The Idea EnthusiastThe Idea Enthusiast

Category : 2 Collaboration

By Greg Roth

How TV writers rooms get unstuck

As part of my presentation at the Content Marketing Conference in Boston (May 2018), I dissected team collaboration techniques for creators, using TV writers rooms as a model for how the idea process works.

In particular, I looked at a dozen “behind the scenes” articles to see what the writers say works for them when they get stuck or feel that they’ve hot a creative wall. Here is a partial list of their experiences and suggestions, whether their show is largely drama, comedy, half-hour, hour, cable, or network TV.

 

 

Next time your team seems to be losing creative momentum, I hope some of these suggestions help hit the reboot button.

In no particular order, here are the stories I looked at and used to build this list:

‘Veep,’ ‘Girls,’ ‘Atlanta’ Scribes Reveal Secrets of Their Writers Rooms: “Required” Arguments, “Group Therapy”

By Greg Roth

Using personality analytics in college basketball

At a recent speaking gigk for the DC-area chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, I spoke about team collaboration and included a section on personality tests. I asked how many in the audience had taken a personality test like Myers-Briggs. Most hands went up. Then I asked how many folks had taken to time to read about all the other personalities besides the one that they are. Most hands did not go up.

This story on the subscription-based online sports magazine The Athletic caught my eye. It seems that Robert Morris University, in Pittsburgh PA, is using “personality testing” in its men’s basketball program to help head coach Andy Toole better understand and use his players.

Once the shock of losing almost a dozen players wore off, Toole reevaluated his coaching style. At first, he mollified his behavior, toning down the aggressive perfectionism that had defined his career. “One of my assistants said the difficult thing about how I coached was I would laugh and joke around with the players before practice and then flip a switch and jump down their throats once we blew the whistle,” says Toole. As a result, he became even more frank with recruits about what to expect as a Colonial, exposing players to how they’d be coach earlier on in the process. “Visits became like reality TV,” he says. “We want you to see exactly how we are and embrace that.”

Toole, 37, also began working with what he describes as a talent sorter. eRecruitFit combines behavioral science, 4 million-plus data sets and predictive analytics to better screen players with personality traits that fit within a program’s desired parameters. In the case of Robert Morris, that includes intensity, consciousness and resolve. Used by a handful of Division I programs, the two-year old eRecruitFit is the brainchild of Andy Hurley, a former senior associate athletic director at the University of Cincinnati, as a way to evaluate recruits. Each prospective player takes a standardized 300-question test to determine his cultural fit within the program; Toole uses those results—slotted into three color-coded tiers—to better evaluate whom to offer scholarships to and whether to roll the dice on a high-risk player who pairs well to his model.

“It’s not the end-all be-all,” Toole says, “but it is a litmus test, giving us insight on character, who some of the guys really are, and what are the best ways to coach and communicate with them. How well do they fit into my brain?”

Because of his background, the coach assumed McConnell, whose brother, T.J., plays for the Philadelphia 76ers, would score well, as his personality is akin to “the gym rat of all gym rats.” But it took some time for the 6-foot-2 guard to get acclimated to Toole’s system. Specifically, McConnell has always struggled to embrace leadership and mentorship roles, both of which were sorely needed on an inexperienced squad that starts as many as four newcomers. “Matty is more of a people pleaser,” says Tim McConnell, his father and a vaunted high school coach in western Pennsylvania. “He’ll do whatever a coach wants the right way, but in the sense that he wants to please him.”

As mentioned, eRecruitFit was launched less than 2 years ago, and had some buzz around it then but doesn’t seem to have much in the news in the past year. Here’s a trailer explaining their mission (less than 200 views?). It sounds like alot of workforce development material I’ve come across over the years,

In anycase, it IS interesting that basketball, which along with baseball has been very forward-thinking in terms of integrating analytics into its competitive strategies, would be pursuing this type of culture-based, team/role-focused data to help managers (coaches) do their jobs better.

By Greg Roth

Design thinking comes to banking and credit unions

If you are at a company or in a field where design thinking hasn’t been welcomed, here is a piece targeted at the financial sector — specifically banks and credit unions — that serves as a good introduction.

Before diving into what design-inspired creative problem solving is, the article looks at the central struggle for these institutions:

Design thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom you’re designing products and services. It helps you observe and develop empathy with the target user.

This is the reverse of how banks and credit unions traditionally design products and services. Instead of focusing on the consumer experience, financial institutions tend to develop products to meet their own internal processes and operational efficiencies. They then tend to put a pretty wrapper on the product and call it a day.

Financial institutions then wonder then why so many consumers get frustrated — e.g., they abandon the online account opening half-way through the process. The online account opening doesn’t meet the user’s need or address their problem; they want to open an account without having to go to a branch. Design thinking, in theory, would solve that problem.

