MittMedia accelerates innovation, relevance through shared leadership

By L. Carol Christopher


Pleasant Hill, California, USA


The challenge MittMedia faced was that it was stuck in century-old structures and business models while entering a new and different landscape. The rapid decrease of media consumption and the increasing number of fast-growing competitors demanded completely new ways of thinking and developing business. 

The media company’s problems?

  • Lack of insight in how customer behaviour is changing, concerning both readers and advertisers.

  • Insufficient understanding of the pace of this change.

  • Tradition of internal monopolism.

  • Traditional, hierarchical organisation and leadership. 

  • Digital journalism was not considered a core business. The entire company was trapped in the legacy business.
Realising change must come from within, MittMedia developed new programmes for its employees to make them part of the process.
Realising change must come from within, MittMedia developed new programmes for its employees to make them part of the process.

From the exercise of identifying problems came these top management insights: 

  • Change must start from within.

  • Change takes place when many people see, feel, and understand the same thing.

  • Genuine commitment will come out of including the employees and inviting them to participate in the change.

  • The momentum of change increases when people support one another.

  • There are hundreds of key individuals who act as agents of change in everyday life. Without them, a company fails.

But the last insight was a call to action: it was the company’s need to build a new, modern corporate culture. And it had no time to waste in doing so.

Thus FutureWorks — a change management programme in a mature and conservative industry focusing on participation and acquiring new attitudes — was born.

The integration project encourages cooperation and knowledge transfer among MittMedia’s 18 newspapers, as well as creates an individual training programme for its most dedicated co-workers (so far, more than 200 employees have been involved). Lastly, it is an innovation lab where journalists, marketing team members, sales representatives, and administration staffers meet and participate in MittMedia’s business development.

The FutureWorks programme creates an ongoing process of product, audience, and revenue ideation and incubation, injecting entrepreneurialism, agility, and teamwork into the corporate culture. It provides a framework for innovative and business-focused cooperation among the top management team, project groups and teams in different departments, and 200 individual programme participants. It also develops innovation mindsets at multiple locations in the company.

FutureWorks is a change management programme that starts with a three-day innovation event for groups of 25 employees from varying departments.
FutureWorks is a change management programme that starts with a three-day innovation event for groups of 25 employees from varying departments.

As a starting point, there is a three-day innovation event for groups of 25 participants; it focuses on a minimum of five core innovation challenges and questions put forth by the top management and project leaders. Groups are comprised of individuals from different MittMedia departments, but their work is highly focused during the workshop.

This part of the programme has become an established mechanism where the company innovates and turns ideas into solutions. In all FutureWorks events, there is a strong focus on dialogue and developing new business.

Here are three example questions that have been addressed throughout FutureWorks:

  1. We know that our advertisers are increasingly investing in other forms of marketing, things that we currently don’t work with (not ads in the print edition or digitally). What are these new needs, what are the trends of the near future, and what is the best way for us to get into this market?

  2. We promoted our new paid content model with new ways of packaging and selling content in all our markets. Working titles for the subscription options are based on size from extra large to small. How do people perceive those names, and are there better ways of expressing the new subscription options? 

  3. Our main challenge is to attract young people and get them to pay for our content and services. This group is completely mobile. What needs do potential “mobile natives” have that differ from those of our loyal customers. Can “mobile natives” be attracted to content and services by our traditional brands — or have they “had their day” in this customer group?

After the three-day event, participants enter an individual training programme called the LearningMile. The LearningMile is MittMedia’s concept for accelerating innovation and building personal capacity for learning and change. The duration of the programme for each participant is 12 months.

During this time, the participants work in collaborative innovative activities in a number of projects, as well as acquire hands-on experience with applying innovative working practices. They come away with routines and practices for developing their own capacity for learning.

Here is a partial list of activities during the LearningMile: 

  • The 24-hour test: Participants answer three challenging questions about change management, leadership, and customers. They must answer within 24 hours. 

