NBC's Real Failure was not Williams'


Two weeks ago, the Internet exploded over a story by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. Mr. Williams described how, in 2003, he had been on a Chinook military helicopter when it was “forced down after being hit by an R.P.G.” We now know that Mr. Williams fabricated part of this story where he was on the Chinook that actually took fire. He was actually on another copter that followed 30 – 60 minutes behind.

In the wake of servicemen disputing Mr. Williams’ recollection of the events, a firestorm erupted. Subsequently, Mr. Williams publicly apologized, was the focus of an internal investigation and voluntarily took a temporary leave-of-absence. Ultimately, chief executive Stephen B. Burke quelled the situation, suspending Mr. Williams for six months without pay. The accompanying statement read, “He deserves a second chance, and we are rooting for him.”

In doing so, Mr. Burke was complicit in a systemic failure that, without deliberate attention, is primed to tear primetime news journalism apart.

Technical Problems & Adaptive Challenges

Ron Heifetz, Sr. Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, first introduced the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges. He defined a technical problem as one where the expertise required to solve a problem already exists. This means a process has been developed, a manual has been written, or an expert can be called. Technical problems can range from simple to complex, but the test is the same: the know-how exists. Solving it largely becomes a tactical exercise. Recall the process or engage the expert.

Conversely, adaptive challenges have no ready-made answer. They have never been solved within the current context or with the current set of stakeholders. What’s more, adaptive challenges are elusive to identify. As opposed to technical problems that are easy to spot, adaptive challenges are nebulous. They’re more like wispy specters that creep up on you. Adaptive challenge requires a group of stakeholders (or even an entire organization) to make systematic changes in their behavior.

Using a technical fix for an adaptive issue is one of the most common, and most costly, mistakes that people make.

And, it is precisely the mistake that Burke and NBC made.

Connecting Adaptive vs. Technical to NBC

Testing the boundaries of journalistic and ethical standards is not a new occurrence and Mr. Williams was not the first to play chicken with the out-of-bounds line. In 2004, Dan Rather used a false document to question President Bush’s National Guard record. And, Lara Logan has only recently returned from a leave of absence after an inaccurate 60 Minutes report in 2013.

The fact that we can point to repeated offenses in what is supposed to be the highest echelon of journalism proves to us this is not a technical problem.

Removing Dan Rather from his post at CBS did not solve the problem. Lara Logan’s six-month leave-of-absence did not solve the problem. Both were examples of management hitting the reset button on the video game machine of journalistic credibility. Mr. Burke’s six-month suspension of Mr. Williams is simply the latest attempt to paper over a deeper systemic issue. It is the most obvious failure in treating a highly adaptive problem as if it were a straightforward technical issue. There aren’t many lives left before its game over.

If we treat these transgressions as symptoms of a much larger systemic issue, the adaptive challenge reveals itself: an ever-increasing expectation for primetime news anchors to be a panacea, an insatiable desire that is simply unsustainable.

David Carr’s final gift to us was his poignant wisdom, “We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it. That’s why, when the forces of man or Mother Nature whip up chaos, both broadcast and cable news outlets are compelled to ship the whole heaving apparatus to far-flung parts of the globe, with an anchor as the flag bearer. We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy. It’s a job description that no one can match.”

The pressure from these unrelenting expectations blurs the line of professional integrity resulting in catastrophic results.

Applying Technical Fixes to Adaptive Challenges

Applying technical fixes to adaptive challenges is the most common pitfall we see in the companies we work with. As humans, we are wonderful pattern-recognition machines. If we think we’ve seen it before, we have a solution, never mind if it’s the right solution. Another example of when you only have a hammer in your tool belt, everything begins to start looking like a nail.

Company X is a large retail bank that predominantly serves the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States. When government regulations forced them to re-examine overdraft fees, they rolled out a series of new products that carried different incentives and role definitions for their employees.The new structure required employees to behave differently than before in terms of how they collaborated with each other and helped customers. Management was shocked that despite new products and incentives, revenues were still off-target. Further, customer service scores declined, even though there were more friendly faces available to help them.

We determined that the staff took pride in doing their original, individual functions well. And, the staff wasn’t prepared for their incentive scheme to be changed so dramatically. They had worked hard to hone their performance for maximum rewards in the system that had been in place. Now, the goal posts were being shifted in a way they weren’t prepared for and fundamentally disagreed with.

Management thought they could rapidly shift behavior just by providing some cross-training and implementing a new incentive scheme.

