Sibling Revelry II
A few weeks ago, I posted a dialogue my brother Kurt and I had about this "reset" time in our nation's history. A number of people said they enjoyed it, but thought it was too long for a single post. So I've split it in half: here's the second part.
Continued from October 12…
KA: You say, “In my experience, it’s even better if you have a whole senior team who come to that vision together (often with the visionary leader as catalyst).” Well, sure — but my hands-on experience (in magazines, TV, the web and radio) is all startups, so it starts with the founder(s) who need(s) to possess and then instill the missionary vision in the team.
As for the Times, I meant: an irreplaceably excellent product that must struggle and reinvent to survive but isn't one (like the nightly network news in this day and age) that IMHO has become obsolete. The managers of most newspapers now, however, are simply presiding over their decline and fall.
EA: OK, so let’s get specific. How could the managers of excellent newspapers like the Times NOT simply preside over the dissolution of their businesses? I’m not asking you what they should morph into, but how you think they should go about re-inventing themselves – what’s the process? In other words, how do they get out of their own way and shift the momentum from decline-and- fall to renewal?
(And I do agree with you about start-ups, by the way. One or a couple of people need to have a great idea about which they’re passionate – and then to gather around them other people who catch that fever and are willing and able to translate it into reality.)
KA: The difficulty for newspapers, or "old media" generally — or for that matter any enterprise that finds the technological and financial underpinnings of its venerable existing business dissolving — is that they didn't really believe in the total analog-to-digital phase change for a long time. The denial was chronic and understandable. They had lucrative monopolies or quasi monopolies for a century or more, deeply entrenched editorial protocols and business models that worked, and a very high opinion of themselves that reached a kind of apogee in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam last third of the 20th century.
Then, 15 years ago, came the web, which very very few of them took very seriously, even as its transformative inflection-point power became the elephant in their room. Even as recently as five years ago, as newpaper circulation declined and they gave away their content for free to readers online, most of them weren't really scared or scrambling — because the market was telling them not to worry too much. But newspapers' dire position was obvious: at a symposium five years ago at the NYU journalism school I caused a small ruckus by saying that "newspapers are fucked." Back then the New York Times company's share price was $40, and now it's $8. And 95% of newspapers, because they aren't excellent and don't have a global brand, are in even worse shape. Newspapers should have started focusing hard (and still should, if they have a prayer) on what they can do well and uniquely, really forced themselves to understand and embrace digital opportunities deeply, proactively downsized and reorganized their staffs, generated online ”circulation” revenue, and so on. Hindsight is 20-20, sure, but the extent of the dithering and denial over the last decade is hard to defend
So what I'm saying is that it's very difficult for the proverbial frogs in the slowly heating pot of water to realize they're about to get boiled, and by they do they're so panicked it's almost impossible to think clearly about how to hop out of the pot. Or, to use a different metaphor, it's very hard for a complacent, business-as-usual government army to reconfigure itself as a nimble special-ops force. Because the Times has the luxury of betting that they will survive, they have responded, finally, pretty smartly, by becoming a very good web-based entity — and even more, by starting to think of itself as something like a perpetual startup, perpetually in danger. If an existing company in this reset age has a chance to survive, let alone thrive, I think its leaders and staff need to think of themselves more as scrappy guerillas in perpetual startup mode. And for many or most existing companies in many industries, that won't really be possible; the legacy mindsets and current dread are too dispiriting and hobbling. Which is why this is a great moment for actual startups.
EA: I completely agree that’s what’s needed. It’s the “beginner’s mind” you talk about in Reset. I very often offer the Michelangelo quote, “I’m still learning” as a mindset to emulate. Just today I was talking to some clients about questioning their business-as-usual assumptions. They kept saying “we have to do this in order to…” and I kept saying, “do you?”
And yes, the ‘legacy mindsets and current dread’ are huge impediments. Back to our earlier topic, though, I think vision, when connected to strategy, is a powerful antidote to that past-gravity mindset. If you create a possible future that’s more compelling than fear and inertia, and a practical path to get there, people quite often wake up and start moving in a right direction.
The good news is, even in a really big company, all it takes is one strong, clear, positive visionary at the top, who has the smarts and clout to surround him/herself with a team of like-minded and highly competent individuals.
KA: Those leaders who can "create a possible future that’s more compelling than fear and inertia, and a practical path to get there" are, of course, rare, but yes, it can be the whole ball game — for families and countries as well as organizations.