Creative problem solving and a determination that no obstacle will be insurmountable are key to leading successful change in business
The resistance that leaders face when bringing about change takes many forms and even those who seem positive about the change can present you with practical problems that they assume will stop change in its tracks. As the leader you have to be doggedly persistent and determined not to let anything – or anyone – get in the way of the change you know is necessary to drive your business forward.
Be clear about why you are changing
When I took over BBC 1 there was a persuasive case for change. The channel was rapidly losing viewers in the face of increasing competition from a proliferation of new channels. There had been insufficient investment in programming whilst the corporation focussed on other priorities such as preparing for a digital future so the schedule was somewhat lacklustre and as a result our brand was fading. Even pensioners who were amongst our most loyal viewers said the channel felt old fashioned and ‘fuddy duddy’!
Seize the moment and take your competitors by surprise
I was hired with a brief to revitalise the channel but I had limited room for manoeuvre in my first few months as it takes more than a year to develop and produce the kind of flagship dramas or landmark documentaries that have an impact.
The new Director General, Greg Dyke, was impatient for change and he persuaded the board that we should move our main evening news from nine o’clock to the ten o’clock slot. This would address a structural weakness in the schedule that should mean we would get more viewers for our main programme of the evening.
We had an unprecedented opportunity to grab this slot as ITV had moved their “News at Ten” to 10.30 or even later on some evenings so that they could extend their primetime viewing and increase the number of valuable advertising slots. We decided that we would have to move fast in case ITV changed their minds and moved their news back to 10pm. We also wanted to minimise the risk of our plans leaking.
We knew this would take everyone by surprise as the BBC had the reputation of moving at the speed of a super tanker, so people would not expect us to make such a radical change so quickly.
Solutions not problems
I had just three weeks to completely reschedule the channel. That was a big enough operation in itself, but there were various logistical hurdles to overcome including a problem that could have derailed the whole plan.
Most of our dramas and major documentaries ran for 50 minutes, which was fine when they started at 9.30pm after the news because we had a flexible end time.
However, we would now have an hour long slot to fill between nine and ten o’clock with a hard junction to hit into the news. Many programmes didn’t have the material to simply extend their duration. We had to find a way of overcoming this and we had very little time to do so. I asked everyone to come up with ideas for how we could fill an extra ten minutes of air time.
We found sketch shows we could cut into 10 minute chunks, and mined the archives for the best outtakes from ‘Auntie’s Bloomers’. We had meetings with producers who were currently working on programmes to see if they could find ways of extending their running time.
One such meeting was with the team producing ‘Blue Planet’. I remembered that every time we met that would tell me amazing stories of how they had managed to capture incredible shots of the natural world, often inventing the equipment that would allow them to do so or spending months patiently waiting to spot a particular animal or to capture a certain kind of animal behaviour.
I asked them whether they had any behind the scenes footage that they used for extra material on the dvd. When they told me that they had, I asked whether they could do a ten-minute ‘making of’ segment to run at the end of each programme.
They immediately agreed and these segments became incredibly popular , in fact they have been a fixture of many natural history programmes ever since adding insights that are highly valued by viewers. We could have refused to make the move until we had enough programmes with a long enough duration, but knowing that we had to come up with a solution led us to a creative breakthrough.
The bold move of the news paid off and was part of a reinvigorated BBC 1 that became the most popular channel in the UK.