Harvard Business Review: How a Legacy Business Rocketed into the Digital Age

Kristen Craft on May 14, 2018 · 4 minute read
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How do you feel about pouring time and effort into an initiative, knowing it’s likely never going to see the light of day? Though it might sound crazy, it’s part of the reason that Harvard Business Review has managed to innovate more successfully than nearly any other publication. Sarah Green Carmichael, an Executive Editor at Harvard Business Review, cites this as a tactic they used when launching a new podcast. They prototyped a number of formulas and approaches, in order to determine if something was right to air. As Sarah mentions:

“It’s hard to spend your time on that when you don’t have a lot of time…we’re not making a lot that we know we’ll be killing.”

And yet, this may be the secret to innovation, especially when it comes to organizations with a long track record of quality.

Balancing Experimentation and Quality

Harvard Business Review has been in business since 1922, and people hold them to a high standard. Their brand and track record necessitate a fine balance between innovation and quality. As the host of two HBR podcasts, IdeaCast and Women at Work, Sarah can’t push out a minimum viable product and merely hope that their audience will forgive mistakes.

“We try to be lean in our experimentation, but realistically speaking, when you have a brand that’s built on getting it right and being excellent the first time, it’s hard to do that.”

Sarah notes that this experimentation mindset is critical, though, when trying to innovate among a lot of stakeholders and decision makers. Bigger picture change may feel scary to some, but most people will be ok with conducting an experiment. Still, you have to be willing to admit when it’s not working; otherwise, it’s not an experiment. This is where the podcast prototypes come in: by experimenting with a number of options, it felt easier to pull the plug on the ones that weren’t working, rather than trying to force an idea that didn’t hit home with their audience.

Embracing Change

The publishing industry is notoriously slow to embrace change. Legacy organizations are often associated with staleness or slowness, but HBR is a major exception. They’ve seen amazing growth during a time when many other publishers failed because they’ve embraced change and leaned into digital media. For example, they were an early adopter of Facebook Live, paving the way on how to best use the medium.

Sarah notes that part of HBR’s success in navigating change is due to their strong leadership and the space they’re in. They work with some of the foremost experts in change management and innovation.

“We’re the ideal publication to figure this out…we’re publishing this stuff all the time. We have some of the best people who think about digital strategy and are writing for us…they’re happy to give us free advice”

And yet, it’s no small task figuring out how the print team and the web team should fit together. In 2008, HBR took on a massive restructuring. They went from having three silos – book, print, and digital – and embraced the idea of one editorial team, working across platforms. It was a time of great change, requiring many people to learn new skills.

Encouraging Ownership and Decision-Making Authority

Coming out of the 2008 restructure, HBR needed new systems for getting work done. They instituted more process but worked hard to keep processes flexible. They held a lot of 1:1s to help people gain comfort with the new systems. Most important, they tried to encourage personal ownership, so that people felt greater authority to make good decisions.

For example, HBR previously lacked clear guidelines about how to pursue new topics for digital articles. As their digital presence grew, people needed guidance about what was and wasn’t ok. HBR instituted processes that kept decision making in the hands of individuals:

“We tried to say ‘if you’re excited about the idea, there’s a 90% chance we will be too’. Giving people the authority to do that…to really own it was empowering.”

Furthermore, HBR invested heavily in building a great website that can adapt to the needs of the team. The backend and infrastructure are strong enough to allow people to implement new ideas. In fact, the current iteration has even won awards for its design. It’s certainly easier for people to own new ideas when they feel liberated by a flexible website design.

Always Be Experimenting

Sarah admits that HBR still has some work to do, but for the most part, they’re a shining example of successful innovation. They seem to be one of the few media companies that pay attention to (and even anticipate) the needs and preferences of their audience. The audience, in return, is eager to help HBR innovate:

“Find those spots where you know the audience will forgive you. Find the right people who are enthusiastic about your brand and who will give you feedback.”

One of their biggest current challenges is staying at the forefront of new ideas. They want to be the first to jump on new research, while also maintaining high journalistic standards. Given how well they’ve balanced competing priorities in the past, HBR will surely navigate these new challenges with aplomb.

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