Understanding Failures At The New York Times

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.

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Looking At New Product Ideas At The New York Times

I’ve been talking to people around the organization this week and last about their great ideas that could become possible new products for the New Products team here at The Times.

First, let me say that this is so much fun and such useful stuff for me and for the organization, I could be happy continuing to doing this on a part time basis forever.

But what I wanted to talk about is how useful, and how essential, it is to examine lots of very different ideas simultaneously like this whenever you’re thinking about possible new products.

One idea by itself will always seem like a great idea. How could it not? Compared to nothing, it is something – and something always looks better than nothing. It’s only when you put an idea next to multiple other ideas and compare them along different axes – potential market size, risk factors, costs, etc – that the ideas and the opportunities they represent really start to come into focus. Each opportunity becomes like a 3-dimensional model whereas before it was 2-d at best.

When I was in grad school at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, inventing and launching new ideas for each class I took, most of my classmates would seize on the first idea they came up with and turn that into their class project. I always thought that was crazy. I liked to come up with five ideas, totally different, one after another, put them side by side and see which one stood out from the rest. Or maybe blend a few together to get a new idea. And invite all my my friends and family to weigh in on the process as well. That’s still the method that I’m convinced works best for new product ideation.

When you think about it, the decision that will have the single biggest impact on the eventual success of your product is the the very first decision you make – the decision about which opportunity or idea to focus on in the first place . That’s the point of maximum leverage, maximum flex. It’s all increasingly incremental from there.

Which is all to say: this is a fascinating and worthwhile process, and I think it’s going to lead to good things.

(Also: if you have an idea, and we haven’t met, reach out to me – I want to hear from you.)

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What Does Your Company’s Innovation Portfolio Look Like?

When people talk about innovation, they usually have one particular idea in mind. And that idea depends on who they are and what their function is in their organization.

But there are of course many kinds of innovation, all the way from enacting best practices (I consider that a kind of innovation if your organization is lacking them) to incremental and sustaining innovation, to new market innovation, up to to disruptive innovation.

Rather than seeing your company through the lens of one particular kind of innovation at any given time, organizations need to see themselves as having an innovation portfolio. They need to be aware of all of these different kinds of innovation, what the returns can (and can’t) be on them, what the costs are, and what the risks are. Once you begin to see innovation as a portfolio, you start to realize you need a bit of something in each one of those slots at all times, and you think about how to structure your bets. You may re-balance the portfolio (and you should periodically to reflect your current needs and appetite) but you always keep your resources spread.

We at The Times tend to focus most of our energies at any given time on one aspect of innovation. We’re kind of an all-in type organization. I suspect a lot of companies are like this. It tends to create a lot of energy and focus, which can be exciting, then an “everybody on to the next thing” vibe when that focus starts to change.

If you think about that from the context of a portfolio though, that’s the equivalent of putting most of your money on a single stock or bond, hoping for the best, and then moving that money on to another stock at some point down the line. Not the best strategy.

What’s the answer? Diversify, stay diversified, understand what each part of your portfolio can and can’t get you, and understand how all of those pieces add up to more than the sum of their parts. And if it turns out they don’t, re-balance.

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Where Do Good Ideas Come From At The New York Times?

I’m doing a bit of work currently indexing the ideas that have been floating around the organization here at The Times, to see if they’d make sense as possible future new products. Yesterday I wrote about the question that always pops up when you do this, of “should new ideas be a top down or bottom up thing?

This morning I woke up with a broader question in mind: where do ideas come from at The Times? How do they emerge, take shape, become good? And how could we enable that, supercharge it, and bake it into the company permanently?

I’m lucky because my friend Steven Johnson has written a book about this exact topic (about the world, not about The Times), called Where Good Ideas Come From. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m going to download it tonight and have a look.

My guess though knowing Steven is that his answer, at the highest level, would be that good ideas aren’t the product of a lone genius who gets struck by a bolt of inspiration, but are rather the product of dense and open networks of people, with ideas getting passed freely from one to the next. Some ideas get improved upon as they move, some get discarded, some are totally useless to one group but the perfect answer to another group’s biggest problem, etc.

That squares with my own gut feeling about ideas, which is why in addition to talking with people about the existing ideas that have already been registered, I’ve started setting up lunches with small groups from disparate parts of the organization to have open, unscripted, low-stakes talks about their new ideas. I had my first yesterday with a few folks around “what’s your most dangerous idea?” and some very good things came out of it.

I’m going to read Steven’s book as soon as I’m done with my current read, Zero to One, and will report back here on how it relates to new product ideation at big companies. My bet though is that the best ideas for future new products at The Times are going to come from good, open networks and a lot of cross pollination.

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New Product Ideas: Should They Come From The Top Or The Bottom?

When you talk with people about ideas for new products, one question comes up repeatedly: where do ideas for new products come from?

