Moving The Daily Show and Colbert to HD: 5 Change Management Lessons

It's no joke to manage the technology project that will shift two of today's highest-profile comedy shows to HDTV. Here, the project leader shares 5 keys to change management success.

When you're leading IT for NEP Studios, the company that produces The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, and you're staring at a deadline for upgrading from standard definition television to high definition, let's just say that you don't want the bosses to mock you.

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NEP Studios didn't have a choice on making the move to high definition, says George Hoover, CTO. It was a technology change that had to happen, as when the movie industry had to move to DVDs from VHS tapes. The old technology was becoming obsolete. The challenge was to avoid interrupting the production schedule .

"When you think about it, live television is one of the few things that really happens on a schedule," Hoover says. "The world expects that TV shows will start when you expect them to start. It is a culture built around 'the show literally must go on at the appointed time&pencils down, it's 11:00 and Jon Stewart is on Comedy Central."

With that guiding principle of "the show must go on", plus a little inspiration from the HD broadcast of the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008, Hoover and his team accomplished their goal. They were able to complete the project without disrupting the show schedules. After 18 months, the HD broadcast debuted on January 4, 2010, on schedule and on budget. (And Hoover's team was one of our most recent CIO 100 award winners, honored for creating new business value by innovating with technology.)

What change management techniques did Hoover's team consider to be essential to their success? Here are five change management lessons learned from NEP Studios:

1. Involve everyone from entry-level to management level

Hoover says that he made sure to run the project plans by everyone on the staff, including the janitor. All employees were involved in project discussions and notified about how the project would affect them. Doing this helped to get everyone on board and to feel like they were personally being taken into consideration, which was necessary for success, Hoover says.

Uniting employees for the shared cause of a large project cannot be overlooked, adds Derek Miers, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Bringing the people with you is so important; you have to build a launch platform for the project," Miers says. "You can change the technology but you also have to change the behaviors."

2. Don't try too much too soon

Introducing a large technology upgrade can be distracting and time-consuming. Hoover and his team broke down the process into small chunks because introducing too much too soon would be messy and leave many employees in the dark. HD technical experts hired by NEP for the project gradually taught employees the details of the new technology, so that they would be ready and comfortable by the time the conversion went live. As for the technicians replacing wiring, employees literally did not see the technicians or the work, which was done at night and on weekends to avoid interrupting the day-to-day activities and production schedule.

3. Communication fuels collaboration

Employees at NEP had a voice throughout the process. Hoover and his team fielded questions and concerns not only to keep everyone happy, but also to diagnose their own potential hurdles. Jill Katz, Executive in Charge of Production for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, says the careful communication kept her and her team in line with Hoover's mission. "The consultant, NEP lead engineer and I had to meet all the time to plan for [each] week, how it will affect this machine, who needs to come in early, to make sure everything is working."

4. Bring in experienced outside subject matter experts

The shift would touch many aspects of NEP's technology. Hoover brought in broadcast consultant Kent Green, who had experience with this kind of HD conversion, to be his right-hand man and ensure that the technology shift would be seamless and transparent. Green assisted Hoover in recruiting other technical experts such as Avid, Virtual Media, and Control Group specialists as technology consultants.

5. Be an involved leader

Hoover says that looking back on the project, he remembers the people as the most important factor of all. "The key to a successful project for an existing production is truly getting everyone working together and through expectations; maintaining good collegial team spirit." He says that he pulled inspiration from the bottom up as people relied on him to deliver.

Though Hoover and his team completed the project on time and on budget, Stewart and Colbert still managed to have plenty of fun with the move to HD. Check out these links to see their HD hijinks:

1. Stewart: Look Ma, It's an HD Ski Mask

2. Colbert: HD Means 15 Percent More Show for You!

3. Colbert: Ooh! HD Ads

4. Colbert: Dear Standard Definition Cable providers

See the entire list of CIO 100 Award winners in CIO.com's interactive chart.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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