Building the infrastructure for innovation
That problem of not being able to support your own ideas
Before I started my job years ago in the innovation team at the Süddeutsche Zeitung the team had been building a 360°-video app, modeled on a similar app by the New York Times. The app and content were fascinating, though it never took off and was eventually shut down about a year after I joined.
The problem was simple but tricky: the team wasn’t able to find a solid project team and someone in the newsroom willing to take on the management of the app. It‘s a surprisingly common problem that surfaced with every project I was involved in during my time. It‘s a problem I have observed at other innovation teams, as well.
Innovation teams are often unable to embed their projects into the company, meaning they‘re forced to slowly transform into project management teams, instead. This — obviously — leads to conflicts. The members grow frustrated because they feel unsupported and ignored by the wider organization while other units (i.e. the newsroom) are justifiably unwilling to take on projects they were not involved in creating in the first place. In some cases, there doesn’t even exist a fitting place within the company that could take on the project.
Innovation teams are often seen (and managed) as factories for “the new”. Methods and processes are tuned for speed and quantity — the end goal is the launch. Broadly used methods like Design Thinking even lack the vital step of implementing the freshly ideated project.
The results are shallow projects, shiny on the surface using the newest tech but without any legs to stand on. What‘s often lacking is infrastructure.
Yes, that new podcast concept is amazing on paper but have we considered if we even have an appropriately equipped podcast studio, solid processes with the newsroom for content, presentable speakers or a sales team able to sell audio ads? And if not… what do we need to change? What do we need to build? Who do we have to teach?
Yes, personalized news homepages sound interesting but do we even have the data we‘d need to personalize the content selection? How will this impact news creation processes? Does the website even support personalization on a technical level?
As Guru Madhavan put it: there‘s a lot of grind necessary to reach the grand vision.
These considerations are vital but often ignored in favor of speed and “blue skies thinking” and I do hold these myths about innovation responsible for this unforced error. They focus solely on the object of innovation — the iPhone, the space rocket, the idea — all while ignoring the vital infrastructure they were built upon.
The iPhone didn’t succeed because of its design. It did because of Apple‘s globe-spanning and efficient supply chain, its culture of bending manufacturing limits in its favour and the tight integration with its software. That‘s infrastructure. Infrastructure that needs appropriate funds, staffing, strategies and considerations. In this context, it‘s not surprising that the mastermind behind this supply chain, Tim Cook, took over the reins at the company after Job‘s death and not Jimmy Ives, the person credited with the company’s product design language.
What I am trying to say is: build the infrastructures to support your new ideas and do both at the same time. Do not separate invention and delivery. And if you do, in favor of speedy tinkering, be prepared for the project to never leave your office or having to shut it down a couple of months from now.