The post then goes on to talk about IDEO’s model, although, thankfully, first clarifies that design thinking is not a new phenomenon (it’s been around since the 1960s). It is, however, widely misunderstood, difficult to grasp, and the product of an entirely different school of thinking outside most information economy jobs. Surprise, folks who have never been exposed to design program aren’t that well-equipped to start thinking like a designer, no matter how much we tell them that’s who they are.

But, you have to start somewhere. I believe it starts with knowing how to talk about ideas that are still works-in-process.: the power of critique.

 

By Greg Roth

Northwestern Law School has an “Innovation Lab”

Sometimes, people ask me “do creative problem-solving (ie creativity, design thinking, lean startup, agile/scrum, etc etc)  apply to every field”? The answer, of course, is yes, but I sometimes struggle giving an answer specific enough to that particular field to win a heart and mind.

Good news for those of you in the legal field — Northwestern University has a program designed to teach future attorneys and legal scholars how to switch brains. The program, simply called “Innovation Lab”, appeals to students in all programs in the Law School — JD, JD-MBA, MSL and LLM. It take s team-based approach to working on actual problems ripe for review and redesign in the legal field, incorporating some of the methodology from entrepreneurship programs.

“With a focus on the legal, business, technical, and design skills involved in the innovation process, it’s unlike most entrepreneurship courses. First of all, it includes software development and intro-to-coding components — which is to say, it’s about much more than how to represent a start-up.”

Seems like a pretty tall order. I remember having improv classes with attorneys (also: married an attorney!), and those classmates frequently had trouble breaking their linear, logic-based thinking patterns. Probably why so many of them took those classes.

Regardless of industry, “innovation” as it’s normally intended is a mindset and thought pattern that can be taught, understood, and practiced for improvement.

“When you teach someone who is practicing or studying law how to make things more efficient with software and technology, they are going to identify opportunities that a traditional programmer or engineer would never have occasion to see. That happens all the time when you teach people who have a domain expertise that isn’t in software. It’s really inspiring.”

The class instructor, Neal Sales-Griffin who is the CEO of CodeNow, but not an attorney it seems, does offer some good insight into the different mindsets, what we normally think of as left-brain/right-brain (an unfortunate myth that we have to live with, but let’s save that for another time). The basic difference is having the answer all ready as opposed to being prepared to discover the answer:

“”There is a bit of attention to detail with law students that may be premature, because entrepreneurs are messy,” he says. “We don’t always do everything right, we don’t always follow the rules, so I have to rejigger that baked-in conservative approach to tackling a project. Legal minds like to have all the right answers going in, and that is something we completely flip on its head in our class.

Training would-be lawyers not to be precise, detail-oriented or risk averse can pose its own problems — after all, these are skills that law students will need in other classes, if not in their future careers — and Sales-Griffin says that striking the right balance is key. “We have to teach these students when to activate the different skills they have. When do you activate your precision, and when do you deactivate it and focus on being messy? You have to switch from artist to litigator, and that can be done, but it’s a matter of good decision-making in different scenarios””

As a final thought, this is what “openness” and “curiosity” refer to when we talk about creativity and innovation. It’s nothing more than your attitude at the starting line or when you are presented with an idea: are you dismissing things out of hand or willing to engage in some dialogue to better understand intention and possibility? To put it another way, do you want to feel right now or be right later?

By Greg Roth

My friend Steve’s commencement address and how it was written

Sometime back in October, my friend, sometimes guitar player, and all-around good guy who also happens to be a pretty serious journalist, Stephen Losey, mentioned to me that we was asked to give a commencement address at his alma mater. I’ve always wanted — and still want — to give a commencement address, but in the meantime, helping someone else out is good too. So, I offered to help him put together a 15 minute speech to the graduating English department at East Carolina University.

Most importantly, you can read the final version here and it is well worth your time. Steve has broken some important stories regarding our nation’s military and is generally everything you want a good journalist to be: hardworking, patient, fair, invested in getting things right, and humble even though he is helping uphold the First Amendment everyday, in a time when that is harder than it has been in decades.

I’m thankful for the chance to get to work with him on something that contains actual perspective and wisdom. Here is a run down of how it went:

Up front, I told him to start with his three best stories. Start with your three best stories: what they mean to you and to others who may want to be like you in the future. Each one of them should have all the elements of good storytelling: characters, plot, choices, and ultimately lessons, even if in the span of only 2 minutes. Stories are the guts of good speeches, and in commencement speeches, the social proof of lessons learned and wisdom earned.

