Everyday innovation

In response to the pffft of the Economist’s Project Red Stripe effort in innovation and the discussion around it, Suw Charman gives her best advice about innovation, saying it needs to come from seeing a need and solving it, from people who are in the mines and not from teams separated from the action: innovation over there vs. innovation here.

I agree. But there is still the question of whether incumbent organizations can innovate, whether they will do best getting their innovation from within or acquiring it, whether innovation also must be protected, like a hothouse flower, from the cold wind of a corporation’s structure and politics. I remember Barry Diller talking with Terry Semel at an event, saying that even their new companies were too old to invent and had to acquire invention (Semel quibbled, saying that their companies can innovate and Diller said he was talking about invention; I’m not sure what the distinction is other than politeness on stage).

The best way to innovate is from within, opening up a culture that not only lets but encourages people to see problems and try new ways to solve them. But the harsh truth is, of course, that the default in organizations is to fear and stomp out change. The uncertainty caused by making change is worse than that of letting change happen to you; illogical but true.

So I think there is a need sometimes to take people who are ready to make change and to build some sort of net around them to experiment without fear or the crushing pressure of corporate inertia. Maybe the Economist should have sent their team off not with the magnificently open challenge — create something innovative and of the web; that was it — but instead with a problem to solve and a few hypotheses to try out.

The other way to acquire innovation is to acquire innovative companies; that is what Yahoo has done (but if the culture is not open to innovation, even that won’t work).

I’m working on the idea of an incubator for innovation in journalism and media and wonder what form it should take: who should come with what ideas and what needs and how their work should be nurtured but also exposed to the hard problems they are trying to solve — and how to relate them and their work to the organizations that so badly need their innovation.

I’d be eager to hear your thoughts on that.

  • pat

    Isn’t that what the Media Giraffe folks are trying to put together this coming week in D.C.? I might be off-base (having only recently discovered the project). Your take on the venture?

    Only mention of the project I could find on BuzzMachine comes from about a year and a month ago. After a drive with Jay Rosen, you wrote about “networked journalism” — . Your reaction to those thoughts?

    Whether or not they’re building the incubator you suggest we need, it should be interesting to see what they come up with.

  • I’ve seen two of the three methods — protected innovation and innovation wildfire — and both fail more often than not. Innovation requires authority or the trust of people in authority.

    Ultimately. innovation must come from the decision-makers in the organization. A protected group from within can come up with innovation, but unless they require no money or commitment, then they have to go before some decision-making person or body. And that’s where most invention goes to die. Traditional companies tend to be too conservative or too scared. As a result, creative people get frustrated and leave.

    Without the decision-makers in your corner, it takes someone who can operate independently and can create change through the force of his/her own personality/presumptiousness/tenacity. Essentially, they just do stuff and build their own rogue team. Sad but true.

    Can a traditional newspaper/manufacturing company be transformed away from concentrating on getting a product out the door to innovating to solve citizen and customer problems? We’ve been trying for 15 years and are only about 25% there, with lots of starts and stops along the way.

    Be interested in what you come up with.

  • I think that John Robinson is right. If an organization is going to successfully innovate, the decision makers need to support it.

  • Innovation in the newspaper industry has tended to come from one outsized ego defying the industry as a whole, like Al Neuharth and USA Today.

  • In response to John Robinson,

    I think even the oldest and most traditional companies can innovate. I also agree that it is important to have leadership that encourages change and innovation. Sometimes, like Suw from Corante mentioned, innovations can be small but still very helpful. If a leader were to put even a small team in charge of solving a specific problem consumers have with the newspaper or a different product, change could happen.

    I think innovation can occur when consumers/ customers are giving you their solutions, because market research is built into their suggestions. When customers are telling you the same thing R&D has thought up, you might have a great product or marketing plan on your hands.

  • Part of the BuzzMachine message over the many months that I have been a subscriber is that news gathering and dissemination in the future will be multimedial, with video an ever more important component of both the process and the product.

    John Robinson says rightly “A protected group from within can come up with innovation, but unless they require no money or commitment, then they have to go before some decision-making person or body.”

    But ‘unless they require no money…’ is of significance. Now that the tools of video journalism are so incredibly cheap, now that tuition with regard to the essential skills is so accessible (CurrentTV’s tutorials, etc.), the reporting/storytelling innovators must surely already exist in growing numbers.

    And possibly Michael Rosenblum’s CTZN.TV project, and similar ventures, show ways towards getting this new reporting/storytelling out to its audience.

    My view is that innovation will come almost exclusively from outsiders. I have never worked for a media organization of any kind (over four decades of perspective) within which I detected even a hint of willingness to encourage disruptive change!

  • I’m also working on an incubator idea within our journalism course. The incubator will bring together students of journalism, new media, and general media (as long as they’ve studied either online journalism, magazine design or one of the web modules, e.g. music online). They will have guest speakers from the industry who can give a context, and ideally some resources (content, technology) too.

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  • Jeff,

    I think that the single biggest thing that could have changed what we came up with would have been your point that:

    “Maybe the Economist should have sent their team off not with the magnificently open challenge — create something innovative and of the web; that was it — but instead with a problem to solve and a few hypotheses to try out.”

    The debate on innovating within an organisation will run and run and I think that in media businesses we get confused over what innovation looks like. Apple producing the iPod should be likened to someone like The WaPo creating a magazine with a circulation the size of National Geographic rather than a newspaper creating a website.

    I think that it’s difficult to make real step changes when you’re sat within an organisation because you already have a job making sure that you keep ahead of the rest of the pack on a day to day basis. Sure, some innovation happens when trying to solve a current problem, but coming back to your point, knowing an outcome and looking at different ways of getting there can throw up different solutions.

