Buy The Six Keys to Confident Change Management Book

When we released the Confident Change Management course earlier this year, we got a lot of feedback that it was a great comprehensive offering, but people wanted something that was more bite-sized.  Something they could read and understand quickly to help them be better at change management.  The result was we built a short book to quickly put the six keys to confident change management into everyone’s hands.

The book is short – 60 pages – and it’s designed to give you the six keys to be successful at change management and digital transformation as quickly as possible.

Here’s my personal plea.  Please help us become #1.  For Outlook, click here to download the calendar appointment, then open and accept the appointment.  For Google calendar, click here. Both give you a short appointment to buy the book at 12:00PM EDT on Wednesday, September 23rd.  The direct link to Amazon to order the book is in the appointment.  If you can order the book during our launch event, send us your receipt, and we’ll send you a special gift. (If you’re on mobile and the calendar link isn’t working, you can get the book by clicking here or revisit this page on your PC.)

If you can’t wait to see some of the content until the book’s release date, check out the free introduction to change management course that we offer – and then come back and help us by buying the book during the launch promotion.

Book Review-The Change Masters

My journey through change management work led me to The Change Masters in an indirect way. When I mentioned that I was writing a course on change management, and I listed off several of the authors’ works I was using in the course, my colleague mentioned that, years ago, they had learned change management from The Change Masters – but it was a book I hadn’t heard of and hadn’t heard people refer to. Like it frequently happens when books arrive in my consciousness this way, there are many useful nuggets.

Published in 1983, there is already a concern about the ability for organizations to be innovative. We may have managed to conquer the assembly line and mass production, but it seems that most people have lost their ability to innovate, to try something new. This is the heart of the change that The Change Masters is focused on – how do you help people be more willing to look at things in a new way?

Efficiency and Effectiveness

Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things. It is a subtle but profound distinction. We had gotten so good at optimizing processes that we had forgotten to ask whether we were optimizing the right things. We were asking whether we were using the right tool to chop down the tree without realizing we were in the wrong forest. In an age of mergers and acquisitions, we had become slave to the quarterly earnings report and had lost our way to long term performance.

It’s certainly true that we need goals to pull us forward, and small, incremental goals can be useful. The problem is that this must come in conjunction with, not instead of, a long-term strategic perspective. With CEOs and management teams trading positions like kids playing musical chairs, there’s no reason to be concerned about the long-term performance of the organization. What matters is the next quarterly earnings report and the bonus that’s attached to the right outcomes – whether they created them or not.

Innovation

Being innovative is hard. It requires a diversity of skills, a willingness to see a new future, and a heaping of trust. If you’re expecting that your next mistake will cause you to be the first one to laid off, you’re not going to be willing to make mistakes – and being willing to make mistakes is what makes innovation possible. I’ve done a lot of research on innovation (see Innovation by Design, The Art of Innovation, Unleashing Innovation, and The Innovator’s DNA for a start). I’ve come to realize that there are interrelated factors of safety, courage, trust, and diversity of thought that are woven into the fabric of organizations that are innovative.

The Edge of Us

An interesting topic explored by Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order is what happens when the locus of trust is placed in different places – in the individual, in the family, or in the country. The Evolution of Cooperation touches on this as it explores mathematical models and computer simulations for the best strategies of organisms. The funny thing is that the larger we define the boundaries of “us” – and the fewer people we’re willing to put into the category of “them” – the greater our chances of success – and even survival. Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind makes the point that we didn’t become the dominant biomass on the planet because of our fur protecting us from the elements, our keen eyesight, or even our talons and claws. We became the dominant biomass on the planet because of our ability to work together. The trick is how large do we draw the circle of us and how many people fit in it? Robin Dunbar pegs the number at around 150 people, with some people having more and some having less. (See High Orbit for more.) The larger we draw the edge of us, the greater the opportunity for diversity (see The Difference for more on why we need diversity) and the greater our opportunities for creativity. (See Creative Confidence for more.)

If we want to reach forward into innovation, we need to learn how to draw the boundaries of us beyond our department, our division, and maybe even beyond our own organization.

Change and the Loss of Control

Hidden somewhere deep underneath the obvious reasons why we avoid change, there lies another more honest reason. Of course, when there are changes, there are fears that the change may mean something worse than our current situation; but there’s a deeper fear that we may not be in control as much as we think we are. Someone externally changing things on us is a painful reminder that we’re not in control as much as we might like to believe we are. In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller points out that everyone wants to control – but no one wants to be controlled.

The change masters, those who are the best at helping organizations and individuals change, can convince someone that the change was their idea, like Tom Sawyer convincing the other boys to whitewash the fence for him. Mark Twain, and Tom Sawyer by extension, was ahead of his time. It would take decades for people to explore intrinsic motivation and how to get others to do things for you. (See Influence, Pre-Suasion, The Hidden Persuaders, and Influencer.)

15 Minutes Ahead and To the Victor Go the Spoils

Woody Allen was worried about an advanced civilization that was 15 minutes ahead of us. They’d always be first in line at the movies. They’d get the best parking spots, and they’d never be late for a meeting. He was concerned that it didn’t take a big lead to make a big difference. Even a small lead would do.

