Two failure mindsets offer differing outcomes for media innovation

By Jan Thoresen

Labrador CMS

Oslo, Norway


So, you want to implement a new cool tool: Start experimenting with Dall-E 3 images in your feature stories. SEO-optimising your content using Open AI. Plugging in a new mobile-friendly paywall.

The pitch is right. The timing is perfect. You are way ahead of your competitors — even though they have more research and development staff than you and higher budgets. They even have their own AI departments. But you are faster. More agile. You sneak around corners like a cat, and stitch together clever functions before they are trending.

Fear of failure keeps many media companies from being the first to launch an innovative idea.
Fear of failure keeps many media companies from being the first to launch an innovative idea.

But the ideas fade. Weeks pass by. Editors and product owners say yes. You start designing and sprinting. You enter the empathy phase. You and your designers really get a hold of the users’ needs — what the journalists and editors really would like to see at their fingertips. You might even get all the way to the prototype phase and get a minimal viable product (MVP) in place.

Then the silent resistance phase begins. It sneaks in like a fog. It’s difficult to see when it started, but it slows down everything. New, faster projects pass by around you. Weeks go by. Editors-in-chief wear out their chief technology officers like a pair of sneakers. Breaking news can’t wait.

So, you get back to the drawing board. You check out the features everybody else has. You steal from The Guardian, from Mediahuis, from Schibsted. You might even bring in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Athletic. You start to copy. Then you start to get the “yes.” Your stolen ideas get launched.

You are safe. You are safe.

Why is it so hard to implement a bold project fast? The risk of failure is too big — bigger than the reward if you succeed.

Type 1 failure mindset

According to Baba Shiv, a distinguished professor at Stanford University who specialises in the interdisciplinary fields of decision-making and neuroscience, people generally have two types of mindsets toward failure.

The type 1 mindset: This mindset is fraught with fear and risk aversion. Most large organisations, including some newsrooms, operate under this mindset. The very structure of a large newsroom — with its multiple layers of decision-making and approval — often enforces a culture that is antithetical to risk-taking.

The dilemma of decision-making: Another bottleneck is the decision-making process itself. There’s value in trusting one’s gut for strategic decisions. However, the larger the organisation, the less room there might be for instinctual decision-making. Every choice is analysed, quantified, and dissected, leading to a risk of paralysis by analysis.

Silent resistance: Even if you overcome these hurdles, there’s the “silent resistance” phase. Projects are often subjected to unsaid but palpable skepticism, perhaps because they are too new, too ambitious, or just too different from the tried-and-true methods. This is where most innovative ideas in newsrooms meet their slow demise; a death by a thousand cuts.

Safety in copying: Finally, there is the undeniable safety in copying. When an idea has been proven elsewhere, it’s a less risky proposition. If it fails, you can always point to its success in another context as your rationale for trying. This “safe” route often appears more appealing than the perilous path of innovation.

Type 2 failure mindset

There are ways to counter this common trajectory often found in media companies.

The type 2 mindset: Encourage a culture where failure is not a dirty word but an opportunity for learning and growth. This approach cultivates a more risk-tolerant environment, giving innovative projects a better chance of survival.

I will never forget the time when my group CEO praised my team for recommending not to pursue an idea after it first had gotten initial funding. That was a good failure. Instead of fear of failure, you want a culture with fear of losing out on opportunities.

Incorporate gut instincts into decision-making: Reserve some room for instinctual decisions, especially when you’re at a crossroads in your project. Sometimes your gut can spot an opportunity or threat that data hasn’t caught up to yet. We’re not looking for the lowest common denominator. The idea we’re pursuing needs stakeholders who are truly passionate about it.

Create an innovation buffer: Neuroscientists talk about the importance of “having nothing to do” to foster creativity and to allocate time and resources specifically for innovative projects. Your brain will go into a default mode. Protect this buffer from the everyday urgencies that tend to consume all available resources. In Norway, we use our mountains for this.

About Jan Thoresen

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.