November 6, 2008

A news executive recently asked me to name the key leadership skill needed in journalism today. My answer: collaboration.

This doesn’t minimize the importance of courage, optimism, motivation, communication, innovation or entrepreneurship; they’re also among my favorites. But in today’s environment, the most successful leaders will be those who can span old boundaries and inspire others to envision new connections. Those boundaries are mental as well as physical — from imagining new partnerships, products and processes to restructuring work flow, workspace, teams and roles.

To excel at collaboration, we need to get past some longstanding obstacles. But let me be clear: I’m not accusing or excoriating. I don’t subscribe to the “journalism is in trouble because of arrogance” school of thought. That’s far too simplistic. To my mind, that’s unhelpful anthropomorphism — more snarky character assassination than helpful business analysis.

I come at this as a student and teacher of organizational development and behavior. The collaboration obstacles I identify exist in newsrooms, but aren’t unique to them. They can exist in any workplace, especially those with long histories and traditions. Identifying barriers helps us knock them down.

So, here are my Four Barriers to Collaboration.


Geography can indeed be destiny. The layout of your workplace can help or hurt collaboration. The greater the distance between colleagues, the greater the chance of flawed communication. Not just overreliance on e-mail when face-to-face conversation is needed, but genuine “out of sight, out of mind” lapses that keep smart people out of the brainstorming, decision making or socializing that leads to positive outcomes.

We know why newsrooms were organized as they were in the past — keeping photographers and their processing chemicals in OSHA-compliant enclaves, clustering staff by traditional sections and departments or housing the earliest Web folks together in their own little production units. That’s history; what about today? What can you do to remove the physical, intellectual and social distance that exists in your organization? Why not ask your staff to imagine a workplace built to encourage collaboration? Sure, some folks might not like being relocated. It’s human nature. But their reluctance can be reduced if they’re involved in the planning.


I call this the “Mom likes you best” phenomenon. We don’t collaborate because there’s a real or perceived hierarchy in the workplace. Over the years, the leadership has developed a culture that seems to value one group over another. “This is a reporter’s newsroom.” “We’re a producer-driven shop.”
“Visual journalists feel like second-class citizens here.” “Techies are here to help the real journalists.”

This may be perception or reality, but either can stop collaboration cold. Leadership makes a difference here. Wise managers ask themselves if they are, in fact, more deferential to staffers whose career choices resemble their own. They ask themselves why people might think they value folks with one skill set over another. Then they do something about it. Check what you praise, what you reward, what you keep your hand in, and with whom you spend the most time. If you’re not visibly and forthrightly collaborating as never before, why should anyone else think it’s worthwhile?


This one’s all about dueling priorities. It happens when bosses tell people they want everyone to collaborate. But at the same time, they assign tasks, targets and goals to various individuals and teams — agendas that vary greatly and can range from complementary to conflicting. Dissonant marching orders are a guarantee that your band will play off-key. Managers must be as coordinated, clear and transparent as possible about their priorities.

Collaboration isn’t just “getting along.” It means working together creatively and collegially, even under massive pressures and deadlines, toward shared goals. Bosses need to assess how the responsibilities and tasks they assign to each person or team build or break down the chances of collaboration. Asking staffers for their input on this is a great starting point.


If I don’t know you, professionally or personally, if I haven’t a clue how you do what you do, I’m less likely to collaborate comfortably with you. I might be intimidated by your expertise or unaware of what it takes to get your job done. Time was, we could do our jobs and send the work product on to the next person in the work flow. No more. Now we’re multitasking. We’re involved with more aspects of production, or will be soon. As I’ve said before, the era of the single-skill journalist is over. The more we know about the skills needed for all aspects of today’s journalism, the better collaborators we will be. Managers, commit to quality training. Journalists, don’t wait for someone to invite or assign you to learn. Everyone, commit to knowing your colleagues as people, not just co-producers.

*     *     *

Those are the four big barriers. Distance, dominance, dissonance and discomfort translate into: I don’t see or hear you, I’m on a different level than you, I have different marching orders and I don’t really know you or understand what you do.

All this can kill collaboration.

What can you do about it? Let me leave you with a simple step you can take to improve collaboration. It’s something I’ve written about before and love to teach. Just click on the video:

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
Jill Geisler

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