This is particularly true if the world operates under the model of “To the victor goes the spoils.” That is, the person who wins the first round gets more of the benefits than the loser. The winner therefore has an even bigger advantage the next time. Over time a small advantage can become a big advantage. It’s how Steven Kotler explains the extraordinary feats that some people are capable of in The Rise of Superman.

Immobilizing Managers

Nothing immobilizes a manager – or anyone in mankind for that matter – faster than uncertainty and insecurity. When trust is vacant, and the outcomes are uncertain, people – not just managers – hunker down and brace themselves for whatever is coming – whether it make sense to do so or not. When faced with uncertainty, the most likely response is nothing. The response is that we should “hold tight,” “stand pat,” or “seek wise council.” In short, do anything that looks like something but is a statement about intentionally doing nothing.

Change masters work hard to increase trust and instill in others a sense of safety. The sense of safety must go beyond the challenges the organization is facing. You can’t keep moving forward without hope and the sense that it will be okay. You can’t keep trust and safety in a storm of ambiguity and uncertainty.

With the Flick of the Tongue

Within a few years of starting in business, I was working for the CEO of a manufacturing company doing special projects. He had pulled me away from my IT position and asked me to “just do stuff.” It was a variety of things, from pairing me up with a sales guy to relieve some excess inventory to helping change the efficiency of the direct import operations.

One of the things he said was that he had to be very careful about how quickly he changed direction. He described himself as the big gear at the center of a very large machine. If he turned too quickly, it would send all the little gears spinning. He was very wise and knew that a simple comment he might make, a simple flick of the tongue, could send people scrambling. Sometimes that could be in the right direction, but at the wrong speed and more critically, it might send people off in the wrong direction.

No Surprises

The real change masters know that people don’t like surprises – other than a few people who like surprise birthday parties. That’s why effective project and change managers are good at making sure that people arrive at a meeting, and there are no surprises. If they’re in the hot seat over something they did or didn’t do, they know it’s going to happen before they get there.

It helps people feel safe knowing that they won’t be ambushed in a meeting, and that safety plays out in a greater willingness to take risks.

Specific Requests Get Specific Action

One of the characteristics of great leaders – in change or any other discipline – is their ability to reach clarity. They’re able to cut through the fog of the conversation and find the root of the problem, the key missing ingredient, and identify the key next action. Change masters are therefore good at making the specific request that they need, not some vaguely-worded plea for help.

Though this can be perceived as some as overly direct, pushy, or even rude, clarity in the request creates action. General pleas for help are generally ignored. Specific requests may be denied, but they’re more frequently accepted.

Tolerance for Uncertainty, Not Just Any Old Risk

Success in change isn’t the same as a high tolerance for risk. Adventurous people may be willing to take risks, both personally and professionally, that no one else will take. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be in the right position to help enable change. Bridges in Managing Transitions explains that change means navigating a neutral zone of uncertainty – and that isn’t easy.

When looking to build the capacity for change, the key is not the development of risk tolerance in general but is instead about the development of an acceptance for ambiguity – the kind of ambiguity that is the natural result of change.

Touching Them Personally

Many organizations believe that involving employees in every decision or every important decision is a way to help them feel more connected and more loyal to the organization. However, this can just as easily motivate them to leave. Most employees see the kinds of wicked problems that leadership faces as “above my paygrade.” What they are, however, interested in are two things. First, their perspective on the big issues should be heard. Second, in the kinds of day-to-day annoyances that they face, they want to be able to share their input, expertise, and solutions.

Strangely, we’re less concerned about the big picture issues than we are the tiny annoyances. We’re more concerned with the daily mosquito bites than the potential bear in the woods. If you want folks to rally around their cause, sometimes it’s necessary to make the cause tiny and impactful to them personally.

Local Experiments

Carl Rogers used to say that people are experts in themselves. (See Motivational Interviewing and A Way of Being.) If we want to be effective, one way of doing that is to tap into that expertise and allow individuals to share their expertise on their life and their world through the development of small-scale experiments that appear to work for them.

While not every experiment will work, that is not the point. The point is that the people with the most expertise in the situation are trying to make it better.

Plans as Symbols

Eisenhower said that no plan survives engagement with the enemy. If that’s the case, then why plan at all? The answer is that the planning process has value – even if the plan doesn’t. In organizations, the plans send a strong signal to the organization about what’s important, the way the organization is approaching the challenges, and what they expect or hope to do.

While the plan itself may be useless, the planning process has inherent value.

Understanding the Pig Roast

Relayed in The Change Masters is a story of how a young boy set fire to a house in which a pig is trapped. After the fire is extinguished, the villagers discover the now roasted pig and eat it. They love the delicacy. They then proceed to trap a pig in a house and set it on fire every time they want to eat roast pig.

In many organizations, we do this. Because we don’t know what about our actions created the result we want, we keep doing all of the actions with sometimes outrageous costs. The lack of understanding of what things caused the result means that we can’t get to the root of what we need to do. Therefore, we sometimes burn down houses for the sake of roast pig – instead of putting the pig on a fire.

