Posted by: structureofnews | October 26, 2010

The Price of Innovation

A witty – and spot-on – video of Mike Bracken of the Guardian, talking about what it takes to create innovation.  He’s right: Innovation doesn’t come easily, and most old-line companies have trouble trying to launch it, manage it, channel it and ultimately implement it.

He makes some really good points about the need to accept a certainly level of uncertainty – not to mention chaos – if any company is going to embrace innovation.   The question is – and this probably sounds heretical, or at least fuddy-duddy – how much much innovation is enough, and how much is too much?

It’s great when you’re Google, and generating more money than you know what to do with, and can fund everything from self-driving cars to whatever else they’re doing these days.    But if you’re a struggling media company – almost tautological these days – looking for paths to sustainability, self-driving cars may not be the best place to invest what few resources you have, mega cool though they are.

Which is not to say that companies should hunker down, fire up spreadsheets, and only invest in projects that have a 30-day payback.  That doesn’t make any more sense than spraying money around.  We need to innovate, and find new ways of engaging our audience and making a living.

It’s simply that all things come in moderation – both in terms of imposing control and accepting risk.  Innovation is hard, and as the video notes, needs to be run on a very loose leash.  Where there needs to be more oversight, though, is in what it sucks up in terms of resources, whether money, time or attention.   That’s ultimately the thing in shortest supply, and without focus, companies become research centers – coming up with cool things but not necessarily serving their customers/the public well.  Or staying alive.

The best projects take relatively small steps, with testable way stations where we can see how things are going; have lots of feedback loops to test assumptions and adjust to realities; and a fairly ruthless process for killing things off that don’t work while learning from failure.   Otherwise innovation can become a euphemism for simply spending.

Last time I checked, the price of the Guardian’s innovation was pretty steep: A loss of 100,000 pounds a day.  That’s an old number, so maybe things have gotten better.  And I’m certainly in awe of some of the things they do, and some of the ideas they’ve generated.  But not everyone can follow their model – perhaps not even them.

(Thanks to Yolanda for pointing out the video to me)

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