I had dinner this week with a dear friend who is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist. One of the dinner guests is the former head of one of the nation’s leading newspaper’s digital division. When the guest asked me what I did, I told her taught in the Media Management Program at The New School.
“What courses do you teach?”, she asked.
“How do you foster innovation in an old-line media company?”, she asked.
“That’s the 64-thousand-dollar question,” I retorted, “First, it’s almost impossible to generate innovation in an industry whose entire organizational structure, policies, and rules are designed to minimize mistakes. Journalistic organizations such as newspapers don’t tolerate mistakes very well.”
I elaborated by suggesting that the questioner imagine a newspaper’s editor saying to a reporter writing a story, for example, about former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s new book in which he criticizes President Obama’s leadership skills, “Go ahead and write the story, but don’t worry about making mistakes, just write it and seems what comes out.”
Mistakes aren’t allowed in respectable journalism. Bending the facts or truth according to a news organization’s political bias is acceptable; however, because doing so is not a serendipitous mistake, it’s a purposeful distortion done to appeal to a core audience of biased believers.
In organizations that are dedicated to innovation in practice and not merely in meaningless public-relations-oriented, show-case mission statements, the first principle of innovation is “make mistakes.” For innovation to exist, there must be an absence of fear of mistakes or failure. There must be a sense of adventure, of trying something daringly, crazily new – in other words, not in newspapers.
Furthermore, I indicated that finding innovation in monopolistic or oligopolistic companies is as unlikely as finding hen’s teeth. Why should a newspaper that has a virtual monopoly want to change anything, especially to change business practices that helped create the monopoly?
Change, innovation, and creativity are anathema to monopolies and oligopolies. Take broadcast network programming for example, when was the last time an original program idea popped up? “All In the Family” and “Survivor” (probably the first successful reality TV show in broadcast network TV) for just two examples, were copies of shows that first appeared on British TV. Innovative programming such as “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards” appears on HBO and Netflix, not on ABC, CBS, FOX, or NBC.
Finally, success in legacy media companies (newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio) is driven by individual success – stardom – not by collaborative team success. The internecine, hand-to-hand combat inside legacy media companies is about who gets the credit for a hit or success, not about innovation or team success.
In the January-February issue of “The Harvard Business Review” an article titled “IDEO’s Culture of Helping: By making collaborative generosity the norm, the design firm unleashed its creativity” describes how IDEO generates innovation after innovation for the biggest companies in the world.
When I talk to friends who work at Google, Facebook, and several digital startups, they talk about “the team.” They embrace the notion that “only the team can win or fail” and talk about how they love working with their teams and at their companies.
When I talk to friends who work at legacy media companies, I too often hear, “I hate my co-workers; they’re so backstabbing,” or “I hate my boss; she tries to take credit for everything.” And why not? That’s what legacy media companies reward and incentivize, individual contribution and star power, not team success. The result is no innovation because of fear of making a mistake or a craving for individual credit.
So, the answer to the question, “how do you foster innovation in an old-line media company?” is “you can’t, until you change the incentives, culture, and, probably, people.” And this answer more than likely explains why it’s typically been easier for legacy media companies to change a changer than to change the culture, incentives, and people.
Innovation in legacy media companies – not!