If there was an overriding theme in the lessons taught by Mark Briggs at the SNA Foundation’s first webinar of the New Year it was that, in order for innovation to be practiced at any company, people need to stop planning and start doing.
To illustrate his point, Briggs described a friend who now works as Chief Tech Officer at a local startup in the Seattle area but who had previously worked in a corporate environment in which he managed hundreds. In his former corporate life, the friend tells Briggs that he spent about 80% of his time planning and about 20% doing; in sharp contrast, at the startup company where he now works, he spends only about 5% of his time planning and 95% doing. Marked difference. Old thinking/new thinking; old normal/new normal; legacy company/startup company. There are lessons here folks.
When Briggs took center stage in mid-January to lead the Innovation At Work: An Introduction webinar, he attracted quite an audience — both in quantity and diversity — which speaks volumes about the desire among suburban and community media company staffers to further their practices and thinking when it comes to breaking new ground at their legacy newspaper companies. Briggs’ webinar attracted almost 140 registrants and virtually every job title was represented. Publishers, editors, web managers, ad sales account execs and managers, audience development supervisors, market research folks and more — you name it and that registration list had it. Another testament to the appeal of this topic among local media types.
Briggs did not disappoint and got right to several lessons.
What is Innovation?
Briggs says it’s easier to understand what innovation is by examining what it’s not. It’s not an epiphany moment when suddenly lightening is captured in a bottle. Referring to a book by Scott Berkun titled the Myths of Innovation, this epiphany moment is unnatural and not to be expected. Isaac Newton did not discover gravity when an apple fell on his head. There was a plethora of thinking, experimentation and years of work that went into Newton’s Laws.
The back story to innovation is hard work and sacrifice. Think of the 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle — putting in that final piece to complete the project looks so easy but getting to that point is the real story.
Briggs acknowledges everyone in the newspaper business agrees that the industry is in flux and he says it’s critical to be optimistic and enthusiastic about the new normal. These are vital attitudinal ingredients to the process.
How Innovation Is Taught
Look around and it’s easy to see many practical examples of innovative thinking. So many new cool ideas are being tried and executed. Briggs says that innovation isn’t copying an idea that’s working elsewhere, that it’s not so much the idea that is innovation; rather, it’s the process of creating an innovative culture that lets the team stop planning and start doing. The most important step in the innovation process is to move from the meeting room to real life and putting ideas into practice.
Next, you need to instill catalysts to make the process happen. Make it a priority to start doing — trying new ideas and letting everyone know that it’s OK to fail when risk comes into play. So often in traditional cultures, managers want proof of a positive outcome before green-lighting a project. Forget that approach, says Briggs. “That’s backwards looking and not part of the innovation process.”
Set goals — measure progress.
Change your culture. At the end of the day culture eats strategy for lunch. Too often, an ‘old normal’ culture trumps what you could have otherwise come up with. Don’t underestimate the value of enthusiasm and excitement.
Change is not in the DNA at most traditional companies but there are valuable lessons to be learned by accepting and instilling a change-embracing culture. The NewsU Innovation e-course says that while the momentum of any organization serves to protect the status quo, there cannot be innovation without change. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, said an organization’s leaders must drive change. “Collaboration produces change, but leaders drive change,” she said.
Pointing to Tina Seelig, a wonderful professor at Stanford University who teaches MBA students about creative innovation, Briggs described an experiment she conducted with her class. She divided students into teams and gave each $5 seed money and two hours to earn as much money as possible. Whoever came up with the business idea that made the most money was the winner.
One group bought a $5 bicycle pump and earned $200 in 2 hours by offering free air pressure checks to fellow students and charged $1 if air pump was needed; another group went to the downtown Palo Alto restaurants where all the Venture Capitalists hang out and got prime lunch reservations which they then sold to the VC’s who didn’t want to wait for a table; the group that won though realized that their most valuable asset wasn’t $5 or the two hour window. They realized that the most valuable thing they had was their presentation time in front of fellow MBA Stanford students and they sold their class presentation slot for a hefty premium to an area startup company who enthusiastically presented their company and employment offers to these crème de la crème students who would soon be entering the job market.
The big lesson, says Briggs, is that we frame problems way too tightly. If we keep packing them and unpacking them we realize we have assets and resources that are way more valuable than we imagine. If limited to $5 and 2 hours, the scope of the project is quite small. Instead, begin looking at opportunities from as wide a perspective as possible.
Some tips from Tina Seelig:
- Make your own luck (also known as the harder you work, the luckier you’ll be)
- Know how to fail fast and frequently
- Don’t wait to be anointed
- Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous. “You must be heart and soul into the process of Innovation,” says Briggs.
Where To Start
Just one month old and already racking up a record number of users, the NewsU course Innovation at Work: Making New Ideas Succeed (www.newsu.org/Innovation) is an excellent resource to develop the skills of innovation. The course is free, thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, self-paced and you can start and stop as you choose. In total, it takes about 2 hours to complete. Upon completing this course, you’ll be able to:
- Define innovation
- Recognize roadblocks to innovation, generally and within your organization.
- Identify how well your organization innovates
- Identify innovative projects that have improved journalism
- Brainstorm potential innovations for your newsroom
- Start a conversation with colleagues about opportunities to innovate in your organization
Additionally, Briggs recommends launching innovation-minded work groups in your company. Start small. Think divide and conquer and seed each team with folks with varied areas of expertise. Establish 2 or 3 small groups and give them the authority to launch anything that the whole team agrees they should try. Give them the power to fail. Take care to pick the right people. “Avoid planners,” says Briggs. “You want do-ers.”
Do not let a lack of money or resources stop you. With the internet at your fingertips, there is massive data and open source technology available. TIP: Sourceforge.com — a clearing house of open source technology. Also check out odesk.com and elance.com — you can post your project needs and have people from around the world bid on your job. Briggs says these sites are competitive and low cost.
Final idea — host your own innovation challenge. Like national entrepreneurial competitions, the point/goal is not necessarily to create something in the end that will be produced by your company. Goal is to give hands on experience of what it’s like to be in the trenches with an idea and trying to make it work. Get the idea off the white board and into play — try to make it work.
Set it up so that you’re building something. Not just brainstorming ideas.
Think about inviting outsiders. Most communities have very smart people in them — there’s no shortage of intellectual property in most communities and the good news is that these local intellects often really, really like the newspaper and want it to succeed.
Briggs talked extensively about the concept of an Innovation Challenge in the webinar and you can listen to an archived recording. If you want to pursue this idea, have a listen and hear some examples of existing challenges and his tips for launching one of your own.
Mark Briggs is the co-author of Innovation at Work: How to Make New Ideas Succeed, the latest in a series of e-courses sponsored by the SNA Foundation and professionally produced by Poynter Institute’s NewsUniversity. The course is free of charge thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation.
He recently led an SNA Foundation sponsored webinar to introduce the concept of innovation and to teach basic lessons of how to bring the process to your company. Although the e-course is geared to newsrooms, it is absolutely applicable to anyone in any department in your organization.
Briggs is also the author of Journalism 2.0, a digital literacy guide for the information age and Journalism Next: A Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing. He’s also the CEO and co-founder of Serra Media, a Seattle-based technology company. Previously, Briggs was assistant managing editor for interactive news at The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. from 2004-2008 and new media director at The Herald in Everett, Wash. from 2000-2004. He was named to Presstime magazine’s “20 under 40″ list for 2007 and he earned journalism degrees from Gonzaga University and the University of North Carolina.