Innovation: Focusing on finding “The Next Big Thing” leads to performance pressure

This cross-posted from The Media Briefing, a new site in the UK for media professionals. ?I like the cut of their jib. They are not only creating content, but they are also adding value to their content using semantic technologies to make it easier for busy professionals content relevant to them.

You want innovation? You can’t handle innovation.

Seriously though, once they’re established, most companies are geared toward stability, not disrupting their own operations. Newspaper and magazine companies are no different.

And print media had no real impetus to change radically until recently. Newspapers and magazines took the challenge from television and radio in its stride – but it took the combined impact of multi-channel television, video games and the internet to challenge print media’s dominance. But if you thought the last five years were disruptive, brace yourself for the next five.

The change in media economics has been a shift from scarcity – with few sources of information and entertainment – to more content choices than the human brain can possibly process. In this super-saturated media market, it’s about to get even more crowded.

AOL and Yahoo have decided to focus their strategies on content, although Yahoo in particular has tried this before and failed. Even if AOL fails, its efforts will put additional pressure on print media. AOL launched a local news service, Patch, in the US: Warren Webster, Patch’s president, recently told Ken Doctor in the that he can match the content production of a like-sized newspaper for 4.1 percent of the cost. As Ken wrote:

“Patch can produce the same volume of content… for 1/25 the cost of the old Big Iron newspaper company, given its centralized technology and finance and zero investment in presses and local office space. (Staffers work out of their homes.)”

Demand Media is already operating in the UK, bringing its model of consistent work for freelancers at ridiculously low rates. They march to the beat of Google‘s drum, commissioning content based on popular search terms. The content may be easy to parody, but Demand is preparing for what many are predicting will be a US$1.5bn floatation on the market.

So how will you turn staid institutions into nimble players in the new media environment?

One strategy that won’t work is locking a bunch of smart people in a room to come up with The Next Big Thing. The Economist, as successful it is, tried to do that with Project Red Stripe. It didn’t work, leading to a kind of performance anxiety and creative paralysis.

The industry has spent a lot of time hiring innovation officers and investing innovation in a few positions. In the not-so-distant past, the people in these positions have had no budget, no staff, an ill-defined role and, therefore, little impact. Clay Shirky in his seminal blog post, Newspapers: Thinking the Unthinkable, said that these people saw what was happening and simply described it to their colleagues. Clay says:

When reality is labelled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc.

Innovation is about creating a culture of constant of improvement. If you could do one thing that would save every single journalist in your organisation ten minutes on every story – it might not be sexy – but these cost savings are necessary to compete with someone who does what you do for a fraction of the cost.

Steve Yelvington, a digital content pioneer in the US, worked on the NewspaperNext Project, and he’s been working on digital projects long before most media execs even knew what a computer was.

The NewspaperNext project looked at disruptive innovationthrough the lens of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. The basic question was this: “How and why (did) simple, low-end, inadequate, ‘junk’ products and services so often topple the big guy?”

These insurgents do it by starting with a product that is “good enough” and then constantly improve it. Insurgents start out “beneath” the incumbents, but then move upmarket. Recent hires by the Huffington Post, Yahoo and The Daily Beast show how pure digital companies are now starting to lure top talent away from the once imperious names of US journalism.

Wracking your brains for the next Big Thing is not the answer. The rules of the media market have already changed and it’s time to listen to the people you once thought were barking mad. Your survival might just depend on it.