His initial draft came with this commentary:

This is very messy. The way I write is, as you can see at the bottom, I started just jotting down some potential anecdote subjects (cool stuff I’ve done) and possible points to make. The speech draft here is longer and less refined, but fundamentally not all that different from what I delivered. I experimented with some alternate phrasings in parentheses…I tend to write non-linearly, jumping from bit to bit as inspiration strikes (like, “Oh! This would be a good end!) and stitching things together later.

This is absolutely the way you should write. Expecting that you can shape a complex, interweaving set of thoughts, stories, lessons, and reflection in a linear fashion is a ridiculous standard to set. No one does that because that’s not how the mind works. Write from the inside out. The most important things you have to say will come to you quickly, but should be spread across your time.

I suggested dividing the 2500 word speech (about 15 mins worth of text) into 4 parts, to help compartmentalize your thinking about how it’s structured and put together. (I added those section headers to the final version just so you can see what I mean).

  • Opening Thoughts
  • Career Reflections
  • Stories + Advice
  • Closing Thoughts
While these sections should flow together and refer to each other seemlessly, it helps to think of about the goals of each section, because those goals are different.

I gave him a bunch of comment about language, or turns of phrase, but only as ideas that he gets to choose from. Working with a writer is great because, if you have that kind of understanding with them, everything is exploration; none of it is judgmental. Every alternate idea I offered was in service to helping him find the what and how of his overall message. As an example, I suggested this passage near the end:

“Throughout your life, as an English major, you will always be looking for people who see the world the way you do. Who have the insight you have into writing, speaking, art, politics, society, life in general. We’re a particularly breed of mind. There aren’t that many of us. You have to push your way through the MBAs, the medical students, the tech folks, to find each other. It’s hard. It can take a while. But it’s worth it.”

He didn’t use it, and that’s OK. Instead, he used this:

“It is both a calling, and a privilege, to be able to tell other people’s stories — to have them open up parts of their lives, even some of the worst and most painful parts, and trust that you’ll tell them honestly. Whatever I do, whenever I write, I hope it has a positive effect on the world in some way.”

While I like what I wrote, his is better because it’s more personal, less ambitious. You don’t always need to go for the big, sweeping ending. In the context of my his speech, my version is a bit off-key or distracting. Sometimes, it’s much better to speak directly and more concisely.

It’s worth mentioning that we sometimes think our stories aren’t good enough. Steve has the benefit of some pretty unique encounters. But, it’s important to remember that stories serve solely as a form of expression of experience and wisdom. And story that has “the moment”, a small piece of time when perspective changes, is a story worth telling.

 

By Greg Roth

Design thinking comes to high school

In Boise, Idaho, a group of high school students were given the chance to do that many consulting companies and facilitators such as myself spend their days trying to do — lead a design thinking session to solve problems for company looking for fresh ideas.

OneStone, an independent, tuition-free magnet school, gave a few dozen students the chance to lead a “CrashUP” session for RedBuilt, a local building materials manufacturing company. It’s an interesting approach to what has traditionally been called “vocational” learning or “vo-tech”, but the emphasis is more on white collar coaching than it is on learning a specific trade skill.

It’s a shame that this particular story is riddled with too many of the cliches we’ve come to know and roll our eyes at when it comes to design thinking:

Students and coaches had to get the group in the collective frame of mind to talk about the problems honestly and openly with supervisors and with colleagues they didn’t in some cases know well.

Students led teams of RedBuilt employees through quick one-on-one interviews with colleagues, with guiding questions intended to tease out the collaboration challenges the company faces.

Then, each interviewer wrote on sticky notes what they observed during the interview, what the subject did — fidget, cross arms and legs, etc. — and what the interviewer could infer about what the subject was thinking and feeling during the interview.

The idea was to build an “empathy map,” because fostering empathy is a key component of design thinking.

The rest of the day was spent devising solutions by crafting problem statements, “how might we” statements to “spark ideation,” then design physical prototypes to test ideas (a physical model, a storyboard, a wireframe, or a role play). After feedback, prototypes were revised.

Two extraordinary facts stood out to someone observing the process unfold. First, the RedBuilt employees’ skepticism melted away within minutes, and they became fully absorbed in the activities. Second, the students led groups with a self-assurance that belied their years and lack of experience. They had been well prepared by their coaches.

Don’t jump ahead to ideation yet. We need to find some common themes first,” junior Tessa Simonds gently admonished her group when they started rushing through a key part of the process. They quickly fell in line.

A big part of understanding the design thinking process is explaining it in relatable, real world terminology. This is simply not how most companies think, so the concept itself is going to sound alien to them and, worse, too much flowery, inside jargon means the process comes across as a bit trendy.

