Systems Check

Every organization has a culture; some by accident, others by design. Cultures represent both the values we espouse and what social scientists call our "normative behaviors" — or more simply, "the way we do things around here."

Some examples:

  • "We're an enterprise shop."

  • "We connect with our community."

  • "We're a visual paper."

  • "We're a destination newsroom."

  • "We're the breaking news station."

  • "We look for the untold stories."

  • "We're the investigators."

  • "We're not a top-down organization."

  • "We're a family-friendly place."

  • "We're the news of record."

  • "We value diverse voices."

The organization's leaders may say those things, and may phrase them more elegantly in "mission" or "value" statements that are posted prominently in the workplace. But unless your staffers are talking some variation of that talk, and unless a visitor to your newsroom can clearly see what you claim is there, then you have a slogan, not a culture.

One way to survey the strength of your culture is to check your systems. After all, systems are the lifeblood of the organization. They reflect chain of command, work flow, priorities, departmental connections, expenditures, communication, quality control, and if you've really worked at it, they reflect your values, too.

I think systems are the place where leadership and management intersect; where leaders make certain that their vision isn't just philosophy, but rather a part of the everyday engine of the business.

Legendary management guru Peter Drucker, in his book "Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practice," says, "One can define the work of a manager as planning, organizing, integrating, and measuring." Systems involve every one of those tasks.

Let's do a systems check.

Let's say that you believe your newsroom's culture can be described as "connected to our community." How would an observer see that connectedness in some of the following newsroom systems:

  • The daily news budget meetings.

  • The story development process.

  • Handling of viewer, reader, or listener tips.

  • Handling of viewer, reader, or listener complaints.

  • Handling of viewer, reader, or listener requests for information.

  • The "post-mortem" meetings to review papers or newscasts.

  • The newsroom's contact file system and experts lists.

  • Your follow-up file for "evergreen" stories or ideas that didn't turn today.

  • Your breaking news/disaster plan.

  • Your interview strategies with potential employees.

  • Your employee orientations.

  • Your employee evaluations.

  • Your website integration into the overall news picture.

  • Your community outreach programs.

Your systems check should tell you whether the culture you claim is truly embedded in your daily routines. Where, in each of those systems, does connection to community appear directly — not by inference? If you can't discern it, then those systems could be defeating the very culture you hope to build.

In organizations, we get what we plan for (or fail to plan for), what we prioritize, and what we reward.

[ Have you done a systems check lately? ]

  • Profile picture for user jgeisler

    Jill Geisler

    Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist "spin." It takes exceptional leaders to build trust, along with the systems and culture that grow great journalism.


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