Something you hear a lot if you talk about new ideas at the New York Times is “we’ve tried that before”.
This is actually one of the phrases I hear most when I talk about new ideas with people. What it means is “someone at this company tried this previously and it didn’t work”. And that is sometimes meant to suggest an end to the inquiry, or at least meant to give you strong, strong pause before continuing.
What nobody ever says is “we tried that before, it didn’t work, and here’s why“.
That “here’s why” part is so important to include, and to understand.
All ideas have been tried before ultimately, in some form or other. Rare is the idea that is totally unprecedented. And ideas and their execution fail for a huge array of reasons. The failure of any idea or particular execution of that idea does not mean that idea isn’t good, and can’t succeed – really succeed in a huge way – later down the road.
Sometimes an idea fails because it was tried too early and the market wasn’t ready for it. Sometimes our internal capacities aren’t far enough along yet. Sometimes necessary partners aren’t in place. All of these things and more are subject to change over time.
Right now though I don’t think anyone is doing the work of asking that question. I think people are just rushing hurriedly on to the next thing, eager to bury the failure and hoping the next thing will be a hit.
But at a company like The Times, that idea is always going to rear up again in the future. And when it does, the first thing people should ask is “why did it fail last time?” If the conditions that led to failure have changed in the intervening time, maybe a revisit to the idea is worthwhile. If they haven’t, it probably isn’t.
As we really start to build a meaningful culture of innovation and new product development at The Times in 2015, this is one of those things we are going to have to get down.