I wasn’t in the room when Newsweek’s leaders decided to end its 80-year print run and go all-digital. But Tina Brown’s note to readers in a recent issue of the magazine reads like a textbook case of what happens when you get Altitude.

The jury is still out on whether Newsweek’s move is too late or even a clever strategy to ditch weekly publishing while avoiding refunds to current subscribers. It’s safe to say that no leadership team prefers to wait until their model is busted and their company is nearly broke to make a change.  Regardless, there’s nothing like the moment when the muddle of being stuck in the forest of everyday work transforms into the crystal clarity of surveying things from a higher Altitude.

There’s an almost audible sigh in the room. Finally. We see it. Clearly.

But don’t think that gaining Altitude comes easily. It can take a long slog through some tough questions. Let’s take a look at a few of the questions leadership teams have to muck through and imagine the food fights that probably went on at Newsweek:

  • What does our past tell us? Any organization – and especially one that’s been publishing a magazine for 80 years – has a rich history which tells a story and foreshadows the future. The trick is to find clues in the past about the company’s strengths, its deeply held passions, and the purpose it was born to serve. I imagine there were many debates at Newsweek about the importance of print publishing, the romance of holding a physical piece in your hands, the beautiful smell of ink on paper. In the end, the team agreed on a simple, unbroken thread: Newsweek is a trail-blazing, activist journal. We pioneered the use of color photos. We produced pocket editions of the magazine for GI’s in World War II. We took a stand on civil rights. That’s the thread that matters.
  • What do the current industry and consumer patterns tell us? It’s tempting to ignore the present and cling to the past. I’d guess that Newsweek had waited long enough that this was getting harder to do. Competitors are all struggling and new on the horizons are born digital organizations that were turning into unbeatable giants. Costs of print publication keep rising and ad revenues keep dropping. You don’t need a Harvard MBA to see that the math doesn’t work. The only question now is whether Newsweek should proactively try to re-shape itself or let the market take a hatchet to it.
  • What does the future hold? This is where it gets tricky.  It’s one thing to point out current patterns, but to figure out whether they’re temporary adjustments or fundamental shifts takes wisdom. And wisdom usually comes from dialogue. You can’t microwave it. I’d guess that Newsweek’s team spent hours talking through the different trends affecting their company and wrestled with questions like:
    • Are these fundamental shifts?
    • If so, what will our world look like in a few years?
    • What are the implications for us? What can we do? What should we do?

Many people delay having Altitude conversations because it takes time and they’re stuck in the monthly/quarterly grind. Some say you need a crisis to get you moving. And I guess you could wait until you have emphysema before you quit smoking. You could wait until you’re on the verge of the cliff before steering the car to safety. But waiting for the crisis – the moment when you’re on the verge of folding – is rarely the best answer. Wisdom foresees danger and opportunity in equal measure. It stops. It digs. And then it acts. And by acting, it often avoids a Tina Brown moment by getting in front of the disaster.

It’s almost 2013. The clock starts again soon. What Altitude conversations do you and your team still need to have?