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Help staff take accountability for performance and change

Legacy newspaper enterprises have a significant number of already employed folks who must learn specific new skills, behaviors, attitudes and working relationships.

Leading, guiding and managing already-employed folks through skill and behavior change differs from hiring and onboarding new folks. Interestingly, you can often take the same individual and get different results in two different contexts:

  1. The individual is already employed in a legacy organization facing significant change versus
  2. The individual gets a job in a new enterprise where most folks have already mastered the new changes.

Individuals have a better track record learning new skills and behaviors in the second situation compared with the first because of culture, ingrained habits, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and group dynamics. By culture and habits, we mean ‘the way we do things around here.’ If the ‘way we do things around here’ in a legacy news organization is print-centric, for example, then folks who are reluctant to learn new skills will be less likely to even try. In contrast, if the same folks got hired into a digital only news enterprise, their odds of learning new skills go up.

Think about Maslow. There are six levels of need in Maslow; but, for simplicity, they reduce to three core needs:

  • Security: having a roof over one’s head, enough to eat and so forth. In the 21st century, this means having a job. Most folks tenaciously hold on to jobs – and avoid risks that might jeopardize job security. Even in the face of downsizing after downsizing, folks with jobs at stake can trust luck and fate instead of taking the risks to learn and practice new skills, risks they fear will lead to losing their jobs.
  • Affiliation/friendship: people in legacy news enterprises have relationships with colleagues that they don’t want to sacrifice or jeopardize. In a print centric culture, many folks will avoid singling themselves out if doing so might risk their relationships at work.
  • Meaning and purpose: Not everyone goes to work with a strong commitment of higher purpose. But many journalists do. Indeed, the Knight Foundation funded Knight Temple Table Stakes because metropolitan legacy newspaper organizations have high numbers of journalists who play essential roles in maintaining democracy. This higher purpose, though, might be a shield against change – e.g. journalists might dissuade themselves and colleagues from embracing digital skills by arguing that democracy is ill served when news media pander to audiences instead of, in a well-known phrase, “making audiences eat spinach.”

When blended with culture and habits, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs increases the odds that reluctant folks take cues from group dynamics that reduce the odds of change. Consider this example from Minneapolis. Shortly after a meeting with one desk introducing new digital requirements and changes, a journalist on the desk drew a newsroom leader aside to say, “Our desk is stuck in a holding pattern because not enough of us buy into all this stuff.” In another example from a smaller legacy news enterprise, the Executive Editor dug in his heels and demanded, “Prove to me why audience-first, digital-first approaches are even needed!”

All this points to a major reality in periods of profound change: Decisions are essential, but not enough. The Minneapolis newsroom leaders decided to get in the game of digital news. They communicated the decisions clearly and carefully. Yet, when all is said and done, people must take responsibility for their own performance and change. Decisions are key. Imagine if Minneapolis newsroom leaders had not made the decision to change course? Not much if any change would happen.

But the decision itself only frames a possibility of change. Unless and until a critical mass of folks on the desk in this example commit to results and change, the decision has little effect. No one can take responsibility for the performance-and-change of others. Nor can decisions substitute for that.

Decisions have more effect when no fundamental new skills and behaviors are required. Consider the common decision years back to publish zoned editions. Did this decision require skill changes in lots and lots of already employed folks in the newsroom? No. Once the decision was made and communicated, zoned editions moved forward in largely productive and predictable ways.

When Minneapolis senior leaders announced, “We’ve decided and are committed to getting in and winning the game of digital news” – well, as said, that decision was necessary and critical, but not enough. Real success depended on a critical mass of already employed folks actually learning the necessary skills/etc.

Plenty is known now about the particular skills, behaviors, attitudes and working relationships required of legacy news organizations. What’s more challenging is how to manage newsroom and enterprises through the period of transformation. Success requires that you and your colleagues*:

Keep performance results the primary objective of change. Not change.

Typically 5% to 15% of folks in legacy organizations seek out and embrace change. They often master new skills, behaviors, attitudes and working relationships. Most folks, though, are reluctant or resistant to change. Their hesitancy minimizes the effectiveness of training or other awareness building efforts. Thousands of experiences across journalism and other industries suggest the odds that already employed folks learn and change go way up when folks commit to specific performance results as opposed to committing to change. Performance commitments provide focus and motivation, and are measurable. Moreover, performance commitments make it more likely learning happens in the context of the job itself as opposed to in, say, the training room. Transformation leaders, then, must focus on getting increasing numbers of folks to commit to performance, not to change.

Recognize that only individuals can take responsibility for their own performance and change. No one else can do it for them.

Look, if you need to quit smoking, I cannot do that for you. If you talk about learning to play the piano, I cannot do that for you. If you are a journalist in a metro legacy newsroom, I cannot master for you audience engagement, using data and analytics, using social media for sourcing and curating – or myriad other new skills. Nor can specialists do it for you. When specialists do the work for other journalists, the other journalists do not – do not – learn those skills.

Use teams as crucibles for mastering new skills, behaviors, attitudes and working relationships

For all but the smallest newsrooms, senior leaders must hold teams accountable for results and let the teams hold individuals accountable. There are exceptions: senior leaders should hold team leaders themselves accountable; and, perhaps, senior leaders should pay attention to particular individuals whose roles and/or potential merit such attention. As further explained in The Wisdom of Teams and The Discipline of Teams, real teams emerge when small groups commit to shared accountability for performance results. When this happens, group dynamics work in favor of taking risks to master new skills and ways of working instead of the reverse. Teaming, then, increases the odds that individuals take accountability for their own performance and change.

* These and other principles for driving skill-and-behavior change are described further in Make Success Measureable by Douglas K. Smith.