Often this quickly gets boiled down to: should ideas come from the top, i.e. the executive offices, or should they come from the bottom, i.e. the people actually working on the product, making the product, contributing to the product day in and day out?

Not surprisingly, you often (but not always) get a different answer depending on who you’re talking to. Some people would have the top run the show (a “top down” system of new product ideation), other people would have the bottom run the show (a “bottom up” system of new product ideation).

My take on the question is this: you need everyone to have meaningful input into the new product ideation process for the best results. More specifically, and more importantly, you want people to give input according to their strongest area of expertise. And critically, you don’t want people running part of the show that is not their strongest area of expertise.

Executives are of course very good at seeing the broad visions of strategy and opportunity. They see where the company has to go to grow, get market share, fend off competitors. That’s what they focus on, and that’s crucial. That, by itself though, isn’t a product idea, it’s a direction for product. And a direction by itself is not a successful new product – in fact a direction that doesn’t come tightly bound with a real user need can be a recipe for disaster.

By contrast people who work on the products all day long often see real problems for users, and have ideas for better ways of doing things as a result – real product ideas that could satisfy user needs. The problem here is that these ideas can be mismatched with the overall strategic needs of the company. Sometimes these real solutions are solutions to problems that aren’t actually big enough to be worth solving – the ROI wont be there. Or sometimes they will lead the company down a path it ultimately would be better off not going down.

If either one of these groups leads the way too much or overpowers the other, you end up with new products that miss their mark. If the groups work together well on the other hand, you get new product ideas that tap into user pain points and also perfectly meet the strategic needs of the company. That’s what you want of course.

Getting there is tricky. There’s always the temptation on all sides to want to control the show, and a general feeling that “we know what is best”. The best organizations though are able to overcome that temptation and create a real, functional feedback loop between top and bottom for the best possible new product creation. That’s the culture companies like The Times should work on creating.

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Making It Easier To Say Yes / Making It Easier To Say No

Here’s a fact about starting new products within companies: it’s hard to say yes to them initially, but then once they do get started, it’s equally hard to say no to them, to keep them from growing and taking up ever more resources.

This is all due to uncertainty – there’s always a ton of uncertainty around any new idea, and uncertainty works to maintain status quo. If a new idea hasn’t gotten a green light, maybe it’s safer not to green light it. If that idea is already started, maybe safer just to keep it going.

That’s exactly the opposite of the environment you want though. What you want is an environment where it’s easy to say yes to new ideas – easy to get them started – and then also easy to say no – easy to stop them, or not give them more budget – if they aren’t proving out.

There are three things that make it easier for you to say yes and say no to new ideas. They are:

1. Measurable goals

2. Timeboxing

3. Competing ideas

Measurable goals – if you have stated concrete, measurable goals for every new product you’re considering, that becomes the milestone by which you can then judge that idea. For an initial “yes” the milestone must be significant/worthwhile yet also plausible. And then of course hitting goals or not hitting them gives you the basis you need for saying yes or no easily at varying points down the road.

The goals have to be set, written out, and agreed on by all in advance.

Timeboxing – setting firm start and end dates to the effort – allows any idea to keep from creeping along indefinitely. It creates a finite runway for achieving those goals. If a new idea doesn’t achieve the stated goals within the stated time, that makes it easy to say no to continuing to fund it.

Competing ideas – without other ideas waiting in the wings to get a green light for resources, points one and two above have no teeth. Product ideas that miss their target, or overshoot their runway, tend to keep going because there’s just nowhere else to put that budget. Having competitive ideas vying for that budget keeps the pressure on those new products to meet those goals within those timeboxes.

When you get this all set up right, it’s easy to say yes and easy to say no to ideas at the right time and sleep easy at night, confident that you’re making the right choices. That’s what you want in any new product environment.

When it’s not set up right, uncertainty prevails, and status quo sets in for good. And that’s the death of new ideas.

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Disruption: When You’re The Incumbent

I came across this snippet about disruption and incumbents yesterday on Andreesen-Horowitz’s blog.

It feels strange for me to be approaching the idea of disruption from the position of “incumbent”, but there you have it – I work at The Times. And the fact is, when you are an incumbent your relationship to disruptive innovation needs to be different than when you are seeking to be the disruptor. So I found this to be particularly insightful, and something for us at The Times to think about. See full piece on “The Four Stages of Disruption” here.

When you’re the incumbent, your key decision is to choose carefully what you view as disruptive or not. It is to the benefit of every competitor to claim they are disrupting your products and business. Creating this sort of chaos is something that causes untold consternation in a large organization. Unfortunately, there are no magic answers for the incumbent.

The business team needs to develop a keen understanding of the dynamics of competitive offerings, and know when a new model can offer more to customers and partners in a different way. More importantly, it must avoid an excess attachment to today’s measures of success.