While no one book can convert you from a change neophyte to a change master, The Change Masters isn’t a bad start.

Technology Advice Podcast: How Understanding Change Makes You a Better Marketer

I recently went on the Technology Advice podcast and talked with Mike Pastore about change management and marketing. In it, I talk about how understanding change helps you understand your clients. Change can lead to stress and fear, and while much of marketing is based on stress and fear, it’s important to realize why fear-based marketing won’t always work. I also discuss how managers can help their employees feel supported enough to adopt a change – as long as there is sufficient trust to avoid too much friction stopping the change.

You can hear about these topics and more by listening to the full podcast here: https://technologyadvice.com/blog/marketing/podcast-how-understanding-change-management-makes-you-a-better-marketer/

Book Review-READY, Set, Change!: Simplify and Accelerate Organizational Change

What surprises me the most about the world of change management is how there can continue to be new things that I learn about it. Sometimes, the things I learn are closer to me than I could have ever realized. That’s the case with April Callis-Birchmeier’s book, READY, Set, Change!: Simplify and Accelerate Organizational Change. The proximity I’m referring to here is both geographical and relational. April’s in Michigan – the next state over from my home in Indiana. Relationally, the person she used to help publish her book is someone who I see several times a year at networking events. It’s truly a small world.

Models

There are no shortage of models when it comes to change. April introduces another model – the READY model:

  • R: Relevant and relatable messaging about the change
  • E: Engage Leaders as sponsors and actively promote the change
  • A: Advance
    communication to ensure messaging is received and advocating for stakeholders
  • D: Develop, support, and train on process and technology
  • Y: Reinforce WHY and reduce resistance to adoption

This model definitely aligns with other models. Prosci’s ADKAR model (see Successful Technology Change and ADKAR and Change Management), Kotter’s 8-Step model (see Leading Change and The Heart of Change), Stages of Change (see Motivational Interviewing), and Bridges’ Transitions model (see
Managing Transitions
). It also aligns with Simon Sinek’s work in Start with Why.

More broadly, it connects with The Psychology of Hope by emphasizing the need for support and training. (See Job Aids and Performance Support for ideas on support and Efficiency in Learning, The Adult Learner, and The Art of Explanation for more on training.) In not so short, it’s sound advice for people who are looking to make change effective in their organization. So, while it’s another model to consider, it is well founded.

Setting for Success

In Collaborative Intelligence, Richard Hackman asserts that as much as 60 percent of the probability of a team’s success is based on what happens before they come together. Here, April encourages the proper preparation in the change process to lead to better chances for success. There are, of course, no guarantees, but the more work that can be done ahead of time to prepare the organization for the change that’s coming, the more likely it is they’ll be able to accept it and the initiative will be successful.

Readiness is an Emotional Choice

There is no magic formula for helping people be ready for the change. Readiness is, in fact, a personal choice. It’s a choice about how capable you feel of coping with the transition (to use Bridges’ words). This, too, is supported by evidence. Richard Lazarus, in Emotion and Adaptation, explains that our emotions are formed based on a stressor (stimulus) and our assessment of that stimulus. Individually, we can become more ready for change through developing our courage (see Find Your Courage) and our waypower – that is, our understanding of how we’ll make the change (see The Psychology of Hope).

Technology, Training, and Barriers

Demand explains that small barriers make a big difference. While it may not seem like much, sometimes the inability to find where to start can stop people from starting at all. Instead of displaying tenacity, persistence, and grit, people give up all too easily. (See Grit and Willpower for more.) Speaking as a technologist, some problems are hard to solve – and as a change specialist, some are harder to solve if you make them people problems.

There’s a tendency – particularly at the last minute – to make gaps in the technical solution a training problem. That may, or may not, be the right answer. The truth is that all gaps should be assessed from the perspective of their capacity or propensity to derail the change initiatives success. Sometimes, it’s better to delay a little, get the technology tighter, and ultimately be ahead from an adoption perspective.

An Ounce of Prevention

An ounce of prevention is often worth a pound of cure. In change management, the preparation you do can reduce the amount of time that your success will take. Reading READY, Set, Change! may be a good start to that preparation.

Book Review-How to Be a Change Superhero: The Business Toolkit to Help You to ‘Do’ Change Better

There’s the moment right after you realize that you’ve been assigned to your first change project when panic sets in and you begin to wonder How to be a Change Superhero. Whether the thought crosses your mind early in the process or late doesn’t matter. What matters is that moment of panic when you realize that you don’t have the tools you need to accomplish the change you’re being asked to move forward in the organization. How to be a Change Superhero: The Business Toolkit to Help You to ‘Do’ Change Better is all about helping you cross the chasm between your current self and the hero that exists inside of you.

Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces and developed what he believed to be a universal story arc that has become known as Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The journey always starts with a limited awareness of the current situation and proceeds through a period of self-denial and self-doubt before the hero emerges. Everyone wants the hero to emerge.

