Media-vation?

I sometimes draw on my own professional experiences to illustrate concepts of innovation, but there’s one analogy I make very cautiously, because I know how suspicious many people are of the news media—and with some justification. Still, I think there’s an important connection to be made.

A newsroom is in many ways a good illustration of how an innovative organization should function. In a newsroom, you have some very strict constraints. They’re called deadlines and in the news business they are virtually unbreakable. For all practical purposes, no one in the organization has the power to violate those deadlines under any but the most extreme exceptions. Deadlines guide everyone’s work, setting boundaries that cannot be crossed 

Within those boundaries, staff members function as semi-autonomous agents who self-organize around the work. Reporters, photographers and field producers (in a TV newsroom) pursue stories that appear to be promising. Show producers take those stories and combine them into newscasts. There are assignment editors and video editors and engineers who play crucial roles, but there are few orders given or received. Instead, the working relationships tend to be collaborative, with a variety of people providing their talents and resources and creative input.

Yes, there’s frequently stress and tension and people often disagree, but those issues usually get resolved within a framework of shared objectives, namely producing the highest quality product while meeting the deadlines. Not surprisingly, some newsrooms are better at this than others. Some still resort to a more command and control style of operation, with designated decision-makers instructing others at each step in the process. In my experience, that almost always leads to an inferior outcome—as well as a much less pleasant working environment. In newsrooms where it’s done right, decision-making is much more dispersed and based on mutual respect and trust. The result is highly motivated people finding great fulfillment doing award-winning work that serves the public interest.

Does the news business always function so admirably? No. As in most human endeavors, true greatness is rare. My point is not to praise the media. (It also provides an outstanding example of how ethical lapses and poor leadership can profoundly undermine good work.) Still, the organizational concepts are worth noting. When you work in a hyper-competitive profession that must convert whatever’s occurring in the community and the world at any given moment into a product that people will value, and do it within very tight constraints, you learn to constantly adapt or you don’t survive.

A good news organization flexibly responds to events. Rather than impose its view on the world, it constantly strives to provide an accurate and fair account, just as any good business needs to respond to the marketplace and customer needs, rather than just push product. In both instances, what’s required is an ongoing organizational adaptability, with widely dispersed expertise and the ability to quickly shift resources to meet priorities that can change moment to moment.

In your business, are you trusting people to make good independent decisions—and providing the requisite resources to support those decisions? Are you willing to loosen up on command and control in order to foster collaboration and flexibility? Do you encourage an ongoing dialogue over how to best achieve your objectives? The degree to which you do those things will to a great degree determine your ability to innovate.

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