Jumpstarting Organizational Change

MSNBC is a leader in breaking news and original journalism. Its engineering organization supports the needs of immediately breaking news and builds the longer term infrastructure needed to support and expand the functionality of the site.

The Challenge

Upon becoming the Director of Technology at MSNBC, Travis McElfresh saw an organization undergoing a significant transformation. During his first year, the organization piloted a number of software engineering best practices on MSNBC’s largest project including clearly defining the project scope, engaging the user community early in the project, and actively managing the feature set and schedule. As the project neared conclusion, McElfresh felt that it was the perfect time to identify the next steps for improving the organization.

McElfresh wanted to have an independent analysis of MSNBC’s software development practices to sanity check his own analysis and expand upon it. He also wanted to involve his staff via an independent 3rd party so that he could be confident that he was receiving truly candid input from his staff. Finally, in addition to observations about strengths and weaknesses of MSNBC’s technical organization, McElfresh wanted specific, prioritized, focused recommendations for detailed improvement initiatives and then support for implementing the initiatives.

How Construx Helped

Construx conducted an Organizational Assessment and evaluated the capabilities of MSNBC’s development organization. They produced a list of strengths and weaknesses, prioritized by significance. Construx then worked collaboratively with MSNBC staff to develop a prioritized set of Improvement Recommendations—matched to MSNBC’s unique strengths, weaknesses, and organizational culture—that would have a high likelihood of successful adoption within MSNBC. Following the assessment, Construx helped MSNBC staff to plan and implement organizational improvement initiatives.  The bulk of the planning occurred during a two-day off-site planning workshop in which workshop participants assigned owners to improvement initiatives, defined deliverables, and set specific time lines.

Over the course of the next 18 months, MSNBC reorganized its technology team into three cross functional teams focused on different parts of its business. Management and technical staff worked together to implement numerous software engineering best practice changes including portfolio management, project management, and improved quality practices. Throughout this time MSNBC staff attended Construx’s best practices seminars to learn more about how to support organizational change. Construx also provided support and coaching as MSNBC worked through these changes.

About 2 years later, Construx conducted a Health Check to review the changes MSNBC had made, identify new focus areas, and provide recommendations for continued improvement.

End Result

During Construx’s Health Check, one MSNBC staff commented, “In one fiscal year, we more than doubled our project production yield. We have made incredible strides as an organization in one year.” Another staff member commented, “All the changes were positive ones that have been at least incremental adds to the whole and at most revolutionary changes critical to success.”

McElfresh commented:

“While getting a 2X or 3X return on product development yield is certainly a remarkable and measurable result, I believe the program has influenced the team in many other ways that typically go unspoken. The mechanics of great teamwork are easy to talk freely about but can be difficult to implement due to personal biases, insecurities, team history and organization cultural dynamics. You can watch what happens when a person becomes self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Being empowered with new knowledge can be energizing and give the necessary confidence needed in knowing what needs to happen to lead to a desired change.
“When that phenomenon happens at the team level, a whole new sense of connectedness, empathy and support happens. The team works together to identify what changes must happen in order to ‘win’. Metaphorically, that may mean changing out some of the team members; it may mean showing up to practice more frequently and learning new skills. And while the team educates itself, focuses on improvement, and observes change, they form a connected and supportive bond. It’s not a mandate handed down from management. It’s not an action happening to the team from an external force (e.g. management, HR, execs, etc.). It’s something the team drives. Having a team go through a self-critical process, like what we did with Construx, has resulted in a confident, competent team that now has the addiction and desire to continue to improve their performance in all areas.”

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