A few weeks ago, I broke my ankle in two places after fall on some black ice in a parking lot. From the moment I heard the snap of bones breaking as I landed on the joint, it was clear that my world had changed. Always inclined to go it alone, I would now be dependent on others – my wife, my friends and colleagues, my doctors – to help me as I crutched, hopped and wheeled my way through a recovery that could take months.
I can’t stress how hard accepting help is for me. But I have no choice – I just can’t do this by myself.
My situation came to mind recently when I was contemplating the case of an important mid-career journalism educator whose world has changed in a similar way. Tuitions are way off because of trouble in the industry. Its other traditional means of support are tanking. And unless something is done quickly, the future looks grim.
What’s the difference between it and me? It’s this: When another journalism educator in another region of the country approached it with a proposition for a partnership – a plan that would have helped both institutions, the mid-career educator scarcely even wanted to talk about it. Like me, its world had changed and it needed help. Unlike me, it declined a potential source of it.
I can’t say, really, apart from a vague explanation that the institution was too wrapped up in its own problems to contemplate the proposal. As ridiculous as it sounds for a business to be too wrapped up in its problems to consider a way of solving them, I can tell you as a management-level veteran of several large news organizations that it’s sadly familiar.
Based on that experience, here are three reasons why troubled institutions decline help when they badly need it:
Arrogance: A variation on the too-big-to-fail fallacy, this factor causes leaders to believe heir institution is too important to the audience to succumb to the laws of business. The names of some news organizations so afflicted can now be found on the rolls of the closed and the bankrupt.
Denial: Few successful leaders are so clueless as to not see the handwriting on the wall but many refuse to heed it all the same, believing that the crisis is not as bad as it appears, or will somehow pass, or that somebody somewhere will come up with a solution. The final destination is usually the same as in the case of arrogance above.
Inertia: Sometimes, as in the case of the mid-career journalism education institution, companies are so busy worrying about their problems that they forget that the idea is to do something about them – and that requires an open mind and a bias toward action. This is a variation on both the frog in the pot parable and Clayton Christensen’s idea of the Innovator’s Dilemma: By the time institutions start responding to the trouble, their flailing about actually intensifies it.
It seemed ironic and sad to me that an institution that has spent so much time training managers to avoid these pitfalls would itself succumb to the one of the simplest and most common: failing to accept help.
Now, could I ask you to please roll my wheelchair over to the water fountain?