Innovation at The New York Times: The Opportunity

Last week I wrote about how the culture at The Times is quickly becoming more focused on rapid iteration, measured testing of ideas, and other processes commonly associated with start-ups, and how, looking back over my first eight months here, that’s been great to see.

But there is still a challenge ahead of us – and along with that challenge there is also a big opportunity.

Where we are right now, in March of 2014, is that we have upgraded the company’s innovation culture quite a bit, to the point where people are thinking in the terms I mentioned in my last post, teams are working pretty well on new ideas cross-functionally, and everyone (everyone!) is embracing innovation and trying out new ideas – even knowing full well that they involve the risk of failure. The company is getting ready to launch some new products in 2014, and I have no way of knowing, but I personally believe that some of those will deliver some measure of the success they were created to find.

So that’s all great.

What we’re not yet doing though is innovating at a level that changes the game around us.

(I should clarify: when I say “we”, I am specifically talking about the digital business side of things. I think the news and editorial side has a long history of innovating and sometimes changing the game.)

I point this out because I believe we could be doing just that – it is presently within our reach.

I don’t want to undersell innovation that doesn’t change the game. That’s critical to the survival of any company. Companies that can’t do that will fade away sooner or later – and more likely sooner than later, the way things move these days. So non-game-changing innovation (or “adjacent innovation” as I recently saw it referred to in an HBR article) is crucial. And The Times is doing that pretty well. Better and better, I’d say.

But the opportunity we have currently is to develop the capacity for truly game changing innovation.

To get there, I think we as a company have to mostly do one thing: learn to become comfortable launching and supporting some products and ideas that don’t have an immediate ROI. Be comfortable launching products where the ROI is several years off (and maybe even fuzzy), because they operate in markets that don’t even really exist yet, and are just beginning to take shape. If you can do that, then you allow yourselves to explore greener pastures, go where the space isn’t so crowded, because the market hasn’t even been fully hashed out. And that’s where game changing innovation happens.

It’s not that we should be comfortable doing that with all products – we shouldn’t be. Most products should have clear goals for near-term returns at the outset. But we need to be comfortable doing this with some products, some of the time.

I have a friend who I talk to about innovation at big companies. We were talking about funnels and gates, how you evaluate a multitude of ideas against each other to determine which ones to move forward and which ones to kill. I was going on and on about determining market size, etc etc. His reply was, “I have a friend at Nike. She says a way they sometimes determine which ideas to give a green light to there is that someone stands up in the room and says “I think this idea is going to blow people’s fucking minds.” That’s their metric – the “blow people’s fucking minds” metric. That’s the metric that says “This idea is so crazy, so big, so new, that we can’t just pop it into the funnel along with all of the other ideas. This idea could be game changing.”

We don’t have that metric yet at The Times. But we should. And I feel like we could be on the brink of getting there, getting comfortable with that.

And if we can get there, I could see The Times becoming one of those companies, like Nike, that people point to and say “that company really knows how to innovate.”

Will we get there? I can’t say. It’s such a big point to get to that it’s almost like we can’t just decide to do it, we have to evolve to it as an organization.

And my point, I guess, is that it feels like we could be on the brink of that kind of evolution.

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One Response to Innovation at The New York Times: The Opportunity

  1. Jared says:

    You read the Innovator’s Dilemma, yes? It’s critically important how you organize the team/division/spin-off that is going to build these game-changers that may not provide returns for several years. It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is to maintain patience with those products, especially when your company is public. You need to find organizational shielding mechanisms so that you give the team time to go from an *idea* that blows people’s minds to a *product* that engages new behavior. (Just blowing a customer’s mind doesn’t mean they’ll use it. After the mind blowing, it takes time for behavior to change in a way that results in usage.)