John Zhu’s top tips for encouraging cultural change

After I responded to John Zhu’s post about battles lines in the recent ‘curmudgeons’ versus young journalists flap, John left several thoughtful comments. John said in his first comment:

I’ve found that the only way to defeat the resistance and win over the skeptics is to keep at them and continuing to engage them. Can it be frustrating as hell? Yes! Does it always work? Of course not! But it works more often than if you just give up. Treating skeptics as your enemies will in fact turn them into enemies.

I’ll admit it. I first bristled a bit at John’s comment, but as I recommend to other journalists, I never respond to a comment in anger. I bristled because as I said in response:

If there was a moment where I stopped short reading your post, it was because I felt it was a call for digital staff to keep putting out more effort to engage than sceptics. Yes, it’s still the reality we live in, but it’s not a fair or realistic expectation for digital staff to be more magnanimous, especially when we’re often in the weaker political position in our organisations.

And I drew a distinction between sceptics and obstructionists, saying: “I don’t even see this as sceptics versus digital natives conflict. Journalists are all to some extent paid sceptics. I see this as a problem with obstructionists.”

I’m glad I waited to respond until after we had exchanged a few e-mails, and I had a chance to understand where John was coming from. He responded with some really good advice on how to win over the sceptics and not only achieve short term goals but encourage cultural change. It’s a great comment, well worth reading in full. He gives a specific example of project he worked on and the lessons he learned:

  • Become intimately familiar with the processes that you are trying to change before changing them.
  • Be sure to get input from the people who will be most affected by the changes you’re considering.
  • Do your homework on your plan. The more detailed, the better. Vague pronouncements tend to draw more skepticism for being impractical. Play the role of the skeptic and assault your plan for all its shortcomings so you can anticipate some of the criticism and devise solutions/responses.
  • As much as possible, pitch your plan from the perspective of how it will benefit the people who will have to change their routines to make it work. The biggest motivation anyone has for changing their routine is how it will help him/herself (aside from the “do this or your job is in jeopardy” thing, which is a threat, not a benefit). Your plan’s main goal may not be to benefit those people, but as long as it gets their support, who cares?!
  • Be willing to make some compromises as long as they don’t jeopardize the major goals of what your plan is trying to do.

Thanks John for sharing some really good advice.

I think one of my biggest challenges in the last few years has been shifting from a journalist with licence and autonomy to innovate to being an editor with management responsibilities. I’m going to keep these tips handy.

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