That aside, writing style alone should not dampen the appreciation for what OneStone is doing. It’s impressive to see a high school pursuing such an explicit curriculum of creative problem-solving in today’s parlance, mirroring what is happening at some major universities outside just the design school.

By Greg Roth

CNN examines collaboration inside 3 writers rooms

Sometimes “innovation” or new ideas aren’t the result of major “a-ha” moments. Often, they’re just a result of honesty, and a little bit of cliche-killing.

CNN has an interesting, too brief story on the process inside the writers rooms of 3 hit comedies — “Insecure” “Fresh Off the Boat”, and “Black-ish” — all with race-related themes.

The full story, with a video look into these rooms, is here, but a few excerpts:

“Insecure” showrunner Prentice Penny talked about finding new viewpoints on familiar themes:

Once those yes-it-happened-to-me stories are shared, the real work begins. “It’s almost like taking Play-Doh,” Penny said. “You put it in your hands and you say, ‘This could be anything.’ Then your hands start to shape it into a story. You talk about if this feels predictable (and) how do you turn it on its head. … How do you make it unique or take something they have seen and do it in our way?”

On “Fresh Off the Boat”, showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, whose family is from Iran, is channeling the pressure of a 20-year gap from when an Asian family was last seen in primetime TV.

“If anything, I want ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ to be remembered as the series that showed people that the experience they hadn’t seen before was (still) relatable,” Khan said. “I think that would be an amazing thing.”

Finally, on the show Blackish, writers reflect on the difficult process of testing new thoughts and ideas that may seem a little too raw and unnerving at first.

The room is filled with talented writers who all want their ideas and stories to end up on the small screen…Getting there, though, can sometimes mean opening up with deeply personal stories.

“I spoke about being biracial and my feelings of not being completely open to the idea of my black son dating a white woman,” Henry said. “I think the room was really confused as to how I, as a biracial woman, could say that I had a preference for my black son to date a black woman.”

Not only did the conversation get intense in the writers’ room, but Henry said after the episode she brought her white father to the set and had what was for her an uncomfortable conversation.

It’s those types of stories and the reactions from viewers that thrill Barris.

“That’s been sort of the biggest compliment that I’ve gotten,” he said. “People say I was afraid to talk about this and your show made me open up and have a conversation with my friend or son or whatever, and I think that’s success for us.”

It’s an interesting tightrope to walk. These shows are mining personal experience for material, yet most collaborative environments to treat ideas as impersonal in initial talks. A healthy distance — and an aversion to personal judgement — are hallmarks of the middle phase of creative problem solving. Humanity treated clinically.

While story may lack some details about how these things are accomplished, the video demonstrates some evidence of open dialogue on ideas, keeping in mind that the goals isn’t to be right, it’s to be fresh, honest, and committed to coming up with some level of underappreciated truth.

By Greg Roth

Collaboration and the Alchemy of Individuals

Team collaboration is a hot topic in business and leadership circles, for obvious reason. It’s the foundation of “workplace culture”, a sometimes ambiguous yet very real aspect of our professional lives. We can’t always define what culture is, but we know it when we see it. We feel it, good or bad. Even if it’s hard to measure or pin down, it’s there, everyday. Some organizations even hire someone to be in charge of it.

But, it’s not just for knowledge workers in cubicles or at tables in open office environments. Teams exist in every industry, and creative work, in all its forms, is a constant exercise in negotiation, both with new ideas and with the people all around those ideas. It’s an imperfect art getting a collection of individuals to bring their unique perspective and skill to a project, yet function, in some way, collectively as a coordinated, intentional entity.

Take, for example, rock bands.

Tucked away at the end of this American Songwriter profile of The National is a look into their creative process and how they attempt to engage and involve all five members of the band in creative dialogue. (Emphasis is mine).

With the National back in the studio together in Hudson without any immediate deadlines or time crunches, the band was able to experiment and create more freely, and more collaboratively, than they had in years.

Devendorf characterizes the band’s recording sessions as opportunities for each member of the band, “a five-headed monster,” as he puts it, to constantly give each other feedback and advice.

“There will be times when I think I’ve messed up a whole section on the drums and think it’s terrible, and Aaron will say, ‘That’s the best thing you’ve done on the whole record,’” says Bryan. “The band helps me see what’s working. Otherwise, I would just try to make things too complex.”

For their most recent sessions, Berninger introduced a few gags to help lighten the mood and foster directness. He instilled “Honesty Hour,” when the band would give unfiltered opinions about each other’s creative ideas. He also embroidered a knit cap with the word “Producer,” and whoever wore the literal “Producer’s Hat” would get to make production decisions at that moment. “Matt wore it a lot,” says Scott Devendorf. Indeed, Sleep Well Beast marks the first time Berninger receives an individual co-production credit on a National album.

