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Our plan for enabling news innovation through culture change

Based on this new research, API has designed a strategy that we believe is an unusual, human-centered and flexible program of consultation, education, outreach and support to help news organizations enable innovation and problem solving for the future.

We see the key first step for an organization as a personalized assessment of its current culture, structure and processes. The goal of that is to clarify the organization’s mission, set shared priorities, and determine where it needs help in changing the culture.

Based on that assessment an organization would identify what help it needs to implement internal processes that will drive innovation and produce culture change. API is building modules that address different needs with a blend of training, consulting and other support.

Some of those modules would help the organization implement processes or structural changes we observed that play a part in creating the culture necessary for innovation. Those include:

  • Put tribes that must collaborate near one another. The groups who need to build working relationships and coordinate frequently should be in walking distance, preferably talking distance. We saw several models for doing this. One example is, make the newsroom an open space that is surrounded by many tribes (photographers, visual artists, designers, product managers, data analysts, etc.) with whom they should collaborate often. We saw that putting such tribes on different floors, or even different buildings, was a crushing burden on their creativity and ability to accomplish major innovations together.
  • Make the people and tribes working on different parts of a company priority accessible to each other. For example, if one of the current mission priorities is to use data better in pursuing growth of revenue and audiences, the people who handle newsroom website analytics must link up with the circulation people who analyze subscriber data, and the marketing people who analyze the commercial value of the audience. These are three different departments and tribes, but to accomplish this innovation they cannot operate in silos.
  • Rearrange physical space. Some aspects of collaboration and communication are greatly driven by the physical environment. Organizations need to figure out how to design shared spaces where collaboration and interaction can happen easily. Another dimension of this is that organizations that want to successfully innovate need to create a physical space that suggests transformation rather than decline. Paint, new carpet, and cleaning up and making the workspace more inviting and encouraging can be a part of this.
  • Implement some core concepts of entrepreneurial culture. Making change in uncertain environments is entirely different than in familiar or defined environments. It is one thing for a company to try to sell advertising for a new section, for instance. It is another to try to build a new revenue model around a set of new businesses inside a news company. Startups who thrive in uncertainty have defined a set of processes and concepts that minimize risk, add flexibility and increase chances of success. News organizations can adopt these ideas and tactics — such as Lean Startup concepts about defining risk and developing learning hypotheses, and ideas such as Minimum Viable Products — to create entrepreneurial energy and freedom within their established company.
  • Create new virtual spaces that are accessible and ambient. There are various new technologies for doing this. For instance, internal chat systems, such as Slack, that everyone in the company uses can help coordinate work. This leads to less email and fewer lengthy meetings. A chat system also helps break down silos by creating virtual “rooms” around roles and projects, breaking out of department silos. Many people can follow conversations, which creates accessibility and greater shared awareness. It is easy to catch up on conversations at your own pace. The goal here is to enable constant, ambient learning, and develop a shared vocabulary by overhearing everyone else.
  • Form small, multi-disciplinary teams for joint projects or priorities. Small enough to act efficiently. Diverse enough to access resources across the organization. Over time, these teams build trust and and relationships. At one major national news outlet we visited, the multi-month development of a new mobile app was one such project that united people from multiple tribes to great success. This process forms personal bonds and professional understanding between the collaborating members, forces invention of a shared vocabulary for them to talk to each other about the project, and the accomplished goal becomes an example to the entire organization of the mission they all share. At one digital startup we studied, they noted that this close collaboration means “instead of getting the editorial team telling the product team what to build, what you have is people making things together, having ownership together and trusting each other. And much better things come out of that.”
  • Hold “demo days” or “open houses.” These are opportunities for teams or tribes to show everyone else in the organization how they are building something or solving a problem. Invite questions and suggestions. Inspire related approaches in other teams. This is particularly effective when the leadership of an organization has established shared priorities. One digital startup we studied noted that they “organize demos and presentations of projects happening around a [specific priority]. So everybody has a working knowledge of, ‘Hey this is where we’re headed and here is actually how we’re acting on [priorities].'” Another organization held an “open house” in their work space for others to come meet them and learn about how they work and what projects are underway.
  • Create an embed program. In this process, people physically move for some period of time to be with another team or tribe. In one news organization we visited, the project manager floats between two desks — one desk upstairs with management, and one desk in the middle of the newsroom reporters. Embedding for significant amounts of time among the reporters helped her speak their language and understand their needs. At another major national news outlet and one large metro regional newspaper, we encountered programs in which copy editors could embed with the web producer tribe for a block of time to understand them better. One copy editor who did this ended up joining the producer tribe when an opening came up.
  • Do daily standup meetings. Every day, a 5-minute meeting where everyone from a project team or tribe is in the same place. These are short, casual, transparent meetings that happen in the open. People share three things: What I did yesterday, what I’m doing today, and problems that are in my way. Problems get solved and practical information gets shared. Daily standup attendance is mandatory for key people who need to coordinate information, but also open to anyone across the company to drop in.
  • Create “hack days.” These are full-day or half-day sessions set aside for people across the organization to come together to experiment and create solutions that advance the organization’s mission and current priorities. Small ad hoc groups form, including people from different tribes, disciplines, or departments, to spend the day designing, building or outlining a creative solution. It’s important to note that hack days are valuable not just for the solutions they may produce (many may never be finished), but for the the collaboration it engenders and the learning it produces. Those are human and intellectual payoffs that far outlast the inventions of the day.

This is only a partial list, one designed to suggest the kinds of events that begin to change the three layers of an organizations. From our work helping news organizations grow digital audiences and businesses, we know that these are difficult transitions to make and there is no substitute for hands-on intervention and assistance. The path is difficult, and varies for each organization — they need a guide to travel the path with them, help them when they get stuck, and see them through to the end.

Sustainable, meaningful transformation, our research effort suggests, requires a sustained, adaptable and holistic approach focused on culture, people, projects and applied discovery. The approach we are developing is designed to help news organizations enable innovative cultures by first diagnosing what their biggest obstacles to innovation are, and then offering a menu of solutions that they can choose and customize for their unique needs.

We encourage you to get in touch with us if you might like to try this approach in your news organization, if you have ideas or examples to add to what we describe here, or if you are interested in backing our implementation of this culture-based strategy for creating innovation in news organizations.

  • cuanmulligan

    I like the essence of the paper, and see this applicable to any organisation, not just news one. I do have some curiosity on the Tribe’s approach, this feels like a rebranding of functional departments, managers, designers etc. Whats the difference?

    Perhaps a tribe oriented around customer value, so a cross section of all the functions, with lets say a community of practice to maintain the functional disciplines would work? What do you think?

  • I would add a complete restructuring of the definition of news, in collaboration with reporters, but with the guidance of the ultimate tribe, the audience. Preventive, strategic restructuring of the news-gathering process should be encouraged; the idea is to not stop at “demo days” or “budget open houses” or whatever we’ve labeled our superficial, short-lived attempts to broach the public. “Embedding” in the community would be the end-result.

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