Friday, February 13, 2009

Doesn't Anyone Notice the House is Burning??

I'm going to switch hats today and speak not as a relatively newbie author, working on her third book, but in my other role as a management analyst.

My daytime job sends me into divisions that are not working smoothly, to analyze the issues and institute the necessary changes. It's a job I've done in a variety of venues for about twenty years now.

It is because of that background that I chose to focus this blog on the wider publishing industry, which is of course facing a crisis. A crisis that has been brewing for the four years I've been posting. Now things are reaching a critical point. Over the past few months, we've become accustomed to hearing about layoffs and closures of imprints among the top publishing houses. It would be easy to blame everything on the economy, but that is not what is going on.

This post is probably going to turn into a series of two or three, but I want to start first at a top level and then work down to the nitty-gritty of the details.

Dr. James B. Shein, a turnaround specialist and a professor at Northwestern University, devised a model for a company in crisis. In November, he presented his "Phases of a Crisis" to a group of fifty newspaper executives to help them understand the future of their industry and the need for them to take proactive steps.

The thing that amazed me was how well his model fits with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' "Five Stages of Grief." As a social worker with a MSW, I am intimately familiar with that seminal work that examined the universal human response to loss . . . whether by death or divorce or job termination.

The earliest stage of Dr. Shein's five-part model is blindness, where executives simply refuse to acknowledge the existing conditions that permitted their previous success are in flux. This matches Kubler-Ross' stage of denial.

The second phase, when change has progressed to the point that the executives can no longer pretend that nothing has happened is inaction in Shein's model. The executives now acknowledge the changing environment, but are paralyzed to do anything about it. In Kubler-Ross' model, activity and passivity also occur in alternating waves. Her second stage is anger, where frustration pours out as the individual tries to avoid the inevitable.

Dr. Shein's third stage of crisis is faulty action, which he describes as the executives' efforts to find a quick fix out of the mess. Kubler-Ross also recognizes the need for a way out in her third stage, which she calls bargaining. People frequently pray to God, promising to lead a better life if only this terrible reality will go away.

At this point, in both models, the actual crisis occurs. Shein simply describes it as crisis while Kubler-Ross calls it depression.

Let me stop here and expand on the concept of crisis. For a number of years while in graduate school, I earned my living doing mental health crisis interventions. Dallas County funded a van and paid the salaries for a pair of us to go to homes, hospitals, schools and street corners and try to intervene in crisis situations. Most often we were called out by the police, but sometimes by family members or other health care professionals.

My definition of crisis: An emotional state in which all the individual's coping skills have deserted him and quick action must be taken in order to prevent a disaster. Since I was in the mental health field, a disaster would have been identified as suicide, homicide or onset of psychosis. Kubler-Ross' definition of disaster would probably have been the same as mine. Shein's definition is the business equivalent . . . complete dissolution of the company, his fifth and final stage.

In speaking to the API in November, Shein was quoted as follows:
As an organization moves down the crisis curve, it will find executing a recovery plan more difficult, and will have less time to do it. . .

"The biggest hurdles to progress [are] the industry's senior leadership, including some of the people in this room . . . I am not sure you can take a look at your industry with fresh eyes."
In my next post, we'll talk about this some more.

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