What is the best way to generate innovation inside newspaper companies?

Putting a group of staff — or editors or executives — into a room and having them brainstorm a concept is the worst thing we could do, according to new research from Wharton, the executive business school attached to the University of Pennsylvania.

For newspapers the world over this is a pretty confronting revelation.

Newspapers are famous for the Editorial Conference, where many hundreds of thousands of dollars of senior editorial firepower gather daily to extol their views only to end up agreeing with (or at least executing without further ado) what the Editor wants. (Hey, he/she is the editor, after all!). Inter-departmental meetings put people in a room and ask them to solve problems and “think of something” that will revolutionise the business. The result? Incremental change at a snail's pace.

Hmmm, maybe the Wharton guys are onto something.

The paper, called “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea” is by Karan Girotra, Christian Terwiesch and Karl T Ulrich. It argues that group dynamics are the anathema of businesses trying to develop genuinely out-of-the-box new ideas, unique ways to save money or distinctive marketing that give us an edge.

So this is why newspapers never invented the iPad!

The dangers of “group think” have been around in management circles for ages. But in an interview with the Australian School of Business online publication, Knowledge, Terwiesch takes it further because his research provides a quantitative analysis of just how ineffective group brainstorming is as a technique. How ineffective, I hear you ask? Well, 30% less effective. Ouch!

“Employees might censor themselves to go along with the status quo or to avoid angering a superior,” he says, arguing that generating a group conversation is not necessarily a sign of creativity because “if everyone contributes, there is less time for individuals to share all of their ideas.”

“We're fighting the American business model where everybody is creative, which is just not the case,” Terwiesch argues. “We find huge differences in people's levels of creativity and we just have to face it. We're not all good singers and we're not all good runners, so why should we expect that we are all good idea generators?”

The 30% more effective method of generating creative ideas is a hybrid method where staff are told to brainstorm on their own and then submit those ideas for discussion at a later date.

It's more effective at generating genuinely good ideas because valuable thoughts stay in the mix which would otherwise be killed early on because of group dynamics.

“When it comes to innovation, what really matters is not getting many good ideas, but getting one or two exceptional ideas,” he says. Put simply, group dynamics stifle good ideas because they are usually so radical, the group cannot cope. A quantity of OK ideas rules over quality in group meetings.

So getting back to the original question: What is the best way to generate innovation inside newspaper companies?

My last blog generated a vigorous debate with a colleague over the best way for newspaper companies to develop new business. Should departments be diverted from focusing on their core business by being asked to be creative, only for innovation to founder because everyone is too busy? Or is a flying squad model of sending a crack team experienced with getting new ventures up a better option, only to generate unhappiness and sabotage because “departmental experts” do not own the new idea? We agreed the issue required further discussion over several bottles of Pinot.

But if we're to follow the advice of the Wharton academics, we need to change some pretty fundamental practices in our businesses — or at least accept that what works as a way of getting a newspaper out each day is not necessarily the best method for idea generation across every part of what we're going to do for the future.

The Australian Business School has another fascinating paper on their website. It's about “How Lousy Results Become Optimal Outcomes” by Gavin Schwarz, looking at how organisational failure is often justified retrospectively as “change.” But I think I'll save that for another blog, another day.

In the meantime, I'm off to lock myself quietly in a room to contemplate the next big idea that will astonish and amaze and dazzle the industry. Or failing that, drink more red. Cheers.