DCL/Managing Change – How is it Like Managing Addiction?

Managing Change—How is it Like Managing Addiction?

By JoAnn T. Hackos, PhD, President/CEO of Comtech Services and
Director of the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM)

What, you might ask, does change management have to do with addictions? But think about it. Are you information developers addicted to the way they have always worked? Are you subject-matter experts addicted to the assumption that reviewing draft content is something to put off indefinitely? Is your boss stuck with the assumption that your proposals for new technology are just meant to make your job easier?

We all become habituated to the way we are accustomed to working. In fact, our body chemistry may be linked to our habitual activities. When a colleague told me that she had finally given up looking at her email first thing in the morning, the thought of doing the same actually made me feel anxious.

In “Managing Change, One Day at a Time,” Keith Ferrazzi compares a business change-management program to the 12-step process employed by AA to help addicts manage their alcoholism1. Keith’s consulting firm, Ferrazzi Greenlight, helps organizations bring about dramatic cultural change.

As anyone who has tried to move an information-development team to new ways of developing content, using technology, or interacting with customers, change is hard. Over the 35 years of managing Comtech Services, I have worked with more than a thousand organizations trying to institute change in their work environments. These organizations have included managers who wanted to

  • Track hours used in developing content, from initial discovery through drafts, reviews, editing, and publishing, from the beginning to the end of a project
  • Implement minimalism by getting writers to focus exclusively on content required by customers to perform top tasks
  • Adopt the DITA standard and move to topic-based, XML authoring
  • Engage with customers through social media

In each case, the managers have encountered resistance. In one recent case, more than half of the staff members we surveyed indicated that they did not welcome the proposed change.

Managers do what they know best. They work with key staff members to develop a strategic plan. They provide training. They make it clear that they believe the change is essential to the progress and well being of the organization. But, too often, these attempts don’t work, especially with those who are most resistant.

Ferrazzi has learned from the AA’s 12-step program that helping managers understand the challenges and provide them with explicit direction does help them successfully change their organizations and themselves.


Let me suggest a 10-step program for managing change in information development organizations. Your feedback on the ten steps in the change-management program will be most welcome.

Step 1—Get ready to change

No one changes before they are ready. Some people welcome new opportunities, invigorated by finding new ways of working. Others wait on the sidelines, looking for signs of success or failure. As a manager, you might find it useful to think about and communicate your own fears:

  • What if people resist?
  • What if they are not prepared to work in a new way?
  • What if the change fails?
  • Will I be blamed for a failure?

Understanding and sympathizing with the concerns lurking under the surface may help your staff discuss their fears openly. People often fear that they’ll look incompetent when they try something new. Admit that you have the same fears.

Step 2—Replace old habits with new

AA serves coffee at its meetings, replacing the alcohol habit that members are trying to give up. Many technical writers enjoy formatting their text to make it look good and easy to read. Formatting often provides a break from developing content. It’s hard to give up. But moving to XML-based authoring eliminates formatting from the writers’ job. I’ve found that letting writers produce PDF output from their DITA maps whenever they need to look at the appearance of their content can successfully replace the habit of formatting Word or FrameMaker. By identifying old habits of your team, you may find successful ways of integrating new habits.

Step 3—Drive change through peer support and peer pressure

In our engagements, we ask managers to develop teams, from a core team responsible for the management of the change initiative to teams working on information architecture, process redesign, tools requirements, translation management, and content delivery. We work to ensure that the teams give everyone a role in discussing, planning, and implementing the change initiative.

Step 4—Develop senior-management sponsorship

Whenever I work with managers who are thinking about implementing a major change, particularly expensive ones like a move to DITA and content management, I ask if they have an executive sponsor. Executive sponsors, who believe in your initiative, can help your team members feel supported at the highest level of your company.

Step 5—Encourage collaboration without hierarchy

Encourage each of the teams working on the initiative to find their own structures. Avoid putting someone in a position of power, especially a person who prefers to dictate new processes rather than work for support and consensus. Allow groups to be self-directed and lead their own projects to move the change forward.

Step 6—Identify the team members who have influence

Surprisingly, the leaders in your organization, those who have the confidence and trust of their co-workers, may not be the people you expect. Ask your team members to identify their informal leaders and seed these individuals throughout the teams.

Step 7—Obtain constant feedback about the progress of the change

Introspection is crucial to an organizational change. You need to continually seek information about progress, problems, successes, and failures. And it will be even more important to report openly about what you learn. You will find that people want to know what is working, what is on schedule, and what is behind schedule, so that they can test their own assumptions and potentially help by tackling areas that are lagging.

Step 8—Identify breakthroughs

Breakthroughs come when people shift their practice to new ways of working. In my Minimalism workshop, groups work together to identify opportunities to change in specific documents brought by participants. Small shifts in practice are regular outcomes, with each group member leaving the class with something very specific to do to build a minimalist practice. Giving your team members opportunities to make small and successful changes in their practices can give them a boast of encouragement. They are beginning to look successful rather than incompetent in the new environment.

Step 9—Celebrate small wins

In most change initiatives, you will have to create opportunities for small wins. During the development of an organization’s new Information Model, we encourage writers to try their hands at transforming a particular set of content to a potential new model. Everyone contributes to the winning solution, which is then instantiated in the Model. Another team member creates a group of new task topics or develops a really effective short description. Another invigorates the discussion of a metadata model for the content by developing a straw man approach that people can react to. In each case, individual accomplishments that aid the team’s progress are rewarded, sometimes with only a simple acknowledgment, others times with an award ceremony or a special event. By helping people feel a appreciated, you encourage everyone to adopt the change.

Step 10—Strive for progress, not perfection

Every change initiative experiences setbacks. When they occur, they should never become reasons to abandon the change initiative. We have found people to be upset when the appearance of their new XML-based content does not look exactly like their old content. They’re often ready to go back to the “tried and true.” As the change manager, recognize that setbacks do occur but are not catastrophic. Help the team members find ways to improve practices or add an additional process to correct the problem and find better ways of working.


Our CIDM surveys clearly indicate that we need to change the way we develop and deliver content. Customers are demanding—they want videos and content delivered on platforms of all types and sizes. They want us to use social media to converse with them and better understand their needs. Responding requires change now. Join in the CIDM conversation about change management by responding to me at info@infomanagementcenter.com.

Joann T. Hackos, CIDM

Joann T. Hackos is the Director of the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM).