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Radical vs. Incremental Change with Web-to-Print and Print MIS

Do you approach change as an incremental, keep everyone comfortable manner? Or do you see how much the external conditions have changed while your company has stayed still? Is your print software able to support your current and future business needs?

By Jennifer Matt
Published: February 16, 2015

Offset to digital, print manufacturer to marketing services provider, process improvements to process automation – in case you’re not paying attention, change is becoming the norm and the pace is accelerating. Gary Hamel, the American management consultant and professor states:

Today’s organizations were simply never designed to change proactively and deeply—they were built for discipline and efficiency, enforced through hierarchy and routinization. As a result, there’s a mismatch between the pace of change in the external environment and the fastest possible pace of change at most organizations.”

How should we think about change? Our business is in a ‘current state’, we have a vision for some desired ‘future state’ and then there is that gap or the transition between where we are today and where we would like to be sometime in the future.

Do we approach the change in a radical fashion, getting it done as soon as possible? Radical change can be disruptive and uncomfortable on employees, it can carry a higher risk of failure, yet it promises quicker rewards and competitive differentiation in the market.


Or do we approach change in an incremental fashion? Try to ease our people into the change with the hope that it will be less disruptive and more comfortable for all impacted?


Your approach to change should depend on your situation, the degrees between your current and future state, and the impact you’re expecting for your business. Much too often businesses only take on radical change too late because they are left with no other option. Incremental change is so much more comfortable for everyone, yet it is too slow and too little too late due to the accelerating rate of change of the external conditions that impact your print business. More printers have to realize that radical change is required to ‘catch up’ with the current market conditions. When I hear printer’s say, ‘we’ve been doing it this way for years, why would we change now?” I always ask them, what has changed about the market in those same years? The easier question to ask is actually what hasn’t changed?

Again to quote Gary Hamel, “most companies today can't grow revenue by flogging the same old stuff to the same old customers through the same old channels in the same old way.” Incremental change to the way you’ve been doing it for the last couple decades just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Here are two stories of change, one incremental and one radical to illuminate my point. We worked with a large company in the industry who had over the years invested in four or five different web-to-print solutions, as well as building their own custom web-to-print solution. Their current state was a mess of customer deployments on different technology which they had to staff each one, manage upgrades from each one, and continue to incorporate requested changes on each one. My colleague, Chris Reisz-Hanson refers to this as ‘plate spinning’ that overhead that comes with each new technology that you deploy, you have to have someone in your organization with the knowledge of how to keep that system running (the plates spinning). All this technical know-how and effort is referred to as the ‘technical debt’ of your company, you service this debt in the form of labor, subscription fees, maintenance fees until that system is shut off. When all your technical resources are consumed with spinning plates and servicing technical debt, you don’t have the runway to innovate.

This company decided to invest in a new platform; they made solid architectural decisions, integrated a group of best of breed components, and invested in a global and scalable solution. Then they took the path of incremental change. Years later they are still spinning plates, the legacy systems have not been retired, not all new customers are being deployed on the new system. Their people are more comfortable with the technologies they know so they keep making excuses as to why this specific customer needs to be deployed on a technology that is not part of their future vision. They are continuing to add more plates, create more technical debt, and most importantly not pushing their future platform aggressively enough to support all customers now. The pressure on software evolution is applied by external forces, e.g. the customer who is responsible for revenues. Internal plans never carry that kind of pressure. The best way to increase the evolution of a software solution is to put it in the hands of as many customers as possible, as soon as possible.

In this case, the company made an investment for their future but their path to change was incremental instead of radical. Incremental change opened the door for built in resistance to take hold and for employees to hold tight to technologies that they simply were more comfortable with. The end result, the company’s platform for the future is still lagging. The technical debt has only been increased by the addition of the future platform. A radical change here would have been disruptive but that disruption would have cut off the ability for employees to revert back to their comfort zones.