  • Personal learning safaris: Participants arrange for two meetings according to their interests and personal development goals. The meetings can, for example, be with sales people, entrepreneurs, or people who work with change on a daily basis.

  • Personal coaching: Two to three meetings with a coach to resolve deadlocks in one’s work, and accelerate the personal competence development. 

  • Webinars: Digital inspiration sessions around themes such as leadership, development, and knowledge. These Webinars often are produced by the participants themselves. 

  • Shadowing: Participants follow a colleague within the company for three days to see how they work and to try new ways of working.

  • Building networks: A Web-based activity that challenges participants to develop and strengthen their networks. 

  • Organising a customer safari: Participants plan and execute a safari with a team from their own department, or with a group of people from different departments within the company.

In its first 18 months, the FutureWorks programme had resulted in a substantial tranformation of the corporate culture. Most notable was the ability to see mastery of the challenges of digital technology and the development of a new approach to customer dialogue, one in which these encounters are seen as opportunities rather than threats. 

MittMedia is finding that shared leadership is working.

The programme is an intervention into the mindset and activities of individuals, teams, departments/functions, and the corporate level. On all levels, the programme rests on the approach of shared leadership, which places significantly larger responsibility for development of working practices, day-to-day leadership, and personal development on individuals themselves. They are expected to collect feedback on their own performance as input for subsequent discussions in performance reviews. 

The result of FutureWorks is faster digital transformation. MittMedia has a new strategy to become a digital media company with a sustainable business model and a future for journalism. 

For example, more than 500 journalists have taken the internal training in multi-media journalism. The company is establishing a new editorial organisation that truly embraces “digital first.”  It rolled out a new digital platform for Web and mobile solutions throughout the organisation; launched a paid-content model, freemium Web sites, and all-access subscription; and re-organised the sales organisation with a total digital focus.

Another result of the programme is new thinking and ideas. The programme has produced a number of elements of a “MittMedia Mindset of Innovation.” Most notable is the development and refinement of an innovative way of understanding customers, which focuses on understanding customers’ contexts rather than segmenting them into target-groups by traditional demographic criteria. 

The programme has transitioned from the office to reality. It has anchored and refined a new way of exploring and researching customers anthropologically by direct observation. This approach, mentioned above, is called a “customer safari” or “learning safari.” It is used in all FutureWorks events and been subsequently adopted by both teams and individual experts throughout MittMedia. 

Consequently, MittMedia employees are working more closely with advertisers. The mechanisms of shared leadership that create commitment among employees, works equally well in the advertising market and in interactions with advertisers.

Several projects were lined up in which sellers and analysts from the advertising department work in close cooperation with advertisers, aiming to jointly explore, discover, and experiment with new ways to market themselves. The advertiser is highly involved, investing time and effort in the project and gaining a feeling of strong commitment to results. 

There is also more action on the floor. The method of working in both long and short workshops on the sharp, everyday challenges has become a general tool in the company. Projects develop that are run by the employees themselves, although for the most important questions a “combat room” is organised quickly — a group of relevant co-workers gather and focus intensely for one or two days on a business-critical issue. 

MittMedia is pleased to say, “People want to work here.” It has found that the number of job applications by experts on online news from other media houses has increased dramatically. These applicants frequently report their perception that MittMedia has a dynamic and positive culture that is an important reason for wanting to work there. 

And the transparent management culture that comes with shared leadership has also given amazing results. More than two-thirds of MittMedia’s 1,000 employees have voluntarily joined a closed Facebook group, Develop MittMedia, to discuss different kinds of development issues, to share best practice examples, and to keep co-workers up to date on what’s going on in all parts of the company.

At MittMedia, the responsibility for development and information is not just the domain of management, but is a responsibility for every employee.

Editor’s note: This is one of 17 case studies featured in INMA’s strategic report “How Media Companies Embrace the Process of Innovation.” 

About L. Carol Christopher

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