The days of seeming stability are long gone

You all know your business is changing.

You know all about lost readers and lost revenue.

You know that if you don’t do something differently, you’re business isn’t likely to survive.

But let’s say that something different turns out to be the right thing. You don’t make any major mistakes on your way to transforming your business. You survive. Whew!

Now what?

I suspect that many journalists and media executives expect that some day all of this disruptive change will stop, and they can take a collective sigh and start basking in some well deserved profits and stability.

I say, think again.

Change is now our permanent state. Change has probably been a permanent state for at least 100, if not 200 years, it’s just that change happened slow enough that we could walk rather than run to keep up. The difference is that now we need to sprint.

I’ve written about these thoughts before, but the question is important, and came to mind again while reading the latest post from John Hagel.

A more specific question might be: what are the institutional architectures required to operate in a world where there is no equilibrium? Early conventional wisdom suggest that these architectures should focus on agility and flexibility, but that misses the real opportunity – balancing agility with the persistence and stability required to build and deepen long-term trust based relationships. Being able to discern what needs to change and what needs to remain stable may be the greatest challenge of all.

My big question is, can newspaper companies become adaptive enough to adjust to a media world that has not even the semblance of equilibrium?

I’m not giving up hope, but creating a culture that embraces change rather than fights it isn’t just the responsibility of media executives. It’s up to all of us who believe in the value of the news business.

What would a change organization look like?

First, it is a learning organization. It employees smart, motivated people who never stop acquiring new skills and knowledge and shun getting bogged down in trying to become specialists.

Second, it spends as much time trying to anticipate what is coming next as it does serving today’s needs. There is no time to get comfortable with today’s world.

Third, it is an organization that isn’t afraid of failure. When you’re spending a good deal of time anticipating what’s coming, you’re going to have to try many ideas that will simply be wrong. You are going to guess wrong about change far more often than you guess right. Aiming for perfection is fatal for an organization that needs to change rapidly and constantly.

Fourth, measuring success won’t be a matter of dollars and sense only. I think Hagel is right on this point: We need to develop metrics that help us gauge our ability to drive business decisions via leading indicators (audience engagement, say) than lagging indicators (revenue). The need for profits will never wane, but the best way to ensure growing revenue is to know think of the audience first.

UPDATE: I thought of a fifth attribute of a malleable news organization that was too obvious — Don’t fear change. An organization that is going to stay current must be willing to say, “Sure, that’s how we used to do it, but now we need to try it this way.” There can be no turf wars or “what is in it for me?” thinking.

3 thoughts on “The days of seeming stability are long gone

  1. I agree with your points. From inside the newsroom, the one that seems the hardest to change is #4. The habit of using revenue to measure success is heavily embedded in the system and the current trends do not look good on a dollar-oriented spreadsheet.

    Clearly we need to be financially solid or we all take a permanent vacation. However, justifying the need to spend money in the direction of the new media is not easy. How do you show an ROI for equipment that does not yet earn its keep? That is where efficiency and audience interest can come in.

  2. […] Howard Owens has a solid post about five attributes necessary for newspapers to continually cope with the changing information landscape. Number four is my favorite: Fourth, measuring success won’t be a matter of dollars and sense only. I think Hagel is right on this point: We need to develop metrics that help us gauge our ability to drive business decisions via leading indicators (audience engagement, say) than lagging indicators (revenue). The need for profits will never wane, but the best way to ensure growing revenue is to know think of the audience first. […]

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