"The greatest torture in the world for most people is to think."
19th century American horticulturist
Anyone who seriously studied business back in the 1980s, including a number of today's newspaper leaders, likely came across Michael Porter, one of the greatest professors to have ever graced the
Harvard Business School.
His book, "Competitive Strategy," required reading at most "B" schools, detailed ways any budding investment banker or industry captain should view their business or a potential takeover target.
"Barriers to entry," one of Porter's more popular phrases, lists seven aspects that would keep potential competitors out of any industry: Economies of Scale, Product Differentiation, Capital Requirements, Switching Costs, Access to Distribution Channels, Cost Disadvantages Independent of Scale and
In today's world, where on the Internet everything competes with anything - and will only intensify when e-readers carry television shows and movies - that list should be renamed "Barriers to Thinking."
Toss him aside
Porter was a great thinker - for a different time.
But in today's digital age and challenged economy, he's about as relevant to the newspaper industry as the U.S. Civil War is to the military officers crafting a strategy to defeat the terrorists in Afghanistan. Put bluntly: He's out of touch.
So if a copy of "Competitive Advantage" is in your library, hide it, banish it, or - if you need the cash - sell it to a used bookstore.
Education, training, the culture you grew up in, the books you read during your formative years - all of these define the manner in which you think, the mental models you use, any analysis you might do on your newspaper, your outlook, the solutions you'll craft and the risks you'll take.
The question newspaper leaders need to ask themselves, about 30 years after they memorized Porter, is do they have the flexibility of mind to operate in today's world - or should they just step down?
What to do
Today's environment requires looking back - way back - beyond Porter and other considered thought leaders who started writing about business 20 or 30 years ago.
A better source? Those may include one of antiquity's most serious thinkers, Socrates, as well as enlightenment philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant, whose lessons remain timeless.
Studying what they wrote and how they analyzed the world will not directly produce the answers you need.
But it will do something far more valuable: It'll improve the way you think.
The examined proposal
If Socrates were in your office right now, he'd force you to question every piece of advice you're receiving.
Every idea, all advice and every thought you and your executives possess, should be examined, he'd say.
Socrates might scrutinize a proposal - say for a pay wall for your Web site or shutting down your newspaper's printed edition - this way:
Describe the situation you're in. Have you any prior experience to being in a similar situation? How did you solve it? Could it be solved? What if it can't be solved? What happens if we do nothing? What are the unintended consequences if we implement this idea? Of all the fixes that are available, why did you present this one?
Why do you favor this proposal over that one? What in your background makes you accept one idea over another? Have you ever thought about what influences your thinking?
Sure this line of questioning - only the beginning for Socrates - might drive a lesser executive, well, crazy. But that's OK. The idea is to force them - and more importantly you - to think through the plan.
Or, better yet,-find an even superior solution to the problem at hand.
What's perception? What's reality?
Hume said we can't know reality because our senses prevent us from seeing it clearly.
Kant said all knowledge synchs up with our own experience - even if it is colored by our senses.
While this debate will never be solved, the way to use it to your advantage is by asking the following: What do you really know about your business?
Better yet: What don't you know?
Start finding out by listing the known, the unknown and your assumptions.
Then ask yourself these questions:
Are you receiving accurate information from your direct reports? Are your experiences blinding you to seeing a new reality? Do the people who work for you have their own prejudices? Do you need to get closer to your front-line people to learn what's happening?
In these turbulent times the last thing you can afford is making a decision without knowing its consequences. It might be irreversible.
Can you think outside of the box? Can you, as the title of a book once suggested, think the impossible? Are you condemned to repeating the thinking you learned a generation ago?
Only you have the answers.
But if you're incapable of changing your thinking, do this business a favor: Resign and leave it to others to figure out the next decade of journalism.