Orchestrating Change

When title 9 sports founder Missy Park called her own catalog’s 800-number pretending to be a customer, she was shocked when she was asked for the code on the back of her women’s sports apparel catalog before she even requested an item.

Traditional call center protocol emphasizes capturing basic information such as catalog codes, customer contact data, and credit-card information up front before the customer has a chance to ask if the product he wants is even available. In a presentation at last year’s New England Mail Order Association (NEMOA) fall conference, Park had intended to discuss the constant battle her team faces managing growth while ensuring that the catalog’s down-to-earth “authentic” appeal isn’t compromised. She had planned to brag about how the Title 9 call center helps the customer first and then captures customer information second, counter to traditional catalog practices. Fortunately Park conducted some first-hand research before addressing the conference.

This is a familiar battleground for growing catalogers: The practical needs of the business do not always align with the cultural legacy of the company. At the same time, growing catalogers often cling to bad processes with the mistaken belief that they represent “culture.”

Park’s experience is a great example. There are compelling arguments for capturing information up front, but there are just as compelling arguments for protecting the customer experience as an extension of the brand identity.

In other cases, though, catalogers remain blindly loyal to imperfect processes. For instance, a marketer with a strong culture of committee decision-making might, while still a small bootstraps operation, have page-proofing meetings with representatives from all departments. But as it grows, continuing to involve members of so many departments could needlessly occupy staff for hours, creating bottlenecks in other areas. The cataloger would likely need to make a cultural shift to address the issue.

A certain negotiation is required to ensure that needed change takes place. Pulling this off requires sensitivity to the catalog culture coupled with a commitment not to be enslaved by that culture when it doesn’t make sense.

Change is never overnight

First, champions of change have to get over the idea that things will happen quickly. It’s not that new directions cannot be adopted and implemented quickly; this can happen — but rarely.

Change is developmental, especially in a corporate organization with strong cultural legacies. The champion must have a game plan, patience, an ego, no ego, and a willingness to wade into painful and even distasteful territory. What’s required is constant applied pressure, coupled with flexibility.

One of the first orders of business when negotiating change is to identify fellow champions. This requires a global view and should tap players on the executive level as well as key movers significant to the change at all levels within your company.

Executive champions are the top-level decision makers, the ones who can throw down the gauntlet to make something happen. Generally speaking, they don’t need or want all the details. They just need to trust that the champion has his ducks in a row.

When approaching candidates for the executive champion, here are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Keep your pitch short

    Executive recruitment should occupy no more than a half-hour of the executive’s time; 15 minutes is ideal.

  • Present the problem, but don’t dwell on it

    Then introduce your recommendation for a solution.

  • Have alternatives

    This shows you’ve thought through the options.

  • Give the executive ownership of the idea

    If he’s ever referred to the problem or possible solutions in a meeting, capitalize on that. Tell him how his comments got you thinking and researching.

  • Have specific functions the executive can play once you get his buy-in

    For instance, “I’d like to check in with you once a week to tell you how it’s going.” Or “I anticipate your help will be needed to hold the IT department accountable.”

You’ll also need cochampions — colleagues at lateral levels within the company. These can be tricky to recruit, since there’s often no defined role, accountability, or connection to the idea or the project.

With lateral recruitment, again be willing to allow others to have ownership. Focus on their expertise and what they bring to the table. Also emphasize that a major initiative is not going to suddenly fall in their lap; only a crucial piece will be required from them. Assure them that the responsibility of pulling everything together and keeping things moving will not be thrust upon them.

When working with lateral departments and champions, you’ll get far better results if they know their contributions will be highly visible to others. Public showcasing of the project and its players is the most effective way of managing those you don’t technically manage. Status reports at meetings, and even e-mail, can provide excellent opportunities to show what — and who — is and isn’t working according to plan.

In e-mail, the “cc:” field can be a powerful tool for heightening visibility. It encourages everyone to consider his contributions in the context of an audience. It also affords an opportunity to get input from a wider range of participants. Essentially, e-mail pulls the process out of a vacuum and into the limelight.

But you have to be careful. With visibility comes accountability, and accountability is often not a pleasant experience. No one wants his shortcomings broadcast to the world at large. Finesse is required, though it helps if high visibility is part of the ground rules and practice from the start.

