Transforming public TV

Human traits are the major barriers

Originally published in Current, June 2, 2003
Commentary by Cindy Browne

Someone asked Dennis Haarsager a great question after he presented his case for systemic change in public TV (accompanying commentary). “We’ve been talking about the need for change for years,” said the exasperated questioner. “Why are we still talking? Why aren’t we changing?”

Ask this question of anyone in public TV and you’re likely to get a laundry list of structural barriers. “It’s the way we were set up,” says someone. “We have different licensee types,” chimes in another. “Our governance system is broken,” says a third.

We tend to blame one another — the problem is the overlap stations, the national producers, or maybe the institutional licensees. “It’s the lack of national leadership,” or “it’s the local stations that feel no urgency for change.” On and on it goes.

These issues do need to be addressed in times of change, but they’re like surface chop on the ocean: They disguise the deeper currents below.

These surface issues are sometimes used as an excuse to stay put and hope for the best. They are not the real reasons we don’t change. Dive deeper and you’ll find the real reasons are rooted in human nature.

We get it already!

Even without the avalanche of gloomy data provided by Booz-Allen, Accenture, and now, McKinsey, station managers have been alert to the wake-up calls for change for some time. Nearly three years ago a majority of participants at the National Forum of Public Television Executives in Dallas forecast the continual decline and eventual demise of public television if we continue doing what we’re doing the way we’re doing it now.

Nothing has happened since 2000 to lighten our collective mood. If anything, our situation—and that of nonprofits in general—has worsened after being tossed about by the “perfect storm” of a changing environment, state budget woes and a stuttering economy.

So, ignorance of the need for change isn’t the issue. I detect a growing consensus for change but little agreement about what needs to change, how we should change and whether we all need to change together.

When you look around the system, you’ll see that some stations are changing—managers are putting new ideas into play and stations are attempting to reinvent themselves in partnership with their communities. The question is whether the sum of these individual efforts adds up to a wholesale transformation of public television, if indeed that’s what’s needed to build a vibrant service for the future.

What is clear is that as each station approaches change its leaders will have to deal with some very human challenges.

Change Barrier No. 1: We don’t need no stinkin’ change!

It’s human nature to search for and then desperately try to maintain stability. We enjoy riding along in the passing lane, comfortable in our daily routine and in our command of the work at hand. We cover and recover familiar ground, lovingly innovating around the edges. Throw change at us and we swerve, stop or back-up. We dislike change so much that we employ a whole range of avoidance tactics, including denial, rejection, passive-aggressive behavior, foot-dragging and sabotage. We’ll even go along with the change for a while, then quietly slip back into the old way of doing things when attention shifts elsewhere.

Resisting change isn’t an intellectual reaction. Indeed, we often reject change we consider perfectly rational and logical. We respond emotionally to the threat that we could lose something we value, including our role, routines, relationships, status, closely held beliefs and sense of control. Almost instinctively we know that change may throw our lives into chaos. We push back, resisting on a number of levels.

Change Barrier No. 2: All together separately

Several of the McKinsey & Co. recommendations to CPB call for efficiency improvements that can’t occur unless the system acts collectively. With few exceptions, we generally don’t take collective action because, simply put, we don’t put a high value on interdependence.

“The essence of interdependence is that what benefits the group benefits the individual, and vice versa,” writes my colleague Steven Dent, an expert on organizational partnerships. “Each organization in an interdependent relationship actively supports the success of the other. Interdependent relationships are entered into when the parties involved need one another to meet individual needs and reach common goals,” he writes.

These are unpopular ideas in public TV. Beyond a few commonly supported activities, including advocacy for federal funding and interconnection, we do not generally believe that what is good for the system is good for the individual station. Indeed, we often come out of the gate powered by the assumption that a decision benefiting the industry as a whole will actually worsen our individual situation.

Public television’s rejection of interdependence isn’t unique. We’re simply reflecting our culture’s preference for independence. America champions the rugged individual who makes it on his own and looks out for No. 1. This deeply rooted American ideal plays out in predictable ways in public television. We may all move more or less in the same direction, but we do so independently, fiercely at times.

If CPB and PBS pick up any vibes of resistance to the McKinsey recommendations, it may be due to this human reluctance to move towards interdependence. The question for stations is whether independence continues to serve our mission or if it’s time to set it aside in order to achieve a higher purpose. We need to ask whether we’re willing to “die for” independence and the other values we hold dear, or whether those values are open to negotiation.

Change Barrier No. 3: I’m OK, but I’m not sure about you

Lack of trust isn’t unique to public TV; the ability to build trusting relationships is consistently the weakest of all partnering skills in organizations. Yet trust is the foundation of every relationship, in fact, the most successful partnerships result when trust is granted before it is earned. Now there’s a novel idea!

