Why the leaking of New York Times Innovation Report is a gift—to itself

Certain sections of the Internet worked themselves into a lather this week over the “leaked” internal report on innovation at the New York Times. What followed was a broad cross-section of responses ranging from, “they just don’t get it,” to, “here’s what they need to do to fix it,” and, “here’s what it means as an example to the rest of us”. To call it a provocation would be an understatement.

New York Times Headquarters at night by photogreuhphies -  January 10, 2011 Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

New York Times Headquarters at night by photogreuhphies – January 10, 2011 Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Regardless of the self-congratulatory tone the report takes at the outset, there are few companies anywhere that would ask the question, “how are we doing in this area?”, let alone would deliver such a comprehensive answer. For this, the Times should be lauded. Especially since they do recognize their own shortcomings almost as swiftly noting that, “…Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from Times journalism than we do.”

For all the general analysis, and some of it quite specific and valuable (consider the response from Nieman Journalism Lab), there is a lot to learn for all incumbents seeking to innovate in their current markets with their existing business models. However, I think the most value to be gained here is actually on the part of the Times itself. Not only has it done a great job of exacting self-examination, in leaking the report it has also widened the range of possible responses and potential solutions to its concerns.

A more fragile organization might have buried the report, or severely restricted access to it. The Times, being what it is—a news organization, is not going to do that, but what it gains now via leaking the report has paved the way to foster open innovation. Although no specific external partners have been solicited for feedback, the public way in which the report has come to light has fostered some excellent commentary. As a paradigm for using external ideas by building on internal ideas, especially as a firm seeks to advance their technology position, this accidental slide into open innovation is an unexpectedly positive outcome for the paper.

I heard once that Google made a habit of sometimes choosing not to hire every smartest person they could find, instead adding them to a broader network and leaving them where they were in order to foster a more robust technology ecosystem. Mark Zuckerberg also espouses the value of more perspectives, “In terms of doing work and in terms of learning and evolving as a person, you just grow more when you get more people’s perspectives…”. Perhaps this is an opportunity for The Times to recognize the unintended consequences of their report in the public domain might be a whole lot of valuable feedback to help them on their innovation path.

Whether it chooses to recognize the gift of this commentary as feedback remains to be seen. One of the primary rules of feedback is that in order for it to have value a recipient must be ready and willing to listen to it, let alone accept it. As I see it the public response to the leaked report is a gift. Yes, there is certainly a truckload of snark to wade through in order to uncover some observational gems. The challenge will be to see if the Times can take these responses and fold then into their good work.

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