While you can’t shrink from holding people accountable, remember that praise works. We all respond to positive reinforcement. Use a policy of high visibility to accentuate the positive and motivate those involved in the project.

Managing up

Copywriters understand the power of phrasing and often employ the “call to action” to communicate value and immediacy to readers. This technique also works when “managing up,” or ensuring that your superiors are backing the project and helping to move it through key milestones.

Managing superiors is critical to any project’s success. Good managers don’t need to know every detail of every decision their team makes, but they need to know enough to appear informed and confident when it counts.

Negotiating change often demands negotiation by proxy at meetings and venues to which the lead champion is not privy, such as executive planning sessions. Be prepared to coach your executive champion with succinct phrasing and clearly identified goals. Deadlines are always preferred to open-ended, vague objectives.

When prompting your vice president to light a fire under another executive, for instance, phrasing makes all the difference in the world: “We need the purchase order to be approved by noon on Wednesday. If this happens, we can get the software and train our staff by the end of next week.” This sounds much better, and likely will render better results, than saying, “If there’s anything you can do to move that purchase order forward, it would be a big help.”

Somewhere along the path of introducing ideas into the corporate culture, the rubber hits the road: Someone has to pay for it. The return on investment is a necessary hurdle toward getting anything done.

The chief financial officer, when considering whether to greenlight a project, really cares about two things: revenue generation and cost avoidance. The benefits of a project don’t always fit neatly into these categories, but the connection can be made.

Say you’re trying to get approval for an asset management system. You can pull in figures showing what personnel you won’t need to hire next fiscal year if the system is put in place. This is cost avoidance. Figures can also show reduction in catalog production cycle time, which makes room for added promotions without additional personnel. This is revenue generation.

As when recruiting an executive champion, don’t overexplain your ROI. As a rule, chief financial officers don’t understand how departments work or the specific challenges they face. The chief financial officer needs only to understand how the proposal will save money or make money.

Finally, be careful not to overpromise results. The ROI will be one of the benchmarks used to evaluate whether an idea is a success. If possible, underpromise and overdeliver.

Meetings and documentation

As a rule, never go into a meeting to make decisions. Go in to confirm decisions, to make them official.

Achieve this through “premeetings.” These are one-on-one discussions with the key players, or all the players if possible, before the actual meeting. These enable you to find out what everyone else is thinking and what obstacles the others are facing. You might be able to solve problems right away and come into the actual meeting with solutions rather than questions.

The meeting itself should be the venue in which accountability, praise, and documentation take place. Eight people can sit around a conference room table, come to agreement on an approach to a problem, and walk out with different ideas of what took place. Given enough time, their recollections can become radically different, and some won’t even recall there was an agreement. It’s human nature, and left unchecked, it can cause needless pain, delays, and even the death of a project.

Timely documentation is key to the constant applied pressure needed to bring change into an organization. In addition to storing and backing up relevant e-mails and attached artifacts, you should document all pertinent conversations and decisions. Within 24 hours of a key meeting, transcribe the highlights, decisions, and action items as cleanly as possible, and send to everyone involved.

Your documentation may generate disagreement, mild clarification, or (more likely) complete and absolute silence. The first two reactions are preferred, because they provide opportunities to address disconnects early, before time and effort gets wasted. The third reaction is most dangerous, because it probably means no one is reading the documentation. But if there’s a problem later, having the documentation and the record of to whom it was distributed can prove invaluable to setting things back on course.


Finally, whenever possible, identify “wow!” opportunities to celebrate change, especially early in a project. A “wow!” opportunity is basically low-hanging fruit. Small, highly visible problems have an impact when they get solved. These opportunities give energy and momentum to a season of change and help facilitate the acceptance of new ideas.

These celebrations of success every step of the way make each negotiation a little bit easier. And in the end, they help ensure that everyone buys in to the change — from the person answering phones on the front line to the CEO ready to brag about his company.

Chris Brasted is a production efficiency consultant based in Charlottesville, VA, and a former project manager and associate production manager for country gifts and home goods cataloger Plow & Hearth.

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