In my second example, Brian Benson of Benson Integrated Marketing Services understood that his market was changing and his technology wasn’t keeping up. In radical fashion, Brian pulled out all his offset presses, replaced them with HP Indigo and modernized his print MIS and web-to-print. Benson didn’t incrementally move away from offset printing, they moved the presses out the same time they brought the Indigos in. The offset press operators had one career path, learn to operate the Indigos or find another job. After several months on the job I spoke with one of the operators, he had been running offset presses for more than twenty years. He spoke about the steep learning curve and then he said something absolutely brilliant. “I learned how to get stuff to print in offset, now I have only one option – get it to work on the digital presses.” The radical change put this pressman on a path to an accelerated “have-to” learning curve. If an offset press would have remained, you can bet there would have been endless debate on where each job should run that debate would have been heavily biased towards the technologies people were comfortable with.

Benson’s approach is disruptive, the team feels it. The transition is a lot of work. The business has to keep on running while you’re trading out your print MIS, your web-to-print, and your entire print production workflow. I’m not saying it’s easy, but for Benson they can clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel. They are within reach, they have removed offset presses, decommissioned their print MIS and legacy accounting system, and they are aggressively working through the transition of all their web-to-print stores. What does this mean to Benson as a company? They are starting to look forward, they are expanding their product offerings, they have the ability to be a data-driven organization because their print software is running their business and their people are running the print software.

Will their change end? No. They have built a platform that will make change easier and faster moving forward. This platform will support their ability to continue to disrupt their competitors, take more market share, and change customer expectations to their way of thinking.

Yesterday's success has never mattered less. Today's success has never been more fragile. Tomorrow has never been more uncertain. And the courage to lead the kind of change that it takes to survive — or, even more important, to win — in this world has never been in such short supply. — Gary Hamel

At the upcoming DscoopX event March 5-7, 2015 in Washington DC, Brian Benson and I will be co-presenting Embracing Change (in a Radical Fashion), as part of the Business Management track. Join us on Friday March 6, 3:00pm – 4:00pm for a fascinating story and a lively discussion.

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions. You can reach her at jen@whattheythink.com.



By tom koceja on Feb 16, 2015

If your not striving for finding ways for total integration in connectivity for all production steps through accounting when looking at your business your lagging


By Jeffrey Pierce on Feb 16, 2015

A whole generation of new managers have entered the industry since Tom Peters was writing on these same topics in the eighties. I'd think more businesses would embrace the value of innovation, agility, radical change, but the perceived risks can be frightening -- hence the well-placed closing quote on "courage."

I found something in your last paragraph the most persuasive: "disrupt their competitors". The internal disruption caused by radical change is painful, but disrupting the competition? That's something a manager should be eager to do!


By Jennifer Matt on Feb 16, 2015

Tom and Jeffrey,

I like the idea of in general "stop thinking about your company" and start thinking about how you can change your customers expectations and how you can disrupt your competitors. Have the courage to do both.

Yes - all this disrupts and causes your company to be out of its comfort zone but it is for all the right reasons. Market differentiation and adding value to your existing customer relationships.



By Rossitza Sardjeva on Feb 17, 2015

Tomorrow's success has never been more uncertain,and the courage to lead the changes will take to win...but of course there is a risk and this will not be frightening for most of new managers.


By Jennifer Matt on Feb 20, 2015

Rossitza -

Great point. I live and work in San Francisco. I go to a lot of technology events in the Bay Area. The people working in technology (not just the young ones) are comfortable with change - actually I think the more accurate way to describe it is that they are ADDICTED to change. When things change, opportunities are created. Dominate players fall, small players rise. The technology sector bets on constant and disruptive change.

We need to get infected by this addiction and inject a more courageous approach to change moving forward (too many drug references in that sentence).

Attitude is much more important than age.



By Rossitza Sardjeva on Feb 27, 2015

That's correct Jenifer, but nontheless youth is advanatage.....


By Jennifer Matt on Feb 27, 2015


Youth is an advantage only that you don't have as many beliefs (thoughts you've been thinking over and over again) that can keep you stuck.

I have met people in their 70's who are more youthful (not stuck) than kids in their 20's.

Age is an advantage because you know from experience that everything is impermanent, everything will change, and you should only focus on what you have control over.



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