They failed to realize that branch staff took pride in the service areas associated with their roles and weren’t prepared to adjust. Further, because their performance was being measured on more dimensions than they were used to, it was more difficult for them to perform for optimal rewards. The result was decreased morale, dropped customer service, and overall frustration amongst employees and customers.

Contrast that story with Company Y, a large direct-to-consumer PC distributor. Management at Company Y changes its incentive scheme and products for its sales department on a weekly basis. Products and upsells that were being pushed last week are de-emphasized this week and vice-versa.

In order to have this flexibility, Company Y specifically hires for this flexibility and has made its incentives ultra-simple to understand. On the former, they know that there is a certain type of individual who has the dexterity to thrive in such an organization, so they select for that. On the latter, because incentives are always changing, they want staff spending minimal time trying to understand changes. So, they take the hard work out of it. Each week, the new incentive plan is laid out in a straightforward manner so staff knows exactly what they need to do to max out on rewards. They understand that the incentives and products are only half the battle.

The alignment of aspirations and pride in their work to performance outcomes in a way that hadn’t been done before at Company Y made it adaptive.

Now it operates like clockwork and is largely technical.

Assessing Technical vs. Adaptive

To help determine whether an issue you’re seeing is technical or adaptive, we’ve developed a short quiz:

1. Is the problem easy to describe?

A. Definitely Yes! (1 point)
B. Umm…I don’t know. (2 points)
C. I have no idea what’s going on. (3 points)

2. Is the solution obvious and easy to describe, or is there an expert you can call?

A. Of course! Let me map it out for you. (1 point)
B. Kind of. But, I’m not totally sure. (2 points)
C. I need to learn far more before I can answer. (3 points)

3. Who is best qualified to do the work?

A. There’s an expert I can call. (1 point)
B. There’s an expert, but he/she is going to need some of our help. (2 points)
C. Only we can solve this. No one else is equipped. (3 points)

Scoring: If your score was 3, you’re seeing something that’s completely technical and you’ve got the solution. Get to it!

If your score is between 4 and 6, your challenge is bundled with some technical components and some adaptive ones. Technical fixes will solve part of your problem, but not all of it. 

If your score 7 or above, you have a largely adaptive challenge. To solve this, you will need the cooperation and collaboration with a diverse set of stakeholders. Only with collective effort and learning will you create the capacity to solve this challenge.

How We Determined NBC'S problem is adaptive

We took this quiz on behalf of NBC to conclude that Mr. Burke had tried to apply a technical fix to an adaptive issue:

1. Is the problem easy to describe?

Our answer: B. Ummm….I don’t know (2 points)
We not only looked at Mr. Williams’ behavior but also the larger context that included Mr. Rather and Ms. Logan. We believed these other events were important, but there wasn’t immediate clarity to this larger problem. We could describe parts of it, but it wasn’t apparent or immediate.

2. Is the solution obvious and easy to describe, or is there an expert you can call?

Our answer: C.  I need to learn far more before I can answer. (3 points)
NBC executives had known for over a year as to Mr. Williams’ habitual inflation of events and were puzzled as to the motivation. He already had the premier job in the organization, so there was no reason for resume padding. We were similarly confounded as to what was really going on here. 

3. Who is best qualified to do the work?

Our answer: B. There’s an expert, but he/she is going to need some of our help. (2 points)
Obviously Mr. Williams was at the center of the controversy, but he was going to need help in resolving the conflict. Put another way, if there was a sustainable solution, we believe that it would have already been found and tried. In addition to Williams, others are going to have to collaborate to find a permanent resolution.

With a score of seven, we’re definitely in adaptive territory. There is simply no way that this could be solved with straightforward technical fixes. Such as a six-month suspension and the promise of a second-chance.


Countless man-hours are lost every year misdiagnosing adaptive challenges as technical problems. How many times have you jumped into action with limited information only to later realize that you aren’t solving the right problem? Imagine the time and money (not to mention heartache) that companies could save if they spent a little more time understanding whether their problem was technical or adaptive. What challenges has your business recently faced that might be adaptive instead of technical?

Stephen B. Burke, CEO, NBCUniversal

Stephen B. Burke, CEO, NBCUniversal

If primetime news journalism continues to apply technical fixes to an adaptive issue, it will soon be G ame Over .

If primetime news journalism continues to apply technical fixes to an adaptive issue, it will soon be Game Over.