Innovative journalists and valuing “inquisitiveness”

The Harvard Business Review Editor’s Blog has a post titled How Do Innovators Think?. I was just going to add it to my daily list of links in Delicious, but it’s worth more than a quick link.

Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of Insead “conducted a six-year study surveying 3,000 creative executives and conducting an additional 500 individual interviews”. They found five skills distinguished these creative executives from less innovative heads of companies.

Dyer described the first skill they identified:

The first skill is what we call “associating.” It’s a cognitive skill that allows creative people to make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.

They call it associating; I call it lateral thinking. I see it in innovative journalists who find tools or technologies created for another purpose but who immediately see the editorial possibilities. They are journalists constantly striving to wrench out efficiencies in how they work and perfect the process. They are constantly looking for new tools and services that can either solve existing problems they have or allow them to do things they hadn’t thought of before. They experiment, and if something doesn’t work, they move on. It’s not something they were trained to do, it’s something they instinctively do.

However, I don’t mean to say that innovative journalists are time-and-motion obsessed  bean counters simply intent on perfecting a process. They are motivated by many of the same things that motivate traditional journalists such as the goal of telling compelling stories. Long before people started questioning the text story as the atomic unit of journalism, they were exploring new storytelling methods. They unpack stories and examine how video, audio and data can be used to tell those stories in more compelling ways. They realise that in 2009 multimedia story telling is more than simply telling stories with multiple media but rather considering what elements of a story are best told with audio, video, images and now data.

Back to the post in the Harvard Business Review.

Gregersen: You might summarize all of the skills we’ve noted in one word: “inquisitiveness.” I spent 20 years studying great global leaders, and that was the big common denominator. It’s the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children. … If you look at 4 year olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6 ½ years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they’re grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them. 80% of executives spend less than 20% of their time on discovering new ideas. Unless, of course, they work for a company like Apple or Google.

Again, if there was something that sets apart the most innovative journalists I know it is their curiosity, their inquisitiveness. One might say that journalists should be, by vocation, curious but innovative journalists have a special curiosity about their craft and its processes.

How do news organisations unlock the potential of the innovators in their midst? Mostly, all you have to do is give them space and a little support. Recognise that their needs might be slightly different than the rest of the staff. Help them measure the relative success of their experiments and share their success stories. If there was one mistake that I’ve seen news organisations make over and over again (because it’s based on the 20th Century recipe for creating media stars) it is that they try to make their big name reporters or writers into innovators. That is often a fruitless detour. Most people doing this innovative work weren’t trained to do it but instead pursued it on their own. Fortunately, in the age of social media, innovative journalists aren’t all that difficult to find. They stand out if you’re looking.

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