When The Economist set up a specialist team to investigate new Internet-based opportunities, they invited Andrew Carey to sit in on their meetings and witness their progress.
In April 2006, when The Economist’s Internet Strategy Group met to discuss ways of improving its presence on the Internet, the company was doing very well. Global circulation of the ‘newspaper’ had just passed one million; Roll Call, a sister magazine, had become the most widely read publication in the US Congress; and new titles had been successfully launched in China and India.
It was a time when most companies would have been happy to rest on their laurels, or focus on what was already working. Instead, The Economist approved a proposal from their CIO, Mike Seery, to recruit a team of five people plus himself from within the Group, remove them from their present jobs and give them £100,000 and six months to launch an innovative web-based product, service or business initiative.
The enthusiastic young team encountered all kinds of problems and challenges. Many would be immediately recognisable to any innovation team. But the solutions they found were often ingenious and the lessons they learned could be applied in thousands of businesses around the world.
In an unusually candid move, The Economist team invited me into their offices to observe them at work over a six-month period. The following is a condensed version of what I saw and learnt.
Mike Seery recruited his fellow team members from across The Economist Group. He set out to attract people from within the editorial, marketing, sales and IT departments. He also managed to bring team members from around the world to the London-based project.
But recruiting team members from such diverse backgrounds meant they had a lot of work to do before they were able to work together efficiently. For a long time, the techies’ knowledge of new and emerging technologies left some of the others floundering. And a lot of team-building needed to be done before the business of team-working could get under way.
The Economist kept open each team member’s job for the six months that they were on Project Red Stripe, and the recruitment process made it clear that members were recruited on the understanding that this wasn’t an opportunity for people who were bored with their jobs or wanting to leave.
Consider carefully whether it is better to bring together a team of people who already know each other, share a common professional language and have skills in common – and then buy-in extra skills as needed. Or do you prefer to maximise the breadth of the knowledge-base while allowing extra time for team members to get used to one other?
Recruiting team members who want to return to their existing jobs at the end of the project ensures that you don’t just get people who are bored at work. But loyal employees are not necessarily the most creative – possibly the angry and disaffected may have some of the best ideas.
Although team members brought their own ideas about what The Economist should do next, the project began by asking readers and other interested parties for input. In so doing, they put their faith in “The Wisdom of Crowds”. In fact, “the crowd” didn’t come up with anything the team hadn’t already thought of. So you could argue that the time they spent crowdsourcing was time wasted. On the other hand, what if they had come up with something spectacular that way? How would you ever know without asking?
Think very carefully about who is best placed to identify the best innovations for your organisation. Is it you and your team? Independent experts? Your customers? Or the world at large?
The team had enormous freedom. There were no guidelines on what sort of innovations they should look for and they were free to launch the idea without first getting approval from senior management. In practice this caused a lot of headaches as the team weren’t willing to jeopardise the business by launching an idea they believed in without first getting approval from the top. And, when they asked for approval, they didn’t get it.
At times it appeared that too much freedom could also cause problems with creativity. Bearing in mind that the Project Red Stripe team could do anything – at one point they were working with top NGOs and their advisers to develop a business that would help the United Nations achieve one of its millennium goals. When world peace is within your grasp, why would you consider a humdrum, commercial web venture?
Be realistic about how much freedom you can give an innovation team. It may turn into a millstone.
“Thinking big” is necessary for a major innovation project, especially as it is notoriously difficult to get people to think laterally and outside the box. But giving people the freedom to try and change the world may leave them dazed by the enormity of what they might achieve.
Big companies are large because they’re successful and success is a barrier to innovation - why try something new and risky when what you’re already doing works? If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
This was true for The Economist, which didn’t need a new business and didn’t need the two key ideas developed by Project Red Stripe.
Do a risk assessment. Is the sponsor organisation under sufficient pressure to want to run with whatever idea the team comes up with?
Early in the project, Mike Seery arranged a number of teambuilding exercises. They worked well and were seen as significant moments in the team’s history. But they also served to establish a particular mindset – “we’re good at this and this, but less good at that”.
The moments in a team’s trajectory when you most need to invest time and money in team-building exercises (late on, when the team’s under extreme pressure) are, almost by definition, the moments when you haven’t got time to run them.
From the outset, the Red Stripe team sometimes “wandered around” without a clear sense of what was going to happen next and without any clarity as to how to make things happen.
Instinctively, drifting seems like an appropriate thing for an innovation team to do; but it’s also an uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing thing to do. Some say that safety is a prerequisite of creativity, and there were certainly some members of the Red Stripe team who worked hardest and fastest when they knew where they were going.
Drifting “aimlessly” can be creative, but it’s also scary. Participants (and Finance Directors) may want something more structured and regimented. Rules and guidelines can offer direction or serve as blinkers. It may be important to have some clear guidelines in place before an innovation project begins.
Most teams are likely to want to act democratically and move forward with general agreement that they’re on the right lines. In Project Red Stripe, different team members became committed to different projects. That made the task of gaining consensus for just one idea difficult.
Consider whether you should opt for ideas that excite everybody or simply for ones that command a majority. If you can’t find an idea that excites everybody, how long should you keep looking for?
An obvious question for any innovation team is whether to start by thinking about the problems faced by a particular group of people, or whether to think about improving existing products, services or skills. Theorists tend to prefer the former, but plenty of great innovations resulted from companies finding new applications for existing technologies. (Think of classic innovations like 3M and Post-It Notes or NASA and Teflon).
While the Project Red Stripe team actively solicited a broad range of ideas about what they should do, they did not solicit ideas about the group(s) for whom they should implement those ideas. Should they have invited an archbishop, a genetic researcher, an aid worker and others to pitch for a particular target market?
A deserving market may be motivational, even inspirational. But it doesn’t necessarily make for good business. The team may need guidelines for how to weigh the value a commercial priority against an ethical one in business.
The Economist’s Project Red Stripe succeeded in that it came up with a number of innovative and radical business proposals. It failed in that the company chose not to implement any of them at the time. It also succeeded in that it offered the business powerful insights into its culture and about future innovation projects (just a few of which are shared here) which may provide food for thought for other innovation teams around the globe.
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