The Change Equation

Richard Beckhard and Reuben Harris developed a change equation that is C=A*B*D>X, where C is the degree of change, A is the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, B is the desirability of the proposed change, D is the practicality of the change and X is the cost of change. Said more simply, change only happens when the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same. In principle, I agree with the formula, though I’m careful about the multiplicative aspect of the terms. I’m not completely convinced that they’re mutually exclusive or that the effect is as dramatic as the multiplication might suggest.

Everett Rogers expressed it differently. In Diffusion of Innovations, he explained that there are five factors that influenced the rate of adoption of an innovation (the rate of change): observability, trialability, simplicity (lack of complexity), relative advantage, and compatibility. In Rogers’ model, the lack of any of these discourages change.

Against Our Will

One of the most powerful realizations in change is that you’ll likely not succeed if your approach is to get people to do things against their will. Commanding people to do something just doesn’t work as well as we would like it to. People don’t appreciate the idea that they have no choice, that it’s not their desire to do it but they must. This builds resentment, and resentment results in friction everywhere. Not only will the specific thing that’s being commanded face resistance, but so, too, will most things that you ask the person to do – even things they do want to do. The resentment around one area of their work world will bleed into other areas as well.

You Can’t Fake Sincerity

If you want to care for the people that you’re asking to make change, you’ll have to be sincere. It’s not possible – in a sustained way – to pretend to be sincere about your concern for others but not really be concerned. Somewhere, somehow, it will eventually leak out, and the resulting backlash will generally make people not trust you any longer. So, while in the short-term, faking sincerity might be possible, it’s a bad idea, and in the long term, it’s not possible at all.

Becoming a Superhero

If you want to become a change superhero in your organization, maybe read How to Be a Change Superhero.

By the way, Lucinda Carney has a toolkit related to the book available if you’d prefer to start with that.

Book Review-One Minute to Midnight

It was the closest that the world had ever come to a global nuclear war, and it started in America’s back yard. Metaphorically speaking, it was just one minute from the end of the atomic day. The clock advanced to just one minute before midnight, a whisper from the end of the world. Then slowly, magically, it receded to a spot where both sides stepped back from the abyss and found a way towards peace. It was a peace that would start the world on a track of lower risk of mutually-assured destruction.

The time spent one minute from midnight started from October 16th, 1962, when the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was notified that we had aerial reconnaissance confirmation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun, and it had the effect of advancing the atomic clock to One Minute to Midnight.

The Story

In brief, the Soviets had worked with Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, in a partnership that put medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) on Cuban soil aimed at the United States. Castro has suffered intrusions into the Cuban state through US-sponsored incursions, most notably The Bay of Pigs. The relationship with the Soviet Union was a way of protecting himself from the US and at the same time allowed Nikita Khrushchev a way to give the US back some of what it was giving to Moscow. The US had deployed MRBMs to Turkey – roughly the same distance to Moscow as it was from Cuba to Washington, D.C.

The situation was ultimately resolved through a blockade and subsequent diplomacy, but not before having nearly two weeks of very tense moments. The missiles were removed from Cuba and the US agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey.

That’s the history lesson and the context of the book. However, in addition to the twists and turns the story takes, there’s a second story that’s told of how our world has changed and how it has stayed the same.

Communications

Perhaps the most striking observation was the change in communications from then to now. Commands relayed from Washington could take 6-8 hours to make it to the commanders of the Navy stationed in the Gulf of Mexico. Official communication to the Soviet Union could take 12 hours or more. Even before the red phone was installed to provide direct communication between the US and the Soviet Union, we had improved communications dramatically.

Today, we take for granted that we can reach out and contact anyone on the planet in a matter of minutes if not seconds. We have video calls with friends and colleagues half a world away. We expect that our messages will arrive nearly instantaneously and that everyone has access to the internet in one way or another. However, at the time, the internet wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t even a wish.

One of the major challenges for the Soviet submarine commanders was the requirement that they surface to communicate with Moscow each day. While the timing made perfect sense in conflicts centered around Moscow – midnight – it made them very vulnerable during the daylight in the Atlantic waters.

Time and Distance

Never had the Soviet Union deployed ships and troops in such quantities so far away. Simple challenges like communications seemed onerous until they needed precise time signals that were too weak to receive from Moscow. Instead, they had to accept their time signals from US sources – unbeknownst to the US army.

Intelligence

It took nearly 30 hours for the US to notice that the Soviet ships that were on their way to Cuba to turn around and start heading home – after the initial awareness that the US knew of the missiles and Khrushchev started pulling back. Still, there was a spy providing the US with lots of useful information including the technical manual for the missiles being deployed to Cuba. We also had a sophisticated (for the time) set of listening posts that made it possible to detect the location Soviet submarines without their knowledge.

Spy planes, including the U-2, were used to gather aerial reconnaissance. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more about spy planes.) Where now we have satellites orbiting to safely photograph locations of interest, back then, we had to put people at risk to gather the photographic intelligence we needed to make decisions.

What we knew was mostly wrong – particularly as it pertains to the number of nuclear warheads that were in Cuba and the troop deployment. Moreover, we had dramatically overestimated the Soviet nuclear capacity. Where we underestimated the deployment strength, we vastly overestimated the total strength.