Seven albums and 15-plus years into their career, the National are still finding ways to reinvent and fine-tune the way the band harnesses the talents of all of its individual members to write interesting songs and make lasting records.

“It’s kind of a cliché, but bands are all about the alchemy of individuals,” says Bryce Dessner. “There are fairly well-worn relationships that play out, and then we subtly challenge them. That’s part of keeping it interesting — we have to keep growing. How do you do that? Especially a band that becomes mildly successful, it’s easy to get overconfident. Part of it is that our self-deprecating personalities allow us to challenge ourselves. It’s like, ‘Actually, though, what we do is not that interesting, so let’s keep improving it.’” 

This is some straight-out-of-design-school thinking. Interestingly enough, all five members of the band met through the University of Cincinnati’s graphic design program in the early 90s.

Turns out, rock bands are just like companies. Some have of alot of turnover and end up being centered around 1 or 2 individuals. Others find a way to keep talented individuals together for years, offering them ways to explore and grow beyond job titles.

By Greg Roth

3 Creative Lessons from a Theme Song

As a sometimes musician and songwriter, I look to stories behind songs for inspiration and lessons in patience. Sometimes, we hear about hit songs that were written in 30 minutes, but often they take time to come together. Like writing of any kind, the quality is in the revision.

This NY Times article on the campy-yet-cool theme song commissioned by the team in the mid-70s serves as an interesting origin story for how the song came together and illustrates three lessons when making something.

Lesson #1: Work on a quality first draft, but remember it’s a draft.

At the time of the song’s creation, Childress was doing odd jobs for the 76ers while he finished his degree at Temple. He recalled that he once earned $500 for dressing up as a turkey at a game before Thanksgiving. A pair of female ushers, clad in pilgrim costumes, led him around.

“I did all sorts of stupid stuff,” he said.

As for the team itself, the 76ers were on the rise after years of yawn-inducing mediocrity. But Pat Williams, then the general manager, understood the 76ers needed to add some pep to the game-day experience if they were to draw larger crowds to the Spectrum, the team’s arena at the time.

“We were trying to create the kind of atmosphere where it was a fun place to come,” he said in a telephone interview.

So when Williams learned that Childress was in a rock band, he had an idea: Perhaps the 76ers needed their own theme song.

Armed with a new assignment, Childress invited Rocap and a third bandmate named Joe Sherwood to his small apartment, where he had a four-track machine. They hammered out a demo, the original beat set by the steady dribble of a basketball.

“Boink, boink, boink, boink,” Childress said.

In the Lean Startup world, this would be called minimum viable product. Also, as a side point, very clever using the pace of a bouncing basketball as both the tempo of the song and the foundation of the demo itself. You don’t need fancy tools. Work with what you have to finish the initial idea faithfully.

Lesson #2: Observe the “everyday world” around you for inspiration

One morning, after watching “Sesame Street” with his 7-year-old daughter, Rocap arrived with lyrics:

One, two, three-four-five, Sixers!

Ten, nine, eight, 76ers!

“And we’re going, ‘Oh, that’s great,’” Childress said. “So that’s where the initial burst came from, and then we built the whole song around it.”

You could also say that this is providing space for magic to happen. Or to be OK with not having all the answers initially. These guys were trying to write a catchy song. Along the way, they realized that kids music — insanely catchy and these days a huge market — provided a simple, demonstrable way to

Lesson #3: Work with people you trust and allow them the chance to make specific choices

The band, known as Fresh Aire, wrote the song in E major, a key at the top of the vocal range for most male tenors. By pushing that range, Sherwood said, the song created energy. And in hopes of protecting its shelf life, over the years the band kept the lyrics free of references to specific players on the team — even the illustrious Julius Erving.

On the track, the band harmonizes to an accompaniment that includes guitars, piano, bass and drums. Sherwood’s brother Richard gave the song some soul by jamming out on a Hohner Clavinet, a keyboard instrument at the height of cool in the 1970s thanks to Stevie Wonder.

“My brother added a little riff,” said Joe Sherwood, 70, who began singing:

“Here they come! Deedley deedley deeeee!”

The band made specific choice to the music in order to achieve its original goal — the be an upbeat theme song that everyone would enjoy. The point about resisting the urge to just start name-checking players is interesting. Through the idea-development process, there will be hundreds of choices and it’s difficult to know what the right choice is in many cases. This type of long-term thinking isn’t fool-proof, but the fact that it was something the writers considered means they were thinking critically about what they created.

Of course, I’m biased because the Sixers are my favorite team and, oh by the way, the song was the last one played at our wedding reception.

By Greg Roth

Idea Books Reading List for 2018

While others like to publish a list of books they read in the previous year, here are some to-be-released “idea” books that I may (no promises) get to in 2018. Let me know along the way if you read them as well.

