9 ways leaders can exhibit innovation

When your mother lectured you that “actions speak louder than words,” she was giving important advice for culture change.

Top executives of a news organisation can preach and teach and plead and rail about the importance of change, but if the leaders aren’t setting an example of change, don’t be surprised if change is slow or thwarted entirely.

If “leadership by example” is a cliché, it’s also the only kind of leadership that really works. Especially if you hope to lead change.

Earlier this month, I jumped into a conversation about Twitter use at the New York Times, started by a BuzzFeed post on the Times’ “Twitter graveyard” and continued in posts by Mathew Ingram and Alex Howard and many more on social media.

My point was that Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet (and many other news organisation leaders) undercut his organisation’s call for innovation with his silence on Twitter (he’s tweeted twice). Baquet responded, wondering whether we were creating a “new priesthood” for journalism with arbitrary “rules for entry.”

I don’t want to repeat or continue the Twitter discussion here. You can catch up on that, if you missed it, at the links above.

While I think being active on Twitter is an important indicator of whether a journalist is embracing change, I agree with my critics that innovation involves much more than Twitter. So my point here is to set aside Twitter and discuss other things that leaders of news organisations should be doing to set an example of innovation:

  1. Use your app (and talk about it). Try using your organisation’s app as your primary way of reading the newspaper, on your phone and on your tablet.

    When you see things that aren’t good enough, ask the appropriate people what you and they can do to make them better. Your visible use of mobile devices will underscore that your organisation needs to think and work mobile-first.

  2. Form an innovation committee. While I was critical of Baquet’s Twitter use, I applaud the Times’ decision to study its innovation efforts and make recommendations for improving its efforts (which already lead the way in the newspaper business).

    If your organisation hasn’t studied its innovation efforts, put some trusted people to work on that task now. If you have studied innovation efforts recently, take another look at the recommendations and assess how you’re doing.

    Have you implemented the recommendations? Do they need to be updated? A committee doesn’t necessarily solve anything, but your continued emphasis on innovation will make a difference.

  3. Visibly learn a new tool. Twitter’s actually several years old. It may not be the tool your organisation needs to master.

    Maybe you should ask some young people in your organisation to show you how to use Snapchat or Yik Yak (or something new enough that an old guy like me wouldn’t know about it yet to suggest). Brainstorm with them how the new tool might be useful in your news or sales efforts. Or both.

    Maybe it’s not going to be useful, but your interest in learning about it will say something important to your staff.

  4. Chat up your organisation’s innovation leaders. When the leader of an organisation drops by someone’s desk to chat, people notice. They notice who is getting a visit from the boss.

    Be sure that you’re dropping by to talk with the people who are leading innovative efforts. This helps on two levels: It tells the watchers that what these people are working on is important, and you’ll learn more in your conversations with these people than in talking with people who share your background and your traditional interests.

  5. Change the focus of meetings. As the Times Innovation report noted, the newsroom’s focus on page one, especially in daily meetings, drives much of the organisation’s culture.

    Your colleagues know how to produce a good newspaper. Can you shift the focus of meetings (especially morning meetings) to digital challenges and opportunities?

  6. Share what you’re reading. A leader needs to read a lot of information, analysis, and commentary about what’s important to you. If you share links to your reading on social media, in e-mails, and/or in staff discussions, you will get your staff thinking and learning about the same things that are important to you.

  7. Ask questions about digital stuff. If you’re preaching digital, but all your questions focus on print, your staff will spend its time on print.

    When you’re planning a major editorial project, ask about the database or the interactive features. When you’re planning a sales campaign, ask how you’ll be pitching new digital customers.

    Questions reflect priorities. If you start asking more digital questions, you’ll start getting more and better digital answers.

  8. Interact with the public. Of course, Twitter is great for this. But since we’re looking beyond Twitter, you can interact in lots of ways.

    Join the conversations on your organisation’s branded Facebook page. Blog about your organisation’s transformation (and engage with the people who comment). Host a live chat on your Web site. Engage with commenters on your Web site.

    If you see someone in a restaurant or airport reading your app or Web site, stop and ask them some questions. Learn how they find your content and what they think of it. Accept public speaking invitations and be sure to allow time for Q&A at the end of your talk or stick around for some informal conversations. Or both.

    Invite someone who’s scornful of your organisation’s digital presence out to lunch. And do more listening than talking.

  9. Show humility. Leaders need to be confident and project an air of confidence that sometimes gets misread (or accurately read) as arrogance. But we’re in a time when we all need to be learning.

    A leader needs to lead the learning. Admit what you don’t know. Let the staff know what you’re learning about. Acknowledge your screw-ups (they are part of learning). Discuss your lessons – on your blog, in meetings, social media, and private conversations.

If you’re a leader, your staff is watching. If you’re active on Twitter, that’s not enough; give some of these things a try. If you’re a Twitter skeptic or slacker or even a lurker, these measures will help you lead change without a 140-character limit.

About Steve Buttry