To innovate, start small and see how it grows

A common complaint in the journalism world is that newspapers aren’t innovative enough. The complaint usually goes something like, “Why didn’t a newspaper invent Google or Yahoo! or MySpace?” And then there is some finger pointing at executives for not funding R&D or being bold enough in their visions.

This “why didn’t we come up with the big idea” is one of the myths of innovation.

The problem with innovation in incumbent industries isn’t the lack of big ideas. It’s the failure to see the importance of little ideas, because they don’t point the way to immediate profits commensurate with current company values.

All innovation starts with taking a look at what tools and materials are available now and how they can be used differently. It involves finding a job to done and figuring out how to modify what’s already on the table. Or it involves, “oh, I can use that thing differently and I bet this will help other people, too.”

That was true of the light bulb, the telegraph and YouTube.

Innovation is small. It only looks big in hindsight.

Google began with a small, simple idea — what if we ordered our search results based on how many sites link to a particular URL (not even an original idea, since the notion of authority ranking pre-dates the web). Simple idea. Big results.

Any person working in any department of a newspaper can be an innovator. The trick is to look at what you do every day, what you touch every day, and ask, “are there other uses for this?”

For example: Find a rubber band and ask yourself, “what could I do with this to derive as much value as possible?”

Does that sound like an impossible task?

Watch this video:

A very basic lesson in innovation (via Guy Kawasaki).


6 thoughts on “To innovate, start small and see how it grows

  1. Great points Howard.

    Do you know of anybody hiring for R&D?

    Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough, but now that you mention it, I don’t recall ever seeing any R&D journalism jobs.

    I’ve been holding back some of my best ideas and multimedia experiments because nobody is paying me for them.

  2. You already work in an R&D job, and if you’re holding back your ideas, you’re cheating your employer. If your employer won’t reward you for helping the company to grow, find another employer.

  3. I’m interning as a Multimedia Producer, but the ideas I’ve been developing are completely divergent from what my assignments and obligations are at my internship.

    My personal experiments have to do primarily with nonlinear interactive storytelling & design whereas my actual job relates more to multimedia (linear/non-interactive) video production.

    They are different animals. And no, I am not cheating my employer and it’s not what I would call an R&D job.

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