In pursuing innovation, organization can distract from action.
Changing your org chart makes executives think they are making big changes. Changing what you do shows your staff and your community that you are truly making meaningful change.
I am pleased to see that John Paton is leading innovation at Journal Register Co. by changing what the company does. He has changed some people’s titles and shuffled some leaders, but those changes merit only brief passing mention in Paton’s blog. The focus of his attention and the company’s energy is on action. The Ben Franklin Project is entirely about doing things differently. The ideaLab is focused on turning good ideas into action.
Just as a rocket needs powerful explosions of fuel to escape Earth’s gravity, an organization needs powerful explosions of action to escape the gravitational pull of a traditional organization. Simply drawing a new rocket ship won’t get you to the moon.
I have seen too many news organizations waste energy, money and optimism in shuffling managers and staff to new positions and creating new departments and divisions, all in the stated service of innovative goals that felt as far away as the moon. Organizational gravity thwarts the best of intentions, and before long, they are reorganizing again, certain that this next org chart will focus the company on that distant moon.
The truth is that reorganization demands nearly all your attention. So does meaningful action. So reorganization is actually a huge distraction from the action that achieves true innovation.
Twice – once as an executive and once as a staff member – I have endured reorganizations where the newsroom or company structure was thoroughly changed and most current staff had to apply for new jobs. In both cases, I expressed strong reservations about the approach in the planning stages, then, when leaders insisted on the approach, I worked hard to make it successful. But we weren’t changing action enough, and soon the new organization was pretty much doing the same things the old organization had done.
In both cases, well-meaning top leaders made the reorganization an urgent priority and committed great passion, energy and credibility to its success. And each reorganization dragged on for months, with unanticipated twists, turns and delays. Neither reorganization achieved its goals. Or even came close. I’ve seen the same pattern in organizations where I trained, consulted or heard frequent reports from former colleagues. And I’ve seen reorganization plans that were less sweeping fail similarly.
Here’s what leaders pursuing reorganization fail to realize: Every organization has strong default settings – that gravitational pull – that will override most changes in the org chart. And people who have reorg fatigue are too weary to override those default settings.
You achieve innovation by changing what people are doing. Structural changes need to be something that is incidental along the way. In that way, the tweak in the org chart is seen as logical because people can see that it supports the new things you are doing. If you have to explain a reorganization, that is a clue – actually, a top-of-the-lungs shout – that you aren’t generating enough new action.
I have seen this again and again: Organizations that focus on structure change too slowly, if at all, to make any significant change in what they do. But if you focus on changing action, that will drive significant organizational change, with less wasted time and energy.
On Feb. 1, John Paton took the leadership of a company that had to be ready and eager for change. Journal Register had gone through bankruptcy and employees at all levels had to wonder if the company or the individual newspapers would even survive. I give him credit for seizing that opportunity. Many news organizations in similar situations fritter away those opportunities by redoubling their focus on structure.
I think and hope that Paton is on the right course. The first step of the Ben Franklin Project focused entirely on action: He assigned a team to put out a newspaper using only free tools available online. When he asked for my feedback, I pointed out (in a private email; this is my first post on the topic) that the project was still focused on the print edition. So he shifted to a digital-first focus.
John’s next move may be even smarter: Rather than tinkering with the org chart, he’s going around it. In many organizations, good ideas from staff members are too often diluted or squelched by the structural layers of control, delay and old thinking above the creative thinkers. John’s ideaLab bypasses those obstacles, seeking ideas from employees and committing company resources and his authority to executing the ideas.
It’s too early to say how good the ideas will be and how many of them will result in meaningful change. Some of them undoubtedly will fail because that’s always the case with innovation. If all your ideas work, they were probably too timid. But I think John is giving bold ideas a chance to succeed by focusing his company’s energy and attention on action, rather than organization.
John is making organizational changes along the way, too. His blog reflects that he has the right perspective: Not a single post is primarily about organizational structure. A change in structure and a new leadership appointment with a new title merit only passing references in blog posts focused on what the company is doing differently.
Those organizational changes have a good chance of working because Paton is keeping the focus where it belongs: on action.