In newsrooms, failure is often caused by faulty systems, not people

As a manager, you may ask yourself “why aren’t my employees doing what I want them to do.” Let me just caution you against the knee-jerk reaction most of us have – it is rarely because they are “lazy.”

There is a truism in systems theory that says that 85 percent of failures within a company are the result of problems with the system itself, and only 15 percent of the problems come down to the people involved.

I would contend that in the majority of the cases that we assume the problem is with our employees, the problem actually comes down to one of two issues:

  • Your employees don’t know what is expected of them; or
  • Your employees do know what is expected of them, but they don’t know HOW to do those tasks.

Last year I wrote about the case of the “broken car” and why it is wiser to fix the system than to address the symptom. That is precisely what I am talking about here.

To illustrate this, let’s draw upon two images that my mentor in the MBA program, Jerry Goolsby, often invokes.


The challenge of getting everyone on your team working toward the same goal.

The challenge of getting everyone on your team working toward the same goal.


First, imagine that these six arrows represent your team. Imagine that the different lengths represent the level of motivation each person has, and imagine the direction it is pointing represents the goal that each team member is aiming to achieve.

As you can see, everyone is obviously working to their own end, rather than your desired destination.

If you as a manager never set a clear, easy-to-visualize goal from the outset, then you are wasting your time increasing your team’s motivation. Push each of those arrows as hard as you can and you can see that none of them will ever reach that goal.


Even if you do a terrific job motivating someone, if they are pointing in the wrong direction, it just doesn't matter.

Even if you do a terrific job motivating someone, if they are pointing in the wrong direction, it just doesn’t matter.


It doesn’t matter that YOU know what they are supposed to be doing. If they don’t know that you expect them to reach that goal, even if you are sure that you made it clear, no amount of motivation will get them to do the right thing.

The buzzword here is “alignment.” You want to make sure everyone knows where you are trying to go.

Rather than trying to "motivate" your workers, instead make sure they clearly understand what you expect from them.

Rather than starting by trying to “motivate” your workers, instead first make sure they clearly understand what you expect from them.

Now, once you have made that goal clear, then you can focus your attention on that motivation. You can start pushing on those arrows, and instead of scattering, they will start moving in the right direction.

As for that second bullet point – simply telling someone to do something also isn’t sufficient. You need to break each task down to its elementary pieces.

In my newsroom we went through a multi-year process of “decomposing” each of the newsroom jobs to a granular level. We wanted to truly understand the role each position was supposed to play in our system. It took us a while, but boy was it worth it.

Now that we have a comprehensive task list for each position, we have written massively detailed work flows and job descriptions that anyone who takes that position can follow.

What was a monumental amount of work on the front end is now paying massive dividends in training and in employee satisfaction. There is much less of a feeling that we are just dropping new hires into the deep end without training or orientation.

When we hire someone, we can tell them “here is what you need to do. Please look through this list and let us know which of these tasks you know how to do and which you do not.”

And then we go step by step and re-explain each step to make extra sure that they understand.

Yes, I am sure you explained it once. But remember that the first time anyone hears something, the majority of it falls right back out of their ears before soaking into their brain.

Sure, in 15 percent of cases, you really are dealing with someone who is willfully trying to game the system. But call me an optimist. I really do think that, at their heart, most people truly want to do a good job — as long as we as managers make a system that lets them succeed.

So, next time someone in your newsroom falls flat, step back and ask those two questions: do they truly know what you expect them to do, and do they truly know how to do it.

It may just open your eyes.

About mdgiusti

Michael Giusti is a journalist and educator. He is the Adviser and Chief Administrative Officer for the Loyola Student Media, which publishes the nationally award-winning Maroon newspaper. He has 20 years experience as a professional journalist and has worked in daily newsrooms, weekly business journals and as a freelancer for national and international publications. He holds an MBA and is passionate about media business models.
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