Missiles

The crisis wasn’t really about the ability to hit the US from Cuba. The truth was, as Kennedy was aware, that you were dead whether the nuclear warhead was delivered through an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a MRBM. Kennedy never liked the Jupiter missiles deployed to Turkey and he tried to remove them – but he was always blocked. His “ace in the hole” was the Minuteman ICBMs that were scattered throughout Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Where the Jupiter missiles were mounted above ground and took 15-30 minutes to fuel, the Minuteman missiles were in underground silos and were ready to launch “within minutes.” Their farm configuration – which spread the missile silos over large areas of sparsely populated space – made them difficult for the Soviets to wipe out in an initial attack scenario.

The missiles in Cuba were a pawn of the much larger nuclear one-upmanship that the two superpowers had been playing. It was the case of American imperialism against communist solidarity. The missiles weren’t the point – the fact that the US was being threatened was.

Cuba’s Castro

Ninety percent of Cuba was owned in some way by the United States companies or individuals before the revolution. Cuba’s liberation meant that the government ceased the assets of foreign owners for state control – and even despite this grab of economic power, the country nearly collapsed. Castro’s revolution was a success – barely – but his economy was a wreck. He was intent at doing whatever it took to ensure that the economy survived, so that the country would survive under his leadership.

He was, however, a revolutionary at heart, and as such, he was willing to go to much greater extremes than either the US or his Soviet counterparts. Where the US soldier wouldn’t tolerate poor conditions and as much as one-third of the soldiers becoming ill, this was tolerable for the Soviet troops. The Soviets had done testing on their own people with regard to the impacts of nuclear radiation. Many died as a result of their radiation exposure. Castro knew the impacts of nuclear radiation and was willing to poison his country for decades to stop an invading US force.

The Soviets brought more with them than the MRBMs. They brought tactical nuclear weapons that would wipe out an invading force – but not without rather permanent and lasting damage to the ability for Cuba to be habitable. This didn’t seem to bother either the Soviet suppliers or the Cuban Dictator, who seemed locked in his revolutionary ways and the belief that winning was all that mattered.

The Consequences of Nuclear War

Kennedy and Khrushchev were both painfully aware that there was no such thing as a limited nuclear war. They knew that once the first weapon was fired (even inadvertently), there would likely be little turning back. Where Castro seemed intent on using whatever means necessary, both leaders saw their roles in history differently. They felt like that if they stepped too far forward, there would be nothing to step back to.

What does it mean to be the victor when the world is destroyed, they wondered. Victory is hollow when it is only to survive longer before inevitable death.

Communism

The threat to democracy was communism. There was a belief that it just could be a better system of government, and the US’ democratic approach was bound to be buried by communist efficiency. Where Khrushchev made promises to crush the US economically, we now know that this was just bluster. That didn’t stop the inquiries at the time or the fear that our way of living might be changed by forces outside our control.

It’s interesting to me as I compare it to Microsoft’s response to Linux in the 1990s. Linux was a real threat to Microsoft’s Windows desktop market – only to be revealed to be a non-issue. Microsoft did lose some market share to Linux in the server market, but this was hardly as pervasive or as redefining as it was anticipated to be.

When you’re standing too close to the problem, you fail to put it into a proper perspective.

Kennedy

JFK is a hero. However, his image is much larger than the real-life person. His handling of the crisis, his push to the Moon, and his famous speeches anchored a place for him in the American psyche. Having been assassinated, he didn’t have to accept the messiness of the fall from grace. However, when you look deeper, you see parts of the man that don’t reflect the hero image.

His medical issues were a secret to me until One Minute to Midnight. I never realized all the care that he was receiving behind the scenes to remain functional. I recognize these host of problems as the result of stress and incongruency in his world – something that the doctors at the time didn’t appear to be aware of. However, the man that spoke for everyone in America was as fallible as any other man.

There are the stories that you hear about JFK and his infidelity. Marylin Monroe’s relationship with him – including the alleged sexual relationship – are well known. His string of sexual encounters was also well established. However, the relationship with his former neighbor and former wife of a senior CIA official was an aspect I had not previously been aware of.

I can only believe that these were different times for different people, when it was expected that men, particularly powerful men, would have affairs. I don’t understand it or how it would be acceptable to the wives, but it’s far from the last time that a politician – or sitting president – would have an indiscretion that the wife knew about and either condoned or concealed. (Think Bill Clinton.)

I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the same place that we were with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union’s attempts to keep pace with the US economy and defense spending broke it. Communism, it seems, wasn’t as great as it was made out to be. What I do remember from my history class is that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it – and not just the high school history class. If for no other reason than avoiding the possibility of nuclear war, perhaps it’s time to give some thought to One Minute to Midnight.

Building a Course: Rendering All Stale Videos

When you’re building a large-scale course with hours of videos comprised of literally hundreds of videos, you’re invariably going to run into a problem that will require you to rerender the videos. In our case, we needed to replace the background. We got feedback that our plain white background, which we often use in our videos because it’s non-distracting, resulted in too much white on the screen. The result was the need to rerender all the videos with a new background.