The technology and product team needs to maintain a clinical detachment from the existing body of work to evaluate if something new is better, while also avoiding the more common technology trap of being attracted to the next shiny object.

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A Problem With Innovation At Big Co’s: What’s The Exit?

Say you’re a big company. You recognize that you need to innovate to stay in the game, to keep from being unseated by all of the upstarts around you. You create a team to do it for you, building and launching new, separate products almost as though they were startups.

They’ve figured out how to sort ideas, discover which are good and which are bad, execute on them, etc.

The problem then is: what is the exit for the successful products?

With startups it’s easy: the exit is either acquisition or IPO. In either case, the people who funded the product get a clear return on their investment, and everyone is happy.

With innovation inside a big company that’s not the case: there is no buyout at the end. The product has to either be a) absorbed by the core business and managed by them, or b) it has to be permanently staffed and run as a new arm of the company, or as a spinoff.

If you think about it, those two options are actually like the startup ones of acquisition and IPO. The difference is that:

  • For a product to be absorbed by the core business, the core business has to a) be set up to absorb them and b) has to perceive real, immediate value to acquiring the product. This requires foresight and planning on the part of the company, and also maybe makes truly disruptive ideas less likely to get absorbed (disruptive products will not be perceived as having real, immediate value to the core, which will be focused on sustaining innovation).
  • For a product to be permanently staffed, it has to be far enough on its way to turning a stable profit that the company will fund it – it has to be near the light at the end of the tunnel, which is tough place to get to for any truly new product.

Both of these create challenges for finding a real “exit” for innovations at big companies.

And yet, if you’re that big company, you recognize that you have to innovate to stay alive. So what’s the answer?

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Sorting Out The Good Ideas From The Bad

Imagine this: someone in your organization has an idea for a new way to generate revenue for the company.

Imagine they have some clout within the company, so their idea gets traction internally, and everyone is talking about it.

The question is: is it a good idea, or a bad idea?

You don’t initially know, regardless of whatever the consensus may be within the organization. There are lots of factors that could tip the answer one way or another. And lots of bad ideas seem good initially, and vice versa.

The first task in dealing with any new idea like this should be to determine: good idea or bad idea? And the goal should be to get a decisive answer, for as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible.

Factors to consider include:

  • Is there a market for this idea?
  • Is the market big and/or growing?
  • Does this build on our core strengths?
  • Would there be enough of a margin to make it worth our while?
  • Can we execute this idea correctly?
  • Is there a public appetite for this kind of idea from our company?

There are lots of ways to get these answers. Some ways are long and expensive, some are fast and cheap. Some give a false sense of security, some don’t give any concrete sense of certainty at all, beyond just a directional sense (which of those two things is better? I prefer the second).

But however you do it, you want to put an idea into a process and have it come out the other side as either a) good/funded b) bad/de-funded. And you want it to get through that process as quickly and for as little cost as possible. And of course you want to be right.

This, in a nutshell, is the process of early product ideation and development. Any company building and launching new products has to get good at it, and bake that deeply into their company process.

Otherwise, you end up with products that are bad (i.e. money losers) that took way too much time and money to reveal themselves as such, and good ideas that never got made into products at all, because their resources were sucked up by the bad ideas.

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When Are You Actually Better Off Without Infrastructure?

I started off the week with a quote from the president of Quartz about how legacy media companies are hindered by their infrastructure, and how Quartz has been blessed not to have to deal with that.

Here’s an interesting thread from Quora I came across yesterday, relevant to that idea.

The question posed is:

Why was Germany able to beat its World War II victors to become Europe’s export superpower?

It continues:

Being the loser, Germany started at a severe disadvantage after world war 2. Yet, its economy recovered so much that it became Europe’s export superpower.

Interesting question! How could a country essentially starting from zero go to beating the rest of its competitors within the space of a few decades?

The top answer:

Basically, because West Germany had to start from scratch, it had no choice but to purchase the best their money could afford. Other countries only replaced infrastructure as needed as removing the old infrastructure was a major cost. This gave West Germany a competitive advantage over countries that didn’t have to rebuild so extensively. France and Russia thought they got a good deal when they went in and seized old German industrial equipment to rebuild their industries. The old German equipment was better than their own, but it forced Germany to buy even better equipment. So while in the short run, France and Russia did well, West Germany did much better in the long run.

Sometimes you’re better off without infrastructure. Sometimes you’re better off actually starting from zero.

When is that? I would say it’s:

  • When the world has changed, and your infrastructure, or the infrastructure of those around you predates that change.
  • When you have the expertise to build new infrastructure from the ground up to take full advantage of new world opportunities.
  • When you have resources to do so.

That’s the world, and the situation, that Germany found itself in after the war, and it worked that to its advantage. Is that the world media companies now find themselves in? And which ones are working it to their advantage?

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