January

9: Powerful (Patty McCord)
I would love to think I’ll get to this book, by a former Netflix exec, but there’s chance I don’t. I tend to shy away from execs writing primarily about their companies. Call it the Google Complex.

16: Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need (Todd Henry)
Overly cute title aside (not sure creative people are always tigers), I discovered his work as I was just getting started and he’s staying about 8 years ahead of me. I’ve watched a bunch of his keynotes to get a feel for business creativity plays in keynote form.

16: This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know (John Brockman)
“The latest volume in the bestselling series from Edge.org—dubbed “the world’s smartest website” by The Guardian—brings together 206 of the world’s most innovative thinkers to discuss the scientific concepts that everyone should know.” Could be cool, could be dry.

23: Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language (Emma Byrne)
I detest the word “amazing” in titles (I’ll be the judge of what I find amazing), but I’m intersted enough to give this one a chance. Not sure how she’ll get 240 pages out it.

30: The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle)
The author of The Talent Code changes a word and applies his thinking to teams. Audiobook candidate.

 

February

6: Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts (Annie Duke)
I love everything about this book, from the description referencing Pete Carroll’s decision to pass the ball at the end of Super Bowl XLIX to the author being a former poker champion. Def thinking audio book for this one.

6: Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley (Emily Chang)
Billed as an expose by a Bloomberg TV journalist, which sounds just a shade on the tabloid side, it’s an interesting subject that hopefully gets a good treatment.

13: Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness (Melissa Dahl)
One of the endorsement quotes is from Adam Grant, my informal mentor (he doesn’t know this), so I’m interested.

13: The Sociopath’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Tips for the Dark Art of Manipulation (PT Elliott)
“A practical satire that holds a funhouse mirror to American business and political culture. It is the first book to call out the new, “scientifically” grounded insights of social psychology for what they are: tips for the dark art of manipulation.” Funny how this and Cringeworthy come out on the same day.

 

March

6: 3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise (Zack O’Malley Greenburg)
“Based on a decade of reporting, and interviews with more than 100 sources”. Even if that’s less than an interview a month, I’m looking forward to it.

20: In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (Charlan Nemeth)
“An eminent psychologist explains why dissent should be cherished, not feared”. The why is good, hope it has some how also.

27: Alive at Work (Dan Cable). I am thinking this book could be kind of boring (I would read a book called Dead at Work). But, it’s trendy to include the word “neuroscience” in your title and one of the examples cited in the book is “How Italian factory workers reduced their anxiety about a new process by playing with Legos”. OK, you got me, I’ll at least thumb through.

 

No release date

The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom (Joel Simon)
Light reading! I’ve always been fascinated my media studies. This is technically a reprint, but I’ve been reading the Columbia Journalism review on and off since I moved to DC in 2000. Will be interesting how my spokesperson training workshops changes after reading this.

I’m sure there will be other along the way, especially since I can’t find any slate for after the first quarter of the year. so check back and I may update this list.

 

By Greg Roth

Jon Stewart on the Creative Culture at The Daily Show

One of the books I got for the holidays was Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head, a remarkable compendium of conversations with comedians. Besides being an incredibly successful filmmaker and producer, Judd is a failed stand-up, who at the age of 15, used his high school radio station as an excuse to reach out to his favorite comics to interview these performers he looked up to.

One of the interviews is with Jon Stewart, former host of the Daily Show, and there’s a passage where Stewart talks about collaboration in the context of that show and his prior comedy writing job on the Larry Sanders Show. In the exchange, he and Apatow talk about creative culture on these shows and you would think they were talking about working at IBM or Dunder Mifflin.

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(emphasis mine)

JON: We work in an office. You know, it’s funny. People always say to me, Ah man, you guys — it probably must be so much fun, sitting around! And, it’s like Yeah, our morning meeting starts at nine. We have to pitch out our ideas — and in some ways that is the challenge of a show. It’s to create a factory that doesn’t kill inspiration and imagination. You try to create a process that includes all of the aspects of a mechanized process that we recognize as soul killing while actually not killing souls.
JUDD: That is the invisible genius that the world will never understand. We worked at Larry Sanders Show together as writers, and we’ve had friends who have worked on many shows. And I find that, on most shows, the result of a very difficult process with high standards is everybody hates the head guy. The head guy is not a beloved figure — whether it’s Gerry [Shandling], Roseanne [Barr], or [Bill] Cosby.
JON: See, here’s where I disagree. I think that’s not necessary. When I was working on those other shows, I felt like there were aspects to it that didn’t need to exist in order to maintain the creative excitement. It didn’t need to be Machiavellian. You could get everybody to have a common cause, and do it in a way that maintained a certain humanity. I always look at it like: Think of how much energy it takes to fuck with people. What if you try to use that energy to get the show done faster and better and get everybody out by seven? If I go into that morning meeting and I have clarity, and I can articulate that clarity, everybody’s day is easier. If that doesn’t happen, it’s my fault.
Every job has an element of grind. And every creative environment needs to forge its own identity and maintain a healthy environment that welcomes new ideas (and demands that they be good ideas, eventually). From the outside looking in, comedy writing seems like a vacation compared to other jobs. From the inside looking out, it’s just a other creative pursuit that will tempt you with adulation while smacking you down with the cold reality of hard work.
As a special treat, for those of you who read this far, I have an extra copy of Sick in the Head. If you’d like it, all you have to do is be the first one to email me your address and I’ll mail it to you.

