Ch-ch-changes: Turn and face agility in the media industry
Posted on May 11, 2023 by FEED Staff
Businesses that want to thrive in today’s media industry need to give up on the myth of stability
Words by Neal Romanek
“The media industry is changing faster than ever.”
How many times have you heard this panicky cliché? You’ve probably even read it in the pages of FEED. Yes, the industry is changing, and yes, new technologies allow massive scaling and rapid shifts in business models, as well as great volatility in markets and audiences. But change involves interactions of complex processes. It is almost never linear, and does not steadily accelerate like a train. Sometimes, when change comes, we don’t recognise it as such. Often we focus on a specific challenge or worry, which blinds us to the real shifts happening behind our backs.
Most organisations are reactive. They alter strategies when pressure from outside finally forces them. It’s human nature to stick with what you have, rather than throw the dice on an unknown. But the most successful businesses will be those who are watching the industry like surfers watching waves, ready to jump on the one that’s going to take them on the best ride. To do that, you need a clear analysis of what’s happening – not just, to paraphrase The Far Side cartoon, “change change Ginger change change change Ginger…”
Good change management isn’t about working hard to keep pace with progress. It’s about having the right processes – and people – in position so when change inevitably comes, it can be digested in a way that the organisation gets the most benefit. You want change to become propulsion, rather than a brake.
Technology is a principal catalyst for change across many industries. As technology develops the business environment, organisations need to rethink their own technology in order to operate more effectively.
The major sticking point for companies adopting new tech is not understanding that when you upgrade or alter technology, you also need to amend how your organisation works. We all reflexively believe that a fresh software update means we’ll be able to do what we’ve been doing both faster and better. But any change in processes demands a change in the business itself.
Plenty of media companies, particularly in the content creation world, are still using analogue-based methodologies and concepts – in some cases, practices that haven’t changed significantly in 50 years.
Or in the digital world, companies simply try to continue mimicking their on-premises workflows and processes in the cloud.
Coping with change
“Organisation change and technology change go along with each other,” explains Peter Nöthen, CEO of Qvest, Germany-headquartered systems integrator and specialist in helping companies in their digital transformation. “We discovered that our clients differentiate themselves by technology and their technology stack. But we found out very fast what was missing – you have to take the people with you.”
Nöthen noted that in helping clients, especially big clients, there was resistance to altering the organisation and workflows, even when physical changes to the business were massive.
“We have clients moving from one building to another, who might say: ‘we’ll have everything new now, we’ll start from scratch’. But in practical terms they actually don’t want to change. They want exactly what they had in the old building. And that issue was a driver for us to start helping with change management.”
Qvest focuses on two elements of the digital change process – helping organisations to change themselves and the bigger picture of evolving how work is done today and tomorrow. The principle behind Qvest’s change management service is not to help a company make a specific adjustment, but to help create change-friendly organisations.
“You cannot buy software in a one-stop shop, then hope that solution will last for years,” says Stefan Barth, COO of Qvest subsidiary Tarent, a software service provider and digitisation consultancy. “You have to change it continuously and constantly work on your software and IT environment to stay competitive. That’s the most important thing.
“We can help organisations cope with one important change: set-up of an ERP infrastructure or software product in your broadcast environment – but this is not the solution,” continues Barth. “Next year, you’ll just have the same situation. We try to help the organisation find a set-up that allows them to be a learning organisation able to transform themselves. Once you have the ability to change continuously, the next steps are much easier.”
The principles behind agile software development have informed how a whole generation of companies work. Agile development emphasises ongoing, continuous processes that adapt to the pertinent challenges at hand. Short feedback loops and continuous communication among team members mean change can be assimilated (yes, Borg-style) and responded to without having to come up with a fresh plan every time the landscape alters.
However, in the same way that being a true perfectionist means making sure that you’re imperfect about your perfectionism, the teams that can best capitalise on change aren’t those who blindly adhere to agile development regardless of the circumstance. They are the ones who can slot in the methodology most appropriate to the situation. Many business problems yield to the digital aikido of agile development, but some may still be best solved by being sent through the grinder of a traditional waterfall methodology.
“Sometimes it’s good to follow agile workflows, sometimes it’s good to proceed in waterfall style, and others it’s good to be somewhere in-between,” says Nöthen. “It has to be worked out and there have to be structures in place.”
One of the core doctrines of agile methodology is to be reactive, rather than sticking to a plan. This means staying aware of the environment and then adapting to the pressures of markets, technology and worker requirements. This is accomplished by empowering teams to make their own decisions and eschewing a top-down approach.
Barth, an expert in agile development, emphasises that the way of working should no longer be thought of as a software-developer-only method.
“Agility isn’t just about software. At its heart, it concerns setting up your organisation so that it responds to change. In fact, the word ‘agility’ was first mentioned not in software development, but at the beginning of the nineties with respect to manufacturing, which was trying to set up competitive businesses with very short cycles to introduce products to market that customers really wanted.”
Who makes the changes?
It’s ultimately about people – those who must implement or adapt to it.
“My experience says that if the management doesn’t support the change, then there is no change,” asserts Nöthen. “We are brought in to help initiate the process – but the organisation itself needs to implement the idea.”
When Qvest is brought in to consult on a technology adaptation, the process within the company is discussed at early stages.
“Today, managers are more open for this discussion. Going back three, four years, they would say ‘our HR department is handling that’. But an HR department can only do it from a certain angle,” explains Nöthen.
Barth adds: “At the beginning of these projects, you have to check what the management really want to achieve. And what is the price they are able to pay? Do they see themselves as part of the reason change hasn’t happened? If they don’t accept that they are a part of the system – and in a way part of the problem – it is really hard to set up the process needed to be successful. Change is not a one-time project.”
Coaching the managers
Getting management to adapt in order for the organisation to adapt requires coaching. People easily fall in love with the rightness of their own vision, and can cling to it stubbornly, even in the face of contrary evidence.
A consultancy like Qvest can start to interrogate the assumptions under which management has been operating by asking them how they communicate with their employees and what results those communications typically produce.
Simple microhabits can be introduced into daily work, which not only transform the culture of the business, but more importantly how management operates. They may need to step back from moderating meetings and take an observer point of view. The general trend is toward handing more control to teams – and even pushing teams to make decisions rather than appealing to management as an arbiter.
“When people come to you as a manager,” continues Barth, “you can just say: ‘Feel free to make the decision on your own. Whatever may happen, I will stand with you. If there is something wrong, we can discuss it then.’ This creates a new kind of leadership. Sometimes it works and other times it’s really difficult.”
That isn’t to imply management is simply giving up responsibility. In actuality, this means management can now focus better on the bigger picture, rather than getting bogged down in microdecisions.
A change-resilient business needs to abandon the myth of balance and stability. Balance is often trotted out as a universal virtue, but the truth is that balance doesn’t even really exists in business – or in nature. Technologies, markets, customers, finances and ideas are always growing or contracting, changing from one thing into another.
“The challenge in an organisation that needs stability is that the people within it are often held back by a kind of fear,” says Nöthen. “They fear losing their role in the organisation, so they try to secure things in every direction.
“But once you have reached an agile environment, people start to trust that the management team will involve them in every change. And if it’s going to affect them, they will know it immediately. There are no hidden agendas. As a result, the workforce is more self-confident and will begin to ask exactly what value they can deliver to the company – independent of their title.”
Originally published in the spring 2023 issue of FEED magazine.