Since the move to the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 6K camera, we found our render times climbing to about 5:1. That meant a one-minute video would be a five-minute wait to complete. It also meant that repacking all the videos by hand would take weeks. The way we solved it was to create an extension for Vegas to render all the project files in a directory tree, but that wasn’t the way we started.

Scripting and Off-the-Shelf

When it comes to needing tools to build courses, my first goal is always to buy something. I’d much rather buy something and put a bit a script around it than have to build something from scratch. There’s a simple reason for this: time. It’s cheaper to spend $100 than it is to spend 10 hours building a tool. While there are a number of tools that plug into VEGAS to allow for batch rendering – and even an out-of-the-box script – none of them approached what I was trying to do. They either allowed output to multiple formats or they wanted you to build a single project with multiple regions in it, each of which would get rendered to a separate file. That might make sense for some situations, but it’s not practical with hundreds of files and 12 hours of content.

I resolved to start by trying to revise the Batch Render script that is included with the product. I got the framework built out and tried to use it only to realize the primary limitation with the approach. It’s difficult to debug. The script is a C# script, and Vegas supports extensions, too, with a single interface. So, I broke out Visual Studio and converted the script to an extension.

The Code

Basically, I needed to take media files, copy them to the reference directories for each of the projects, and then render the files. However, since I expected I’d never get all the work done in a single sitting, I needed to be a bit more intelligent about when I rendered. That all started with copying the media files.

The Media

I ultimately decided that the tool would pick up media files from a master directory and copy them into the media directories for each of the projects (actually the working directories), since, in some cases, a single folder might host several project files. The copying would only happen if the files in the master directory were newer than the files that exist in the media directory already.

We use this strategy because the automatic file location in Vegas is good if the files are placed under the project directory but not good if they’re in random directories – including directories above the project. By placing copies in the media folder, we knew that Vegas would locate the files even if we needed to render from another machine on the network.

In the end, I’d figure out when the last file in the media directory was modified and use that in deciding what projects to render.

Deciding Which Projects to Render

A project needed rendered if the project file had been updated since the last rendering or if the media the project uses was updated. We keep all the rendered files in a specific subdirectory from the project file – Render – so locating the rendered file wasn’t that difficult. Then it’s a bit of checking to know whether the project needed to be rendered or not – except for two problems.

The first issue was that some of the project files that we had in the directories were leftovers. We kept them for reference, but the output didn’t make it into the core of the project. For those, we had a simple solution. Suffix the file name with -DNR (for “do not render”). We’d have the tool skip any files with the -DNR suffix. However, that still created one more problem: nested files.

While Vegas supports nested project files natively – that is, you can use one project file as a source for another – they’re not the most performant. As a result, if we need to split a long video (as we often do), we render the output of the master file, then use Vegas to slice into that file. The rendering time for those files is 1:5 (one minute of render for five minutes of video). So what happens is we end up needing to do some files first, so the rest of the files can use the output out of the render directory as their source. We reused the suffix idea and suffixed these files with -1st. We’d process all of those first, then all the other files. This ensured that we created the files the other renderings needed.

The User Interface

The user interface was super simple: just a set of text boxes for configuration and then a dialog with a Data Grid View in it. The Data Grid View includes the directory and project name as well as the length, media files copied, start, end, elapsed rendering times, and a status. Length and rendering times are only recorded if the file is rendered.

Vegas has two quirks related to opening new files. First, there’s no method you can call to close the existing file. There’s a workaround to create a new blank file and turn off prompting to save the existing file. The second quirk is that your dialog gets hidden during the opening of a new file. To solve this, you can just reshow the dialog after the file is loaded.

In the end, there’s an option to save the output file to a CSV file to save the results of the operation – and to provide some baseline timings.

Wait for Idle

One of the other quirks with Vegas was that you have to call WaitForIdle() before you can read values from the project that you just loaded. You need to do this so you can get the length – so you know how to set up the rendering. If you don’t, you’ll get a length of zero – and that doesn’t work so well.

Rendering

The last step is starting the rendering process. That’s about setting a few things – like the length – and then kicking off the process. Of course, you need to tell it where to render to – which is easy enough, given the standardized folder structure. You also need to set the rendering settings.

Luckily, Vegas allows you to save the rendering settings that you want in the user interface. You save these settings with a name so the code can just go retrieve that template. It’s looping through the various renderers looking for the specific template you want – but it’s not particularly challenging code.

The Results

The result is a “fire and forget” approach. If you need to update a batch of files, you just kick it off. If you need to change the background – or a logo/bug – you replace the file in the media master directory, and the tool will copy the files and render the files.

It turns an interactive process of 60 or 80 hours of rendering into something that you can set up before a long weekend and come back to when it’s done. There are still, of course, the issues of getting all the files staged in the video delivery platforms, but while that process is tedious, it doesn’t burn through weeks of time.

While I don’t like having to build automation to make our content projects function effectively, there are times like this one when it works out well. If you want a copy of the tool, contact us, and we’ll get you a copy, so you don’t have to build one yourself.

Building a PDF to Image Converter

The Confident Change Management course was a major effort for us. The result is 800 pages of content and over 11 hours of video. It also required over 1,000 hours of time directly and the creation of four different pieces of technology to help us manage the process. This post is about the tool we built to convert PDF documents into images that we could use in videos.