By Greg Roth

How Being “Timesian” Held Back the Paper of Record

How Being “Timesian” Held Back the Paper of Record

I started my career in a newsroom and I remember very vividly it was not a place for innovative thinking. Other than a clever headline or turn of phrase in a story, the culture of news has long been about facts, credibility, and deadlines. Free thinking was usually reserved for the bar after those deadline.

So, you could imagine that I read with interest, WIRED’s March 2017 cover story on the newspaper’s effort to reinvent itself, “How The New York Times Is Clawing Its Way Into the Future”. Sprinkled through the story are some choice nuggets about the internal struggle between new ideas and traditional ways of thinking, not to mention the strategy to harness those ideas. (Emphasis here, and throughout this post, will be mine):

Over the next few years, finding new digital revenue became the Times’ top business priority, and in 2014, Sulzberger, by then an editor on the metro desk, was tasked with overseeing an internal assessment of the paper’s digital efforts to date. The result was a 97-page document known as the Innovation Report, which found that editors too often said no to programmers and product designers from the technology group. “The newsroom has historically reacted defensively by watering down or blocking changes,” read the report, “prompting a phrase that echoes almost daily around the business side: ‘The newsroom would never allow that.’

Not to get off on a sidetrack,  but if the report has just stopped with it’s intended audience — senior staff and leadership, it might have gotten buried. However, that wasn’t to be the case. The report as leaked to Buzzfeed and published, minus a few pages, in May of 2014. Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab felt compelled to write about it because “one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the Lab.”

You could certainly stop here and read the entire Innovation Report — it is a case study in dysfunctional culture. The Nieman Lab piece linked above highlights some of the juiciest takeaways. But, for now, let’s go back to the WIRED piece, because it has the benefit of almost three years of hindsight at this point.

The privileging of print journalism over the web, the sclerotic approach to change, the lack of coordination between the growing number of digital disciplines and specialists—Sulzberger and his team laid it all bare, lighting a digital-first fuse that still burns today. “It’s not like I’m the first person who came into this newsroom and said, ‘Social media is something that needs to be accounted for in our future,’” Sulzberger says. “But it wasn’t until the Innovation Report that those points really landed.”

All in all, the leak is probably the best thing that could have happened to the Times. It established accountability or at least the appearance of outside pressure to change it’s business and it’s treatment of employees and ideas. So, how has that gone?

THE TIMES IS a big organization, with about 1,300 journalists, and management has created a number of task forces to workshop new approaches to reporting and story­telling. One committee, the 2020 Group, studied the newsroom for a year, and its report, published in January, detailed how Times journalism should evolve over the next three years. (Among the recommendations: Greater emphasis on visuals, greater variety of formats and voices. They also announced that the Times would be introducing an alternative metric to pageviews that would “measure an article’s value to attracting and retaining subscribers.”)

Visuals, variety, and value. Ever notice how often innovation strategy produces considerations like these? Especially when done by committee.

Another division, Story[X], was created last spring to experiment with emerging technology like machine learning and translation.

Can’t believe that’s actually its name, but there you go. Sadly, this is the only reference to Story[X] in the WIRED piece, but I did find, from a Politico piece, that it’s really just a rebranding of The Times’ former R&D Lab, but with a great focus on VR initially. They hired a new chief in September 2016.

And then there is the Beta Group, the experimental arm of NYT whose first effort, developing a paywall, was called a success and not a success. But, what about Beta?

Central to Perpich’s original vision was having Beta’s product people work alongside designers, developers, and—most radically for the Times—editors. No one on Beta has an office; instead, each product is assigned its own conference room lined with whiteboards covered in colorful diagrams, design mock-ups, and Post-it notes where members of the team immerse themselves in what they are trying to build.

Sounds a bit like a permanent design thinking lab. Except the results sound alot like the Times’ versions of things that already exist.

