Are you ready for some change?

Twelve not-so-obvious things you can do to make change happen

Change hurts. Change is hard. Change takes a long time. Change is essential.

Here’s a top 10 — well, top 12 — list of things you can do to make change easier and more effective at your institution. They are culled and synthesized from books and articles by, among others, John Kotter, Jim Collins and Rosabeth Moss-Kanter. See the bibliography at the end.

12. Be brutally honest. Staff and board members must confront their situations unblinkingly. We don’t get anywhere by ducking issues, by sugar-coating bitter pills. For example, we should acknowledge: Our programming is no longer unique; our individual stations may be efficient, but our collective infrastructure is overbuilt; the most creative producers are no longer attracted to us; our future is not as freestanding  broadcasters but as a part of much larger collaborations — with one another, with universities, libraries, museums and social service agencies. (Even so, only milk tops us on the list of respected institutions in America.)

Question, challenge, prod. Facing and admitting our realities — good and bad — is the first, essential, step.

11. Create a council. As we all know, the best ideas don’t always come from the most senior staff members, nor do they come while we’re sitting at our desks. Each institution must encourage a relatively small group of employees — a group that does not include the g.m. — to gather with some regularity and brainstorm both the challenges that do or will confront it and the possible solutions. The group must be small, independent, basically self-selecting, and should have a disproportionate number of young people new to our business. It can meet regularly or not; it can keep minutes or not; it can have subgroups or not; it can have deadlines or not. The important thing is that a group of your employees be empowered to take time to think without undue pressure about the issues facing your institution, and that you be open to the suggestions they come up with.

10. Get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. We all hate firing people. But we do no one a favor — not the individual, not the institution — by putting or keeping someone in a position where he or she cannot perform well. In the long run, a laid-off person will be better off doing a job he or she can do well elsewhere than staying and doing the present job poorly. Even though we all know that the station will be better off with qualified people in all jobs, it’s tough to let people go, because we end up injuring spouses, kids, friendships, interpersonal histories and traditions. There are good and bad ways of implementing those decisions, of course, and Cindy Browne discusses some of them in an adjacent article, but we’ve got to make them, because if we are to thrive, we have to do it with the right, committed people.

9. Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not on your biggest problems. This concept is not intuitively obvious. As Dale Emerson points out in an adjacent article, it’s hard for us to invest in new opportunities — even if the chance of success is very high — when our budget is fully committed to ongoing projects. We are faced with problems and opportunities every day — the problems demand attention, the opportunities can always wait till tomorrow. So we tend to pull our best talent to work on the problems and have no one left to handle the opportunities. Not a good idea.

(Of course, if bosses catch on, you may never want yours to tell you, “You’re the only one I can trust to solve our big problem!”)

More seriously, the next time someone says, “That idea (or project or approach) will never work at my station,” the best response is not, “You’re wrong, and let me show you why,” but “You may be right, so let’s make sure the resources go to a station that can take advantage of the opportunity.”  

8. Create a sense of urgency by doing something dramatic. Change literature is filled with stories of dramatic acts that have led to dramatic changes. Here’s one from our own business. Over the past few years, both San Diego’s KPBS and Maryland Public Television have faced substantial budget crises. In both cases, the managers, Doug Myrland or Rob Shuman, respectively, said, “We’re going to cut our production budget and increase the hours of production.” Both dropped high-production-value specials in favor of daily strips, taped largely in the studio, and increased local production 30- or 40-fold. It was not an easy transition at either station, but it succeeded in creating a sense of urgency and changing the way people thought about their station, their jobs and their mission.

7. Determine a single metric that measures success. This exercise, which forces you to prioritize, is one of the toughest to act on. But it gets easier if you think in terms of a single station and not the system as a whole. It really boils down to the “elevator question” — if you just had 15 seconds to tell someone what was important about your station and back it up with quantifiable facts, what would you say? The percentage of the population that views regularly? Revenue per capita? Increased average test scores in local K-12 schools?

6. Know the customers. Again, the literature is filled with anecdotes. Here’s one from public TV. Frustrated by his station’s classy, award-winning but unnavigable program guide, a station manager assigned an intern to videotape several dozen one-on-one interviews with viewers who had been given the guide. The intern asked two questions:

The viewers were bewildered. When the tape was shown to the award-winning designers, they sheepishly agreed to redesign the magazine. Similar stories could be told about our producers’, schedulers’ and fundraisers’ insensitivity to our customers.

5. Define what you’re passionate about and act on it. I’d rather take a ride in an old Jeep with someone who is passionate about Jeeps than in a Porsche with someone who takes it for granted. If you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing, and if you can’t tell someone what that passion is in 30 seconds, you should get off the bus.

4. Define what you will be able to do better than anybody else in the future. Not your core competence, not what you are or were best at. This is not about you, but about your role in the context of tomorrow. You’ll probably be surprised at the answer, and it will define your future.

3. Communicate directly and selectively. It’s amazing how much communication is needed. That was clear at a New Hampshire PTV retreat. In an exercise on implementing change created by the University of New Hampshire, the most effective way to create change was not an implementation plan, all-staff meeting or brochure, but communicating one-on-one over and over again. The second-most important strategy, by the way, was to concentrate on those who believed in the change — not to try to convert the doubters (see “put best people on biggest opportunities” above). Also, communication is essential, charisma is not. In fact, many of the most successful change agents have been very quiet, unassuming people — smart, driven, confident, dedicated, yes, but not great orators or visible public figures.

And the top two ways you can make change happen in your station help you stop worrying about where the money is going to come from:

2. Money is not the problem, Part II. Like our closets, filled with stuff we never use but can’t bear to throw out, stations keep on doing things that are no longer productive and often not even on mission. Prioritize your activities according to your community’s needs, not your station’s desires, and fund them fully from the top down, eliminating those that are left over when the funds run out. If you spread limited funds over too many activities, you’ll do none of them well and you’ll never have the resources for new initiatives.

1. Money is not the problem, Part I. If you’ve defined what you can do better than anyone else, if you’re passionate about it, if you’ve got the right people on the bus, and if you know your customers, the money will come. It will come from individuals and foundations and government leaders who share your passion and believe you can deliver on that passion.

Partial bibliography

Jim Collins:  Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't, (HarperCollins, 2001) and Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (coauthored by Jerry I. Porras, HarperCollins).

Richard Florida:  The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002)

Malcolm Gladwell: The Tipping Point (Little Brown & Co., 2000)

John Kotter:  Leading Change and The Heart of Change (both Harvard Business School Press)

Rosabeth Moss-Kanter:  Evolve! (Harvard Business School Press) and Challenge of Organizational Change (The Free Press)

David Othmer, former station manager of Philadelphia's WHYY-TV and FM, is a consultant in public broadcasting and a part-time vintner in Pennsylvania.

Web page posted Sept. 8, 2008
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee


Other articles published Feb. 23, 2004:

Analyzing change models helps you beat the odds and succeed, by Cindy Browne

How you can find resources now to shape the future you want, by Dale Emerson


The best idea ever, and it's FREE! David Othmer says it's time for stations to lower a major barrier to members.


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