The Idea EnthusiastThe Idea Enthusiast

Tag : innovation

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

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

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.

Northwestern Law School has an “Innovation Lab”
Design thinking comes to high school
How Being “Timesian” Held Back the Paper of Record