PDFs for Exercises

There are lots of ways to build exercises for students. Just in the question and answer arena, you’ve got Word, PDF, online form builders, and whatever your LMS supports. Each of them has their benefits and limitations. We ended up deciding that, for our course, we could get to the best overall experience for most students by using fillable PDF forms, but we start with Word forms.

In truth, all the content we build starts in Microsoft Word or Microsoft PowerPoint. We’ll do note-taking in Microsoft OneNote and outline with MindJet MindManager, but the bulk of our content, including the things that we produce the courses from, are from Microsoft Office products. Word has a built-in forms technology, so why don’t we leverage that for prompting students to enter information?

The largest answer is that not everyone has Microsoft Word available to them in general or while taking the course. The largest common denominator is PDF, since everyone has or can get a PDF reader for free. There’s an issue getting the Word fields into PDF fields, but I’ll leave that for another post. For now, know the decision between Word and PDF largely came down to accessibility and ease for the students.

The question then becomes why not put this into some sort of electronic form and use that? The short answer is that it necessarily precludes someone from working offline. Given the nature of the course and our desire for the students to really reflect on the questions and dig deeply, we wanted to give them the option of escaping the onslaught of email and the ever-present interruption. With that in mind, PDF was the right answer.

Connecting Video Introduction and Exercises

To help orient the student, we wanted to record a video introduction to the exercise as well as providing written instructions. We felt that layering the two different communications approaches would give us the best coverage and retention of the intent of the exercise. The problem with that was how to connect the video component to the exercises.

Initially, we wanted to use a jib with an overhead shot, a leather three-ring binder, and some dual-mode front and overhead shots. When we did that, we realized that it just wasn’t coming together. You could either see what I was saying or the exercise, not both. That left us with the video overlay option. That’s what we do with slides and instruction anyway, so it seemed natural. That was until we realized the exercises were multiple pages, and sometimes I’d want to talk between the pages – and that would be awkward.

The solution was to create a single linear image of the exercise. We did this by outputting the Microsoft Word document to PDF, and then we built a tool to convert the PDF to images. The actual rendering part of the PDF wasn’t that hard, because we had a license to a PDF tool. What was interesting was addressing the gutter problem.

The Gutter Problem

Gutter margins are added to the inside edge to allow for binding. It’s used for 3-ring binding and every book you’ve ever read. The inside margin is larger than the outside. When you line up images for the different pages, you’ll notice the sawtooth effect, as the pages jump right then left. As a result, we detected the edges and added padding to the top, bottom, left, and right of the image we detect, so we could remove the whitespace then add back just enough of our own.

The Result

The result is a single linear image that we can scroll through in the video as I’m talking about each aspect of what the student will do in the exercise. Visually, they can connect what I’m talking about with what the pages look like. The result is lower cognitive load and better performance on the exercises.

Cognitive Load

In instructional design, I’m always trying to minimize cognitive load and free up more resources for the student to be able to focus on the work of learning the material. That means choosing words carefully, designing exercises and instruction that are progressive – in the sense that it uses very many small steps – and finding ways to make it clear what I’m talking about. I didn’t expect to need to use programming and image processing skills to make it a bit easier for students to learn – but I did. If you’re interested in what I built, reach out to me. I’m not going to post it publicly, but I’ll share it with folks who ask for it.

Building Student Handbooks, Workbooks, and Lab Manuals via Book Builder

It was 2008 when I wrote the article for MSDN magazine that showed off the first book publishing Word add-in that I had built. It basically assembled individual Word files into one master document. We’ve used it to publish every version of The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide (2010, 2013, 2016), Secret SharePoint, Extinguish Burnout, and more. However, it had grown quite long in the tooth. Small problems cropped up that we worked around until now. We had to do something different, because we were building an exercise handbook with page numbers that matched the lesson and exercise, which meant we had to assemble the files with section breaks in them instead of page breaks.

The Problems

Being able to individually work on and track components of a large project is essential. We had that in spades. It’s a well-oiled machine as each element of the process moves from one state (and therefore queue) to another. However, when the OneDrive and Office integration happened, the book publishing tools choked, as Word and OneDrive got confused as to what was happening. We worked around the issue by copying the files to a non-synchronized folder and ran the tool from there, but it was frustrating and took time.

We also were always fighting the problem of starting new elements on the right side of a pair of facing pages. For The Shepherd’s Guide and other projects, it wasn’t such a big deal, but as we got to having separate exercises, it became important. The tool didn’t manage that – but it definitely could.

The tool didn’t do a good job of behaving well with the Word user interface. It would sometimes end up behind the user interface updates, and you’d wonder what was going on. We needed to make it reliably report status – all the time.

It also treated every file the same. You couldn’t say that you didn’t want to convert fields to text in the bibliography, but you wanted to convert all fields to their text for other parts of the file.

Other than the section/page numbering issue, everything was a small annoyance, which is why they hadn’t been fixed. However, that changed.

