The New Work Of Publishing Leadership

I’ve been reading an FSG book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, written by Daniel Kahneman, who received the Nobel Prize in 2002 for work he did with Amos Tversky on the science of decision making.

Kahneman posits that there are two cognitive paths we all use. One is intuitive, “operates automatically and quickly, with little effort and no sense of voluntary control”, while the other “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it.”

What’s interesting (to me) is Kahneman’s claim that the intuitive mode is prone to persistent and even predictable error. At one point he writes:

“This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”

When I’m not blogging, I earn a living consulting with publishers about ways to improve content workflows. Assignments typically start with a set of interviews with editorial and production staff, among others, during which I ask a structured set of questions.

In almost every interview, I ask about problems with the current content workflow. And in almost every project, at least one person starts to answer by saying something along the lines of “I’ll give you the perfect example.”

That’s the point at which I put my pen down, because the “perfect example” almost always took place earlier that day or late yesterday afternoon. Examples are typically just an arm’s length away.

In response, I try to challenge people to reach back, to cite other examples, to quantify how often these perfect examples occur. The questions are easy to ask, but they are often hard to answer, because they require the kind of structured thinking that “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it.”

The easy conclusion to draw from this is that people aren’t interested in change, but I think that’s not the case. People are busy, and (as Kahneman would claim) we all make intuitive leaps that are, with some predictability, demonstrably wrong. Maybe I am making just such a leap now.

That said, it’s sobering to think of how much change publishers probably need to embrace in the next few years. Intuitive leaps can be wonderfully liberating – the iPhone is an example – but they also have to be freed from biases that would undermine them. Building that cognitive capacity may be the new work of publishing leadership.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.