business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

There are very few absolute truths in business or life. Yet I think we can agree that there’s a very simple rule that everyone in business - and certainly every manager - should have posted somewhere to look at every day. It goes like this:

Problems don’t improve with age.

And while they are never simple to confront, it’s also true that most problems are far easier to deal with when they are small. Sadly the world forgets this lesson time and again.

This past weekend, the single best-selling English language newspaper in the world shut down. In most weeks, the collapse of a newspaper would hardly merit an article; after all, the newspaper business is one of those most endangered by electronic communication. While this story revolves around electronic communication, that wasn’t the reason for the newspaper’s termination.

Rather it was about ethics and ignoring a problem that grew out of control.

If you missed it somehow, the British tabloid The News of the World ended up in a heap of hot water. Tabloids are rarely the standard bearers of decorum in any regard, but the News managed to go way further. The scandal that exploded in the United Kingdom centered on the newspaper hacking into the voice mail accounts of crime and terrorism victims and even war casualties.

It’s really a terrible story of additional anguish forced upon families who had already suffered heartbreaking losses. But the business story goes further. The scandal drew the attention of the British Parliament in part because Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., owner of the News, also is looking to buy a major British television network. In the end, News Corp. took the drastic step of simply closing the newspaper, but based on latest reports, the damage goes on.

On it’s own, this could be a cautionary tale of hacking off a limb to save the body, but this story is about so much more.

That’s because the recent scandal was hardly the first at the News. In fact, the issue of hacking voice mails had come up a few years back, in that case targeting the royal family. At the time, there were grumbles, some firings and even some criminal charges. But the News survived. This time, the victimization of innocent families made the problem far worse.

News Corp. never addressed the root problem of the management team that created the culture that led to those earlier problems. As so often happens, the problem didn’t improve with age, it got worse. The scandal widened and in the end claimed the newspaper itself.

The story isn’t likely to go away, and now the whispering extends to Murdoch: “What did he know, and when did he know it?” is the familiar question being asked, one that we’ve gotten used to in some of the political and personal scandals that have unfolded recently here in the US.

Problems frequently start small and left unaddressed, they grow. Managers and co-workers turn a blind eye when just a small conversation might create a change. It might not be an easy conversation, but it’s one that must be had. Bad habits grow like a cancer, whether it’s the poor attitude inside a team, apathy toward a key purpose or worse, impacting food safety, theft and customer trust. In no time a small problem builds into a culture.

We have to believe that if someone at The News of the World took action earlier, most of us in the US would know nothing of that newspaper today even though it would still be the largest seller in the English-speaking world. Instead, it’s out of business because when nothing firm was done, it made it seem right to behave wrongly and the problem simply grew.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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