    At Apple, maybe Steve Jobs’ desired outcome was to increase the number of Mac computers sold? Or maybe it was to get a piece of Apple kit into the hands of one in every 10 people in the US? There are many ways of getting to these outcomes but unless they were able to take a step back from concentrating on designing, manufacturing and selling Macs it’s unlikely that they would have come up with an iPod.

    Coming back to media, knowing that most newspapers rely on classified advertising, who was it that came up with a new model? And when eBay started out, selling Beanie Babies, not many newspaper executives saw the danger until stuff like cars were being sold. Even now, encumbents have to try and protect their dominant positions and are fearful of starting new businesses that undermine their existing ones. Do new startups have that worry?

    So, yes, I think that having innovation as part of the DNA of an organisation is key, but I also believe that ring-fenced innovation is necessary to be able to make step-changes rather than incremental ones.

    With Project Red Stripe we came up with a really innovative idea.

    Unfortunately Lughenjo was probably ahead of its time. However, along the way we also came up with some great ideas that demand more scrutiny within The Economist Group and we learned a great deal about the process itself.

    The last deliverable of Project Red Stripe is to provide feedback on the lessons we learned and what we’d keep or do differently. And, not least, to outline some very easy ways for The Economist Group to add a little more innovation into its DNA.

    Going forward, the legacy of Project Red Stripe can also be seen in me taking forward some of the ideas around Lughenjo and, in part, connecting them back to our existing businesses so that when they see the light of day as HiSpace they will stand a good chance of succeeding.

  • Innovation…. Why do we keep talking about money and goals and not access and difference?

    Malcolm Thompson suggested:

    But ‘unless they require no money…’ is of significance. Now that the tools of video journalism are so incredibly cheap, now that tuition with regard to the essential skills is so accessible (CurrentTV’s tutorials, etc.), the reporting/storytelling innovators must surely already exist in growing numbers.

    Now, I’m a new regular to this blog, but I have a lot to say. I’m worried I may come across as the crazed Odysseus / Cassandra hybrid of BuzzMachine trolls (and yes that’s possibly giving myself undue credit).

    Just because the means of production are more accessible, doesn’t mean you will produce something interesting. We have seen an explosion of so-called “videobloggers” and “video podcasters” etc. Yet how many people are watching them, and how many are really doing something innovative?

    Rocketboom uses these tools to be quirky and attractive to the net-savvy and young computer boys who found wacky Amanda Congdon to be cute and maybe obtainable, and now find Joanne Colan’s british accent to be alluring and distinct.

    Ask a Ninja uses these tools to not only be hilariously funny, but also to easily distribute the Ninjas antics to millions.

    There are, according to mefeedia, another 23,008 videoblogs exist. I could probably name 23 of them, maybe even 115 on a good day, but how many of these are really shining?

    Just because you have a camera, or a blog, or a vlog, doesn’t make you interesting. Just giving someone the money and space to innovate, doesn’t mean they will. I worry that with the democratization of media we’ve also seen the democratization of the mob, and maybe thats cool for the “teeming masses” but how am I ever going to find anything?

    I believe that over here at Alive in Baghdad.org and Alive in Mexico.org not only do we innovate by bringing you interesting content from communities you won’t otherwise see, we also have to be sure to employ interesting people, who can tell stories and can find those people with interesting stories to tell. Video on the Net will succeed for the same reasons TV succeeding initially, they produced great material! It’s only with market hegemony that TV has begun to suck almost entirely, giving the teeming revolutionary masses of the web their moment to shine. Will we build truly revolutionary energy, or democratize the mob out of some misplaced western existential belief that all storytellers are created equal?

  • I am struck that the biggest innovation would be to create the opportunity to allow the audience to report on the news. If a news organization can leverage the larger community to develop stories that no one could write without a tremendous amount of resources we’d see something entirely new. I believe Jay Rosen is exploring this idea. But more examples would help.

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  • DaveinLA


    Don’t put too much thought into it. The answer is simple. Corporations and innovations are diametrically opposed. Look the relationship between at Xerox and PARC. For the most part, what was innovated at PARC was useless to improving the bottom line for Xerox. The same goes for Google, MS, Apple et al. The overwhelming innovations that are incubated inside of these companies will not directly impact the companies bottom line.

    I think that you give coporations too much credit when you say
    “…that the default in organizations is to fear and stomp out change.”
    Saying that they fear innovation is to implying that they understand the innovations that grow internally. My opinion is that corporations aren’t that smart and are too short sighted.

    So here is the scenario. Entry level programmer comes up with great new widget. Does Middle Manager crush programmer because he sees the widget as agent of change that will distrupt company’s position in the value chain (fear) … OR … Middle Manager looks at widget and wonders why Entry level programmer wasted time on stupid side project rather than fixing TPS reports….

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  • We all use the word innovation, but much of the misunderstand and resulting debate revolves around the ubiquity and usage of an often ill defined term.

    In order to greater understand what we mean when we say “innovate” we’ve embarked on a community project collecting user submitted one-liners defining our perception of innovation. All posts and emailed submissions will be made public Monday morning with a cloud swarm highlighting key phrases in our definitions to follow in the coming week or two. To participate please visit http://jburg.typepad.com/future/2007/08/one-line-survey.html#comments . Looking forward to hearing from all of you!

  • Chris Krewson

    My $.02… I believe this is where these new Knight grants for media ideas, and the new center at the University of Arizona will begin to pave the way. Also, with some directions, colleges like MIT will continue to innovate ahead of the pack. Google and Yahoo started on college campuses, and so did Facebook.

    Some smart, newsy people will get together and — with direction and funding from Knight or someone else — will start driving the R&D on campus. If newspaper companies are smart, they’ll pool their resources for this. Because competition online is different.