employees to sit through hours of in-person training as a PowerPoint presentation drones on. A process and technology should work together to allow employees to continually co-create knowledge. Employees should also be encouraged to incorporate their entire life experience into learning, bringing their full selves to the effort to build ideas off varied perspectives. Academics call this taking a social-practice perspective with a pragmatist lens. It gives employees a stake into how organizational knowledge is created. As a result, they will be more inspired and more invested to help guide the effort.

2. Knowledge should be shared in different forms: It’s obviously not enough to create the knowledge. What’s the distribution plan? Do your company’s learning platforms make it easy to share knowledge by considering how people relate to the knowledge they encounter? Is this process visible and easily accessible? That includes making sure that employees have access to information in its original form, as well as later versions of information that they can edit and view edits). Having both offerings make the learning process more robust because it provides additional context. Additionally, how are employees acquiring both direct knowledge and meta-knowledge?

3. What can be measured, matters: Digital L&D efforts should be measured – and not just by surveys. Getting creative with KPIs is key. Can you measure how often training materials are created or accessed? What about email sentiment around learning efforts? Maybe it’s important to develop personas around internal stakeholders who are co-creating and benefiting from knowledge. Don’t forget to look at participation and collaboration rates.

4. What can be aligned with larger organizational goals matters: Knowledge efforts should be aligned around strategic vision/goals, business results, critical capacities, operational metrics, learning/knowledge approach, solution metrics, learning/knowledge solutions and delivery status. Additionally, it is important to couch L&D strategy in the perspective of the stakeholder. A CEO, for example, isn’t going to care about learning theory as much as how much knowledge innovation efforts will speed new products to market. Quickly show him or her the path to accomplishing that goal.

5. Design is not about the designer: When designing a knowledge management system, leave your ego at the door. The process should focus on empathizing with internal stakeholders Does the system meet their needs at every stage? Learning new things can be confusing or even frightening. How might knowledge creation inspire and empower employees? During our team’s in-class design process of a knowledge management system, it was important that stakeholders described back to us how they understood our process. That highlighted gaps because of assumptions our team had made. We adjusted our design based on the focus-group feedback.

6. Use the latest technology (but don’t get caught up in the bells and whistles and forget about people): Want to find the organizational influencers who can help create and advance knowledge creation efforts? Great. You might try an organizational network analysis to determine pockets of knowledge across the enterprise. Want to use Slack or Yammer or Jive to have employees co-collaborate around best practices? Perfect. Want to implement a system that uses a mix of triggered attending, tagging, algorithmically personalized feeds to surface related knowledge topics? That’s great. But just make sure these systems are being used by most employees and not just the early adapters or tech enthusiasts. It’s important to establish feedback loops around knowledge enterprise technology and continue to iterate based on that feedback. Who are the people most resistant to using the knowledge-creation technology? What are their concerns? How are they helping develop the knowledge process and, in turn, becoming influencers in the effort? Holding a face-to-face listening session with this group can work wonders.

I hope that more companies are taking in-depth approaches to knowledge creation and management, especially in terms of making additional investment and aiming to capture the heads and hearts of employees and spark innovation. These efforts can be complex, but organizations must get serious about organizational knowledge. The flip side is costlier, in the long term. What happens, after all, if your employees aren’t collaborating to surface and share new knowledge across the enterprise? That’s a serious competitive disadvantage.