Organizations are even more likely to withhold trust when they view their world as one of scarcity rather than abundance. They see one another as competitors rather than partners, and every situation or conflict is presumed to have a win-lose outcome. This occurs because the parties lack the process, skills and persistence to find win-win outcomes consistently. With no way to find solutions that respect the needs of all participants, decision-making stalls and we just don’t change. Ironically, not changing doesn’t build or reinforce trust, it simply maintains the low-trust status-quo.

People trust one another when they know their needs will be respected and that win-win resolutions will be pursued wherever possible. A win-win outcome may not be attainable in every situation, but simply knowing that it’s the common goal of all participants builds a foundation of trust. With that foundation, we’re more willing to place our fate in another’s hands.

We find ourselves caught in a cycle of mistrust: Without trust, we resist entering into interdependent relationships. Without experiences of interdependence, we miss opportunities to build trust.

Change Barrier No. 4: Flat on my face!

Fear, especially fear of failure, is one of the most basic of human emotions and it makes a grand entrance when we’re faced with change: If I don’t do anything and the system fails, it will be a system failure, and certainly not my fault. After all, I was just doing what everyone else was doing. But if I break ranks, take a risk, try something new and fall on my face, that failure will be all mine.

We’re not good at risk and failure, even on our best days. Our insistence on independence and our institutional lack of trust make it difficult to take risks together. Our fear of failure, especially in front of our colleagues, dampens innovation, creativity and learning.

Without the benefit of learning from our failures as well as our successes, we lack confidence in our ability to change. So we hold it off as long as possible. When pressure builds enough to force change, we do so reactively, without reflecting or planning. The change inevitably feels clunky and heavy-handed, making everyone feel like a loser. Ironically, due to our fear of failure, we have lost the opportunity to design our change and we end up with what we fear most—failure.

Change Barrier No. 5: Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore

The McKinsey recommendations could take us into new territory, moving the system toward the transformational end of the change continuum. Transformational change, as defined by Linda Ackerman, author of Beyond Change Management, is “a radical change from one state of being to another,” as opposed to incremental change within more familiar territory. Engaging in transformational change can be as disorienting as Dorothy’s journey from Kansas to Oz.

Ackerman points out that we undertake transformational change when “our script for success is challenged by a changing environment.” Proactive organizations hear the wake-up calls from the environment and work toward transformational change to create new growth arcs. They invest in their people, building new, transformational change skills among leaders and staff. They determine which values, beliefs and assumptions support the transformational vision and weed out those that are no longer useful. Leadership not only rewrites the organization chart, it creates a new culture and organizational mindset that supports the vision for the future.

Others, fearing change, simply try to halt the downward spiral. Knowing only how to effect incremental change, they try the easy fix repeatedly, leaving the status quo culture untouched. Eventually the organization hits bottom and its leaders finally recognize the need for transformational change. Assuming there’s enough energy left in the organization and that leadership has any residual credibility with staff and stakeholders, the organization begins the laborious process of rebuilding.

At the PBS Technology Conference in April, g.m.’s and chief engineers attending a session on change indicated their view that the McKinsey recommendations to consolidate and standardize broadcast operations represent transformational change for stations. But what they think will need to transform might surprise you.

For the engineers, the transformation is less about what equipment sits where or who operates it, and more about how they will have to change the way they think about things to make it all happen successfully. They saw immediately that the real transformation will be in station values, beliefs and assumptions about the best way to deliver content. This is change at the mindset, not just the operational level.

This shift in mindset is key to transformational change. Our current culture, represented by our values, beliefs and assumptions, supports the status quo. If we insist on retaining that culture intact, transformational change cannot occur.

It’s all about leadership

Transformational change begins with the thoughts, beliefs and assumptions that drive the new behaviors needed to support the organization’s vision for the future. And guess what? The leader goes first.

As Gandhi said, “We must become the change we want to see.” Leadership must first transform itself to become the change it wants for the organization. This is hard, personal work, especially for those of us who know only the world of public broadcasting. But for transformational change to take place, it is absolutely critical that organizations see the proposed new state through the values, words and actions modeled every day by their leaders. This new way of “being” attracts supporters and motivates them to step out of the familiar.

What does it take to engage in transformational change? Courage, faith and leadership. This is when public broadcasters typically start looking around and asking, “Where’s the leadership?” as if it’s going to arrive in a FedEx box by 10 a.m. To paraphrase Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, if you’re looking for leadership, look no further than your own backyard. Look to the stations that are going first, to those g.m.’s who are becoming the change they want to see.

Cindy Browne is a public broadcasting veteran and president of Leader Evolution LLC, White Bear Lake, Minn. She consults with public broadcasters on strategic partnering, change leadership and organizational renewal.

Web page posted Sept. 22, 2008
Copyright 2003 by Current Publishing Committee

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