Publishing is full of tensions. Indies versus conglomerates. Trade versus academic. Start-ups versus established companies. Outsiders versus insiders, geeks versus luddites, progressives versus reactionaries, self-publishing versus publisher-publishing. We can all learn from each other and it’s in the conflict that the interesting conversations happen. But there are also some universal truths which bind us all.

First off, we’re all trying to stay in business. That’s a fairly universal imperative. No one’s actively trying to run out of money. And, secondly, we’re all trying to live decent, fulfilling lives. The balance might sometimes be a bit skew-whiff: in a large company, the workers might be obliged to try to make the shareholders’ lives a bit more decent and fulfilling than their own. But there’s no one working in publishing who deliberately set out to have a horrible time of it.

So if we’ve all actively set out to thrive, why do publishers so often have stress, anxiety, miscommunication and conflict between people and departments?

It’s true. You see editorial at loggerheads with production; sales irritated with editorial; frustrated digital teams; exasperated contracts managers; put-upon editorial assistants. These are the same sorts of interdepartmental, interpersonal tensions that I used to see all the time in retailers, utilities companies and FMCG suppliers when I was a management consultant at a large City firm in a previous life. It looks like it’s another universal truth: in every company, in every industry sector, people are not getting on well with each other.

And why is that? It’s because people are awful.

“It’s as if she doesn’t want us to succeed!” you hiss to one of your less awful co-workers at the imaginary or actual water-cooler. She just doesn’t do her job properly. She stops me doing mine! She doesn’t care about my problems and, oh, when she goes on holiday, she’s even more annoying because she leaves everything undone so I can’t do my job. You stop for breath, but you’re on a roll: I can definitely do my job quicker without her being involved. She needs to be convinced of everything! She’s so obstructive – I’m sure she costs the company more money than she makes. You know what: I can do her job better than she can. Sometimes I wish I could just do it all myself.

OK. People aren’t really awful, of course. So what can the real problem be?

It’s a question of responsibility, authority and capability.

She doesn’t do her job properly. She stops me doing mine. She doesn’t care about my problems. She leaves everything undone so I can’t do my job. These feelings arise because there’s no clarity around who is responsible for what. You think that your co-worker isn’t doing her job properly: has anyone explicitly told her what the responsibilities of her job are? Is she measured against them, at a regular appraisal, with performance objectives? Has anyone ensured that her responsibilities don’t clash with yours? Has any senior manager ensured that everyone’s responsibilities align so that the company’s workflow is joined up?

I can do my job quicker without her being involved. She needs to be convinced of everything. She’s so obstructive! These feelings arise because you haven’t been given the authority to do your job properly. If you have to convince people to help you to do your job, it’s because they have neither been told what your responsibilities are, nor that they have to support you.

She costs the company more money than she makes. I can do her job better than she can. I wish I could just do it all myself. These feelings arise because people don’t have the right capabilities – sometimes skills, sometimes knowledge, sometimes inherent competence – to meet their responsibilities.

Here’s an example. The Big Boss went to a conference where he heard a rousing, inspirational speech by a publisher-turned-coder whose immense powers of rhetoric persuaded him to go back to his team and insist that they prioritise metadata management. After a day or two, the gloss wore off and he decided to make Ellie, the most recently-appointed, recently-graduated editorial assistant, responsible for metadata. (Don’t be that guy. Don’t entrust the most important means of communicating your brand to an inexperienced office junior.) But he didn’t alter anyone else’s performance objectives to require them to support the office junior in this mission-critical task.

So the next morning, Ellie asked Catherine, the rather forbidding editorial director, for the five missing blurbs, three missing publication dates and four missing covers for the Summer list. And Catherine asked Ellie, in a rather snippy voice, to come back in a week, with a tone that implied that Ellie might be in a tiny bit of trouble for interrupting her.

Ellie had been given the responsibility, but not the authority, to manage the company’s metadata. There’s no way she could succeed without the correct authority – and so the company’s success suffers directly. Further, Ellie doesn’t have the right capabilities – the power of persuasion or being able to manage upwards – to make the best of it.

As I say to my six-year-old, you have to eat your main course before you can have your pudding. In publishing, it’s tempting to focus on the puddings: the exciting new digital opportunities, the digital marketing initiatives, the disruptive technologies and the new ways to support authors and sell books. But you need to have the basics in place before you can build new worlds. Formally aligning people’s objectives across departments is absolutely fundamental, but publishers aren’t very good at it.

So: does everyone in your company know who is responsible for what? Do people’s responsibilities conflict with each other? Has someone sat down to make sure that everyone in the company is working toward the same goals – or are, at least, not working in direct conflict with each other? Are responsibilities formally written down and are people measured against them? And, most crucially, are people measured against supporting other people’s objectives? If this last point is true, it means that people have been given the authority to get their jobs done.

You can run down a checklist of key publishing tasks and think about whether your company is clear on who’s responsible, whether they have the authority and whether they have the capability to be successful. Creating the catalogue, managing metadata, deciding pricing strategies, running digital projects, ensuring contracts are signed before publication, buying paper, doing key customer presentations, managing the company website. All these tasks, and more, require a unified effort to happen efficiently.

On the face of it, you’d think that my job implementing Consonance in publishing companies is all about systems. But the most important part of any implementation is not configuring code or migrating data. It’s making sure that the company’s workflow is supported by a recruitment, performance management and training approach which means people have clearly defined responsibilities, the right level of authority and the right capabilities. Without these three elements in place, too much energy gets wasted on internal machinations, to the detriment of the books, the authors, and your happiness at work.

Don’t set broken processes and policies in stone with a systems project.

Fix your responsibilities, authorities and capabilities first.

Originally written for and published by The FutureBook in February 2015.

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