VSTO

Visual Studio Tools for Office was the initial name of the toolset used to build a compiled DLL add-in for an Office Application. Those tools have been carried through until today. The heart of it is a set of objects that expose the internals of the Office application – in this case, Word – to another program. It’s the same object model between the macros that Word supports internally and the externally compiled objects. The initial article made this point clear by first recording steps and then transitioning those into compiled code.

However, back then, I didn’t have a deep understanding of the threading model inside of Word or – to be honest – the complexities of updating the user interface from a single thread. The result was a kludgy implementation that made the user interface both in Word and in the dialog very non-responsive.

Threading and the User Experience

Since then I’ve had more than a few primers on threading, user experience updates, call-backs, events, and other ways to make the user interface better.

I settled on an approach that used DataGridView bound to a data set that managed. The result of that is the infrastructure would handle all the screen updates if I handled my data and fired the right events. The data source turned out to be my core objects, which isn’t the most normal case, but it’s completely possible to bind your collection (IList<>) to the data grid view.

Even the preparation to start the process changed as well. Using a similar strategy, the default settings were established, and then files were added to the list. Unlike the previous iteration that only allowed you to load a manifest at the end, this version of the user interface would allow you to load files, change settings, add files, and save the results. Where the previous version only supported a text file, this version would support XML files as well – where settings were stored with the individual files.

Settings Control

One of the user interface components that was moved into its own component was a settings control. This control would be responsible for creating a settings object and allowing a user to adjust it – whether the settings were the default settings or the settings for an individual file. By creating an entry point in the control to load from a settings object and to push back to a settings object from the screen, it became easy to adjust settings in the user experience without making changes every place the settings user interface was needed.

Restructuring

While the user interface updates were relatively easy to do by leveraging a data grid view, the rest of the code was a mess that needed cleaned up. It reflected the fact that it was a macro that was converted instead of a set of objects designed to work together. The restructuring started by moving from a one-size fits all to a per-file approach to settings.

A method would bring in a file using the settings object that it was provided. This allowed for fine tuning of individual files and some isolation. Additional separation of concerns was achieved by having the settings object be a cluster of other objects for different aspects of the assembly. Page settings and image settings had their own object and their own method for addressing these concerns.

The file assembly method, then, was largely a process of sequencing these individual calls. It kept the loading of the files and the copying, but most of the other detailed work got kicked out into separate methods. One class of settings, assembly, stayed in the main method, because it impacted the overall assembly. Adding breaks – including section breaks instead of page breaks – remained in the core methods, as did copying to a temp directory was a handled in the main method.

Copying to Temp

One of the problems that we were facing was the new behavior where Word was getting confused regarding synchronization when in a OneDrive synchronized folder. The solution was to do a quick file copy to a temporary directory and open from there. The mechanisms for doing this are straightforward in .NET, so having compiled .NET code that plugged into Word was a powerful combination.

In the End

In the end, the new tool is easier to work with, supports all of the new features we wanted, and allows us to create materials quicker and more reliably than we could ever do by hand, either with individual documents or with a single master document.

Confident Change Management Launch

Today is launch day. It’s the culmination of my career to date, over a decade of research, and nine months of seemingly endless days creating what we believe is the most comprehensive change management course available. It’s designed to help anyone become confident with their ability to deliver change in their organization.

The course is available as an online, on-demand course that has over 800 pages of printed instruction, exercises, and examples with 11.5 hours of video instruction. I recognized that, when you need to learn how to do change management, you typically need to learn how to do it now. It’s not some wishful thinking about something that might be helpful. Most people I know were given a project to change the way the organization works that needed to be done immediately with little or no preparation.

The course has an optional facilitated application sessions component that can be purchased. It is ten weekly two-hour sessions, with an additional one hour of introduction in the first session. They are designed to deepen your understanding of the content and provide you a community of people that you can ask hard questions and get honest answers. The first five sessions are exercise reviews, and the second five sessions are facilitated discussions around the barriers that make it difficult to be successful with change in your organization.

I’ve spent decades helping organizations of all sizes implement technology changes. We’d deploy SharePoint and Office 365 and realize that we needed to transform the way the organization communicates and collaborates. This experience taught me what works and doesn’t work. I backed this up with research on change, influence, psychology, marketing, and dozens of other topics to ensure that the successes we were seeing weren’t flukes, they were supported by the best thinking and research.

All of this is bundled in a layered learning approach that is designed to make the process of understanding the information easy and quick. If you just need a quick basic understanding, you can watch the video (at 2x speed, even). If you want a solid understanding, you can read the student handbook and do the exercises. If you need an even more detailed understanding, you can follow the references in the materials – and there’s a six-page listing of references included as a part of the course.

The online course lists for $2,999, but until July 31st, you can enter the code LAUNCH at checkout and receive a $1,000 discount. The facilitated application sessions are available separately for $999, but you’re offered an automatic $500 discount when you purchase the online course and the facilitated application sessions at the same time.

We understand that you may not be in the position to make this kind of an investment in your success today. We’ve also made available a free Introduction to Change Management Course, which explains why change is about people and not technology or models. We’ve also made available a change management resource toolkit that is designed to make it easier to accomplish change in your organization – whether or not you take the Confident Change Management Course.