I was sorry to see that the Economist’s innovation project, Project Red Stripe, didn’t yield a product. I’m an Economist fan and subscriber, and was looking forward to seeing what such a smart publication could come up with, with some effort and money. More widely, this was a high-profile attempt to find a digital media breakthrough, and a high-profile success might have encouraged other publishers to have a go.
Jeff Jarvis writes an interesting post looking for lessons from the failure, noting that journalists – given money to do something – look to improve the world rather than improve their journalism (I paraphrase, badly. His post is worth reading in full). He writes:
“This gives me hope for the essential character of mankind: Give smart people play money and they’ll use it to improve the lots of others. Mind you, I’m all for improving the world. We all should give it a try.
But we also need to improve the lot of journalism. And one crucial way we’re going to do that is to create new, successful, ongoing businesses that maintain and grow journalism. We need profit to do that.
So I would have thrown another requirement on Project Red Stripe or any media company’s innovation incubator: that they start a sustainable — that is, profitable — business.”
Interesting points, but “profitable” is quite a narrow definition of success. I prefer a looser definition of innovation; the successful introduction of something new. “Success” can mean profits, or reputational benefit, or better user experience, or saving the world, or all of those things at the same time. Profits are just one – albeit frequently very important – measure of success.
But one thing that struck me from all this was this: not all innovation needs to be radical. Indeed, most attempts at clean-sheet, big bang innovation fail.
The innovation that normally yields results is the kind that arrives in a light drizzle; small, incremental, building on work done by yourself or others, utterly un-noteworthy to all but the geekiest observer.
Take Apple’s iPod. It may look like it’s a big bang innovation, because we all think of it having such a radical impact on the way we enjoy music. But, in fact, it’s been a series of more modest innovations delivered over several years.
Nor have all the innovations in the iPod success story have, in themselves, been profitable. And the level of innovation in each component is not a predictor of that component’s profitability. The key thing is that each bit of delivery has helped develop the (very profitable) whole.
- First in iPod’s move to take over the world was the software – not the iPod. iTunes allowed you to organise your MP3s – nothing new there, except it was well designed (a modest innovation over other software at the time). This software has always been given away free.
- Second came the iPod itself – an MP3 player that synched with iTunes (not innovative) with great industrial design and user interface (innovative). The iPod is the principle profit-driver for Apple’s music strategy.
- Then there was iTunes music store – a store to sell music online (not innovative) but with a lighter-touch digital rights system than rivals (innovative), tight integration with iTunes and iPod (innovative) and deals with all the big labels (innovative). iTMS is not thought to be wildly profitable for Apple, but its central position in the vertically integrated iPod world makes it a vital component.
- Finally, a rolling programme of improvements to all these components has run since the start; improving industrial design (thinner iPods, smaller iPods, coloured iPods, better battery life, video iPods), improving software (album art in iTunes, better synching) and improving the store (more music deals, adding podcasts, adding album art, adding videos, adding games).
None of these innovations would have had their full impact without the others. None were, in themselves, big bang. Taken together, they have changed an industry.
Maybe the big innovation here wasn’t the iPod; it was the strategy. Apple, I’m sure, will claim they knew all along what they were going to do next. But (beyond the broad brush-strokes of general strategy) I’ll bet many of the increments emerged, bit by bit, thought up by people with a deep knowledge of the market and users’ opinions, the trust of senior management to get it right, and the power within the company to get things done quickly.
The lessons for news organisations? We needn’t make innovation hard by insisting the end product is always huge and/or high-profile. We shouldn’t think that innovation is something that can be outsourced, either to a small team or to a software vendor (the latter being a surprisingly popular choice for many newspaper publishers).
And we needn’t necessarily worry that we’re not having enough ideas. If you ask around, you’ll probably find it’s not ideas we’re lacking. What’s tricky (I know – this is my job) is capturing the best ideas, mapping them to strategic goals, and delivering them in a way that makes them successful.
To do that, you need innovators who understand the importance of baby steps and can deliver them, one after the other, regular as clockwork. And, unlike Red Stripe, you can make their life easier by making sure they’re not locked away from the rest of the business, worrying about a blank sheet of paper and a mighty expectation from the mother ship that, somehow, they’ll be able to see the future from there.