We learn more from our mistakes. So why don’t we talk about them?

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Head in Hands

(Photo: Alex E. Proimos, via Flickr/Creative Commons)

I have to admit, I experienced schadenfreude hearing astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson strike out recently on Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!

Host Peter Sagal couldn’t hide his pleasure at beating Tyson: “I therefore, by the rule of succession, become the smartest person in the world.”

“I look at it differently.” Tyson replied. “Had I gotten all three right, I would’ve learned nothing. But having gotten two wrong, I learned two things today.”

As leaders in public media, we have a lot to learn from Tyson.

Failing is hard. Talking about it is even harder. But if we don’t, we’ll never identify and fix our problems.

Today, changes in technology and demographics demand that we experiment boldly and often. As public media leaders, we need to change how we see our role — from being the source of knowledge to becoming the person who facilitates experimentation and learning inside our organizations.

This sort of “Adaptive Leadership” requires us to admit that we don’t always know what we’re doing. If we are to summon the courage to try new things, we all need to start talking about our failures, successes and everything in between.

See a need, take the lead

There’s this pernicious idea in public media of how to spread success throughout the system: develop a “model” at a small number of stations and replicate it across the country.

The 1990s brought a wave of standardization at small and medium-sized public media stations like mine, West Virginia Public Broadcasting. On radio, consultants encouraged us to forgo locally produced programming for national shows. In education, we put aside our “Homework Hotline” to focus on standardized curricula based on PBS Kids shows.

That worked well when we held a near-monopoly on the distribution of public media content. But as we know, those days are over.

“The answers cannot come only from on high,” the co-authors of Adaptive Leadership write. “The world needs distributed leadership because solutions to our collective challenges must come from many places, with people developing micro-adaptations to all the different micro-environments.”

Or as Tom Axtell told us, “See a need, take the lead.”

Tom is the general manager at Vegas PBS. I met him in April through PBS’s New President/CEO Leadership Development program, a yearlong course designed to help new station leaders learn adaptive leadership.

Led by PBS’s Station Services team, the 18 of us participating in the program gather monthly at each other’s stations, in a circle of chairs set up in our studios, and work on the very real challenges each of us face.

When Tom joined us in that circle, he didn’t just recap his many successes at Vegas PBS. He talked about what a long, hard slog it was to turn his station around. He talked about years of missteps and false starts, and the slow process of changing his own staff.

‘Do not go where the money does not flow’

Along the way, he and his staff developed some rules to help keep them focused. “See a need, take the lead,” is one of my favorites.

And I wish I had listened to this one: “Do not go where the money does not flow.”

Almost three years ago, I inherited a statewide public television and radio network that was spending more than it brought in. I promised myself that we’d never end up there again.

But just this month, I’ve been forced to tell vendors and partners they’ll have to wait to be paid. The proximate cause is an unexpected mid-year state budget cut brought on by the collapse of West Virginia’s coal industry.

However, the real cause was my inability to wait. We had projects to launch and equipment to upgrade, and I was eager to do it all yesterday. Sometimes, I was so eager to do something new, I went ahead before we identified an ongoing funding source.

I went where the money does not flow. Should’ve listened to Tom.

More than show and tell

Hearing Tom talk about his experiences at Vegas PBS made me feel like I could do this job, despite all the setbacks and mistakes. So why is it when I go to national meetings, I walk away feeling like a loser?

We’ve become really good about talking about our achievements. At conferences, in newsletters to our members, even in the pages of Current — we love to tell our success stories. I’ve been guilty of that myself.

Are we designing our conferences and leadership training for true sharing — exchanging ideas about what’s going right and wrong? Or are these meetings mostly show and tell?

PBS has commendably created this sort of safe space — not just for new CEOs, but for station leaders at all levels, during its new regional meetings. Hopefully, this idea will spread to all of public media.

I’ve also found this sort of support for discussing challenges and failures within my affinity group, the Organization of State Broadcasting Executives and the Punch Sulzberger Program at Columbia University.

The secret sauce is this: convene small group discussions among people who trust each other and schedule more time for listening, less for lectures.

And when we do hear a lecture, it needs to be brave and honest. The story should include how things did not always work out as planned.

These stories can serve as powerful warnings. They can comfort the rest of us when things go wrong. They give us permission to take risks and admit when they don’t turn out as planned.

Thankfully, I’ve found colleagues to turn to for advice and solace. It helps to know that we are more successful and more screwed up than you’d ever guess.

Scott Finn is executive director and c.e.o. of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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  • Mark Pugner

    Failure isn’t fatal.

  • Jeff Finn

    He’s right of course. In the field of education they have “Edcamps” which is a bottom-up system where teachers gather, pick areas of interests, and discuss. So incredibly simple and so powerful. Naturally, administrators refuse to do this when it comes to district-wide staff development.