BBC’s Shishkin: ‘3 quotes I always use in digital transformation projects’

Over the past few years I’ve been involved in a number of digital news change projects at the BBC, either related to workflow changes, reprioritisation of content creation, and I thought it would be helpful to share a few thoughts on how I approach what is undoubtedly one of the hot areas in the news industry, says Dmitry Shishkin, Digital Development Editor, BBC World Service, author of this guest column.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | January 9, 2017

Following relative success and the feedback I had for my recent LinkedIn post ‘3 key components of digital transformation of newsrooms,’ I realised that the topic is relevant and timely, and my experience in digital creative transformation could be useful to others.

Change is hard, and people generally do not to like change – mainly as it takes it out of their comfort zone. Acknowledging this predicament openly before starting, as well as and accepting it, is the first step to success. If you are interested in driving change, the likelihood is you are a change enabler, “a change agent,” and so I hope my approach would be helpful to you, too.

2 critical factors for newsroom transformation

It is my strong belief that transformation projects in newsrooms only succeed when there are two important underlying factors in place. Firstly, the change has to be openly supported and demonstrably embraced by the organisation’s or company’s leadership. Digital change is nothing more than a culture change, and needs to be treated as such.

Over the past few years I saw a few projects having failed exactly because of the lack of such very public and open support of change agents by the leadership. Secondly, all aspects of change have to be understood well and the ins and outs of the project agreed by “change agent’s” direct reports, i.e. those who will enforce the change on your behalf on a day to day basis.

This leads me you my first quote, from William McKnight, American businessman and philanthropist. Unsurprisingly, it says: “Hire good people and leave them alone.”

People reporting to you, your deputies or other key members of your editorial team have to be strong and their knowledge of a particular subject area has to be more in-depth than yours. They will be helping you to achieve your goals while you will be learning a lot from them as you go.

Hiring good people and letting them get on with it liberates you to do other things – leading the change itself on a strategic level, influencing your stakeholders, generally pushing things ahead.

Clever people reporting to you will be keeping you on your toes, which is a) a good thing in itself and b) exactly what you need to keep learning.

McKnight’s quote is seconded by the most successful football manager in the history of the game, now retired, Sir Alex Ferguson.

In “Leading,” his recent book on leadership, he writes exactly about this subject: “No general is going to win a war unless he has colonels and majors who can muster their troops, galvanise them into action and help them defy the odds.”

He also helpfully describes the four key virtues of people who will lead and make a difference (in the case of football, they are captains): they need to have a desire to lead, enjoy your trust to convey your desires, have respect of others and be able to adapt to changing circumstances.

To find the best people, cast a wide net

It’s also vital to cast your net looking for the best people as wide as you possibly can. In traditional organisations, senior managers tend to surround themselves with people with similar qualities and traits – and within change management it can be quite unhelpful, as unusual and thus useful insights and perspectives just never get shared around widely by like-minded people.

Rob Norman, GroupM’s Chief Digital Officer, writes about it in relations to TV’s necessary transformation in his recent post: “New relevant and contemporary voices are needed to connect with new generations who are, in part at least, socially separated from the announcers so familiar to many of us.” This makes total sense.

Suggested reading: I have recently read two really great books on team and career management. The first one “Work Rules” is by Laszlo Block, the former SVP for People Operations at Google, while the second one is “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age” by Reid Hoffman, cofounder and chairman of LinkedIn. As I said, Ferguson’s “Leading” is equally enlightening and surprisingly relevant to news sector, too.

My second quote, that I am using in newsrooms all the time, comes from one of the most impressive characters out there – now retired Canadian astronaut Christ Hadfield, who served as a commander of International Space Station and was the first Canadian to walk in space. His book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” was one of the best books I read in 2015. His quote is: “We might not have the right type of bricks, but still need to build the wall.”

Change will never be happening in ideal circumstances. You will always be missing a thing or two or wish that one aspect or another would be different.

The best is the enemy of the good, as wise people say. In our line of business, we as editors are always striving for more resources, better hires, better aligned product roadmaps etc. – yet the key is to simply get on with it.

Try new things, innovate, find workarounds, but don’t just sit still and wait for something to happen – have a plan that is full of meaningful actions, regularly dedicate a small percentage of your time to new things. “Work the problem,” as Chris Hadfield cites the famous Nasa saying, in his wonderful memoirs on a number of occasions.

Start with taking the problem apart

Sir Alex Ferguson, actually, addresses this problem in “Leading,” too. The best way forward is starting with taking the problem apart.

“Winning anything,” he writes, “requires a series of steps: you deconstruct a big objective into small chunks and keep reappraising your targets. And try to be as good as you possibly can every day of the week.” And don’t forget to check the progress with your team, too: “It turns out that the two most powerful words in English language were ‘well done.’”

Suggested video: one of the most engaging TED talks I’ve seen comes from Chris Hadfield himself.

The third quote has probably been used by me the most in the past year or so. I used it in presentations and talks, shared it with my senior stakeholders and junior member of staff, TV and radio broadcast editors, developers and product managers.

It’s an important one as it summaries a certain aspect of digital change in news extremely well. It comes from W. Edwards Deming, an engineer, statistician and management consultant: “Without data you are just another person with an opinion.”

I love it – it helps me a lot, and all the time. Digital sector and news in particular, is a very quantifiable area – if you are in the business of innovation, digital growth and audience acquisition, then data should be the lifeblood of your organisation. We just do not tend to use “It is a gut instinct” or “I have a feeling that…” arguments any more – why would you if data can help?

Data made my life as a change leader much easier

My job is about influencing people and getting results without direct authority over other teams, so my arguments are almost always based on performance numbers or audience/market insights, and they bring results.

Data made my life as a change leader much easier – people tend to argue with other people’s opinions, but not data, provided it’s robust, full and doesn’t have too many caveats around it.

Suggested browsing: 14 points for management, key principles offered by Deming. 

Thanks for reading and hope you have found this piece useful. I look forward to hearing about the quotes which help you at work. I am @dmitryshishkin on Twitter.

Dmitry is responsible for developing the BBC’s digital offer for all 28 language services, as well as working with technical start-ups to find new ways of connecting with audiences through digital platforms. Originally from Moscow, Russia, Dmitry has worked in various editorial-development roles for the digital section of BBC News. These roles have required liaison between editorial, product and strategy teams in order to drive innovation and develop new ways of reaching audiences and increasing engagement across the world.

He will also be a speaker at WAN-IFRA’s 12th Middle East Conference in Dubai, UAE, 13-14 March 2017.

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