In addition to Cooking and Crosswords—two of the original Beta apps—the group is now working on Real Estate, an app for home listings; Well, a health and fitness blog the group wants to turn into a suite of personalized training and advice services; and Watching, a vertical dedicated to TV and movie recommendations. The newest addition to Beta was an acquisition: In October, The New York Times paid $30 million for the Wirecutter, a gadget review site.

What this all comes down to, however, isn’t ideas, it’s language. What was holding the Times back from trying new ideas wasn’t the ideas themselves, it ewas the Tower of Babel effect among staff.

“Working hour by hour, day by day, with software developers and designers and product managers—to me that was a real revolution, a kind of epiphany,” says Clifford Levy, who won two Pulitzers at the Times before being promoted to the assistant managing editor overseeing digital platforms. “This is standard operating procedure in Silicon Valley, but it was radical here.”

And the radical shift was felt, and heard, throughout the newsroom. “It is not incorrect for me to say that I had no idea what people were talking about in my first couple months,” says Sam Sifton, the Times’ food editor, who started working with the Beta Group to launch the Cooking app back in 2013. “‘We can iterate on that.’ What? We spoke different languages, different cultures.” Still, Sifton has embraced his new digital mission, agreeing this past November to host a text message experiment called “Turkey Talk” to help cooks with their Thanksgiving dinners.

Still, there is a fight of the old guard vs. the new thinkers still going on. Common language is a problem because there isn’t a common set of values. There’s an ongoing clash of what it means to be “Timesian”:

Which is to say, a “Timesian” way, a shorthand you frequently hear for what the Times can and cannot do in the interest of protecting its exalted status (and nowhere is it more exalted than within the Times itself). What Timesian means or doesn’t mean often depends on who’s defining it, but it’s typically in the same general neighborhood as authoritative, or maybe stuffy. Editors are infamous for their lengthy divinations on whether new headline styles are sufficiently Timesian, and, per the Innovation Report, nothing slowed down a new initiative more than when management deliberated on just how Timesian it was or wasn’t.

It’s been Dolnick’s mission to drum up enthusiasm in the newsroom for testing out new applications, from VR to livestreaming, without worrying too much about the Timesian thing.

Dolnick appears to be a bit of a tech convert, going from reporter jobs to headed up some of NYT’s digital efforts, including a successful meme the NYT pushed out based on the Olympics. Not very Timesian, right?

But, it’s not all full speed ahead, of course.

Even as Sulzberger boasts, “We employ more journalists who can write code than any other news organization,” there are some at the Times—usually those who can’t write code—who chafe at these endless waves of experimentation. “When we’re told this is the new best practice, everyone marches in lockstep,” says one editor who asked to remain anonymous. “Facebook Live? Yep! Video? On it! The New York Times isn’t a place where people say no, and we’re flat-out exhausted.”

Facebook Live has been particularly vexing for NYT journalists. (I’m also not quite sure what the point is, other than to somehow integrate the brief, happy life of Vine.)

Over the next few months, the Live team recruited more than 300 Times journalists to livestream anything and everything: press conferences, protests, political conventions. It was too much for some, and the public editor of the Times, Liz Spayd, said as much in a column headlined “Facebook Live: Too Much, Too Soon.” Spayd complained that some of the videos were “plagued by technical malfunctions, feel contrived, drone on too long … or are simply boring.” She urged editors to slow down, regroup, and wait until the Times could stay true to its past model of “innovating at a thoughtful, measured pace, but with quality worthy of its name.” (Timesian!)

Well, time may not be on some folks’ side.

The alternative is stark. For most of the last year, the Times offered buyouts to employees, in part to make room for new, digitally focused journalists. As one editor (fearful of being quoted by name) put it: “The dinosaurs are being culled.”

Final Thoughts

The story, and others related to it, provide a fascinating glimpse into a global, respected brand fighting for its future, despite have a mostly sterling name and reputation to trade on. As we see over and over, companies choose to house innovative thinking inside newly-christened departments, special initiatives, or projects that may or may not have the goal being legitimate, sustainable “things” on their own.

The case of the Times is such an interesting confluence of factors: social media and technology tools, the democratization of news and how citizens consume (or contribute to it), nserious concerns about the financial model and viability of the entire industry, and a culture chasm bot just between journalists and developers building tools, but journalists and digital experts, journalists and executives, and journalists and journalists themselves.

Thanks to the Pew Research Center, we know that increasing numbers of citizens want to digitally their news visually (almost half). So, to the extent that NYT can continue to experiment with ideas around news and content being more visual and more virtual, it will be interesting to see how a stalwart can harness their ideas while trying to shape the culture among professionals whop have been told the industry is dying for the better part of the last two decades.

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How Being “Timesian” Held Back the Paper of Record