Does change management work for doc teams?

We technical writers are frequently very good with tackling new subjects – but not so much with tackling new processes. That sounds paradox, but it’s quite understandable: The reason we’re so good and flexible about what we describe is often that we’ve refined how we describe it. So changing how we write is a challenge, for writers  – and their managers, too, as Scriptorium’s Alan Pringle points out:

Without good management, the implementation of new processes will likely fail. (I’ve seen bad management kill an implementation, and it’s ugly.)

So how can you employ change management to improve and advance the way tech writers work? Alan explains three specific action points that are especially valuable when you’re moving to an XML-based model, but I’m looking for a more comprehensive angle…

Enter John Kotter

So I turn to John Kotter, who wrote a standard book on change management, Leading Change. Here’s a PDF with the gist of Kotter’s ideas in 7 pages. He lists common errors that impede organizational change  and maps them to a sequence of an “Eight-Stage Process of Creating Major Change”. It addresses problems that are probably familiar to writers and managers:

  • Establishing a sense of urgency to overcome complacency
  • Creating a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
  • Generating short-term wins
  • Anchoring changes firmly in the corporate culture

I think these are good general management tools. But do they work for documentation departments? I find that Kotter’s recipe is frequently undermined by the low profile that documentation often has: I can make a good case that documentation is important and often undervalued. But frequently, its quality and scope are not seen as mission-critical for the success of a product or its manufacturer. Then how do you establish a sense of urgency strong enough that “most managers honestly believe that the status quo [in documentation] is unacceptable” (Kotter, p. 48), so a guiding coalition can be created and sustained?

Managing change with writers

So I try Richard Hamilton’s Managing Writers, one of the very few books about, well – you’ve read the title. Hamilton sounds a bit wary of Kotter’s idea to create a sense of urgency. He calls it the “burning platform” (p. 64f.) which will only stir people into changing if the platform is real and the writers are actually on it. Instead, he suggests Pip Coburn’s The Change Function from which he quotes:

Users will change their habits when the pain of their current situation is greater than their perceived pain of adopting a possible situation. (Hamilton, p. 63)

That sounds reasonable and more tangible, more on the level of writers who ultimately do the changing or not. The danger here is to give in to the evil you know, so you can avoid the evil you don’t know. Also, major change in documentation teams will often require migrating legacy contents or rewriting it, and either one adds tremendously to the perceived pain of the solution which impedes change.

Your turn

What are your experiences with change management in documentation? Do Kotter’s top-down ideas work? Can you give Coburn’s idea the right spin, so the perception leans toward change?

6 Responses

  1. Hi Kai,
    I’ve seen companies approach this before and while they usually start with enthusiasm, once they hit a few bottle-necks or more important things come up, then project loses focus.
    CM works when the drive is there to see it through. But the urgency to get things out the door usually (for me) has derailed these projects.

    • Hi, Ivan, that sounds painfully familiar. It just puzzles me though when change doesn’t happen because everybody involved apparently agrees on three things:
      (1) We can’t carry on “like this” (the pre-change way), because we work inefficiently and/or deliver ineffective documentation.
      (2) “That” (the change way) is the way forward.
      (3) We’re so busy working “like this”, so we don’t have time to proceed with “that”.

  2. Excellent blog. I started my career as a technical writer and can relate 100%. I have since moved into Change Management as 1 of 2 specializations.

    Great technical writing brings clarity to “what” – the desired process end-state but cannot facilitate how to get users to adopt the new process. And the challenges every individual faces in changing their own behaviour – including ours in writing about it – is substantial. Good change management practices get us there. Kotter is a great resource and there are tons of others as well. BPR projects absolutely require a Change Management track to help users transition faster and more effectively.

    We write and tweet about change and how to adapt effectively on our website and on Twitter ‘symphini”. Will look forward to reading more of your posts.


    • Thanks, Gail. Yes, documenting improved processes as the desired and desirable outcome of change management adds an interesting twist: Tech writers can be both, subjects and facilitators of change management.

  3. Top down ideas can work. Bottom up can work. The key is having done the ground work for change. Change isn’t easy, it doesn’t happen over night and it is not painless. But the rewards of seeing it come together is great.

    Allowing the people who will deliver the change (the customer service folks who answer the phones, the route drivers who talk directly with the retail outlets, they guys pouring the cement) to be involved in the method, direction, goals and implementation builds commitment. That commitment leads to sustainable change.

    Can change be accomplished in information management, route sales, customer service, underwritting, newsreporters, writers? Yes. If everyone is on board and committed, and contribute to the groundwork. That is what we have been helping clients do for decades. Check us out at
    We can help you, too!

    • Thanks, Diana. I agree, change management won’t work without everybody’s commitment. I’ve found that empowering people to find their own solutions to proceed in the desired direction has a more lasting effect than simply prescribing a new set of rules and procedures.

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