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Refusing to step outside comfort zone creates a new kind of madness


Einstein is quoted as saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

If this is the case then newspaper companies could rightly be classed as certifiable. We are constantly guilty of simply tweaking ideas a little and expecting major results, being disappointed and then trying it all over again.

But the good news is that it’s not our fault. Possibly, it’s the way our brains are wired, according to a new report from the McKinsey Quarterly. And the really good news is that with some practice, the damage is reversible.

“The human mind is surprisingly adroit at supporting its deep-seated ways of viewing the world while sifting out evidence to the contrary,” according to the report “Sparking creativity in teams: An executive’s guide.”  “Even when presented with overwhelming facts, many people (including well-educated ones) simply won’t abandon their deeply held opinions.”

Is this the reason why newspaper executives, when faced with compelling evidence that they must dramatically change their business models, have instead chosen courses that were minor improvements, tweaks and adjustments?

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns from Emory University claims that to perceive things differently, “we must bombard our brains with things it has never encountered.”

Novelty is vital because according to his research, the brain has evolved for efficiency — and routinely takes perceptual shortcuts to save energy.

Deciding not to bother with a big picture and game-changing box ideas is in fact your brain taking a shortcut and saying, “Whoa, too hard. Let’s just keep thinking about this in the normal way — it’s less effort.”

The report claims that it’s only by "forcing our brains to re-categorise information and move beyond our habitual thinking patterns can we begin to imagine truly novel alternatives.”

So how do we do that?

The first rule according to the report is to get out of the office. Stop sitting behind your desk or your conference room tables with the same people, agonising over the same issues over and over. Get out and smell the coffee.

There are some really simple but extraordinarily useful things that newspaper executives can do to dramatically change our products and bottom-lines that do not require a 5-star retreat and an expense account.

They could be:

  1. Try booking a classified ad in your own newspaper using your own online booking system or phone booking. What kind of experience do you get as a new customer? How easy was it? What kind of result did you get?

  2. Spend a day or a week with a client and observe them planning and booking a major campaign with your company. How easy is it to cross the layers of the business? How hard is it for them to give you money?

  3. Go shopping. Visit new styles of retailers with the thought constantly in your mind: “What could we learn from them? How are they marketing themselves? What can we learn?

  4. Jump online and search Google, and ponder why it has managed to become so entrenched into every aspect of our lives. Ask yourself what Google executives would do if faced with the same issues that newspapers currently face.

  5. Ask your teenager or some of the younger journalists in your team to show you how Twitter works, set up a Facebook account and give yourself time to really get into it and use it. Find out how many deals you can get in a 5-kilometer radius from Foursquare. Think about what your newspaper can do in the space.

When I was a young cub reporter, my old mentor told me that to become a good journalist, I had to immerse myself in good writing. I had to read the work of the A-grade reporters — thinking as I did about what I was reading and how they were crafting their work. By immersing myself, I was told, it would rub off.

As technological changes impact on our lives so dramatically, too many of us in newspapers have forgotten this maxim of immersion. It doesn’t just apply to reading good journalism. These days it’s about immersing ourselves in the new technology: Finding the time to play on Facebook, considering the benefits of Twitter, learning about the next big thing. But definitely not deciding we’re far too busy to bother with that nonsense — and that has to happen from the bottom up and the top down.

The overwhelming desire not to is not our fault. It’s how our brains are wired. But to truly create a step change in this industry, it’s time to start a campaign of idea bombardment and get ourselves out of our mental comfort zones — it’s the only way to stop the insanity.

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