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.
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.
We had a podcast, before we even had a website. Our flagship podcast, the HBR IdeaCast, we launched, I believe in two-thousand seven, and that was our first digital format. It was launched by a guy, who’s now the editor, and chief, of Sloan Management Review, Paul Michelman, and he launched it, set it up, got it going, and then, needed to hand it off to someone else, and there I was, this very young, new hire, who had a lot of time. He was kind of like, ‘Here, you can do it’, and I was like, ‘What, I can’t be the voice of HBR, I’m like 25’.
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My dear listener, human beings are so much more, than little shapes on an org chart. We have to stop slotting people into our org chart, like they’re just cogs in a machine, so let’s venture beyond the org chart, to explore today’s theme: Old, doesn’t have to mean stuck. There’s a temptation in the workplace, to associate a legacy organization, with staleness, maybe stubbornness.
They’ve been around forever, and therefore, they’re not prone to having lots of new things happen, within their walls. They’re more prone to having lots of conventional wisdom, and lots of processes built up, that slow things down. Why do they do things a certain way? Because, that’s the way we do things around here. So, when new technologies change the world, new brands disrupt the industry, or new ideas surface from employees on the front lines, the impulse for these organizations, is to say, ‘No. Nah, no thanks, no way.’
Now, here is where you want me to say, ‘But, but there are companies proving, that red tape won’t develop’, or maybe you want me to say that, ‘There are huge organizations out there, that can be as fast as a startup’, or maybe you want me to cite examples, examples like, GE, with their amazing new podcasts, or the younger, but still not that young, Microsoft, and all they’re doing to evolve, but the fact is, a well known legacy brand, has high stakes, period.
They have bureaucracy, period. They have lots and lots of stakeholders, and decision makers to consider, period, and they are populated by leaders, and practitioners, who succeeded doing things an older way, because they all built their careers during a different period. That is the reality, and that brings us back to today’s theme: Old, doesn’t have to mean stuck. Does it?
A lot of media companies, especially in the digital age, do try to effect kind of, a snarky tone, and that is not us at all. So, sometimes that leaves us, I think, feeling a little bit, like the boring grownup in the room, but that is sort of, what people need sometimes.
That’s Sarah Green Carmichael, and she is the Executive Editor of Harvard Business Review. As Executive Editor, Sarah oversees the direction, and the finalized versions, of lots of their widely read articles, that make it to their digital publication. She also hosts two of their podcasts, the HBR IdeaCast, which has been going on forever, it’s a great show, and the newer, Women at Work.
From their tone of voice, to the authoritative perch that they sit on. HBR, is totally the grownup in the room. I mean, come on, they’ve been around since nineteen twenty-two. So, given their brands allure, and their sage wisdom, not to mention their age, you would never expect them to be leading the way in digital media, but today, they’re totally crushing it.
I mean, they were early adopters of Facebook live, pioneers in the podcasting space, they combine the best of both creative, and analytical thinking, and tools to overhaul their website, and match the demands, and behavior of the digital, and mobile consumption of their readers today. They are evolving. So, how do you turn a ninety-six year old institution, into a modern, digital powerhouse? That’s what I wanted to explore with Sarah.
The tone of voice to me, and the legacy of the publication, both the size, the history, and the tone. From the cheap seats, where I sit, I’m looking at what you’re doing, which is, all of these digital experiments, and digital projects, and I’m thinking, ‘How in the world, did Sarah push a publication, again, of that size, tone, and number of years running now into the digital age. So, has that been a conscious effort in your career, and you know, how hard has it been? What’s been your like, I don’t know, your marching orders, or your mission, when it comes to like, moving HBR into the digital age? How have you come at that problem?
I think we are, in some ways, the ideal publication to figure some of this stuff out, ’cause we’re publishing about it, all the time. So, if we can’t do it, based on the advice we’re publishing, then that’s a problem. The flip side of that, is that we have some of the best, in my opinion, people who think about digital strategy, and business transformation, and change leadership, writing for us, and they all are really happy to give us free advice.
So, think that’s really helped, but, I think in terms of our digital journey, I mean, we have a pretty impassioned, farsighted CEO, who understands kind of, where the business is going. We have a great editor-in-chief in place.
Two people that I worked with, for most of my time at HBR, Catherine Bell, and Eric Helwig, who really put then, that sort of web team, as we call it together, and figured out how we were going to integrate with the print team, and the books team, and how we were going, not just sort of, be our own team, like a little island, but how are we going to really bridge these different, I’m not going to say silos, I won’t do it, but how are we going to bridge these different departments, in a way that can help the whole organization become more digitally, aware and prepared for the future.
When you’re thinking about, let’s say, all of the people that you just mentioned, or you’re thinking about, left HBR, you know, everybody’s high fives, and hugs leaving, and then you have a reunion someday, and you’re looking back at like, this digital transformation that HBR has undergone. What’s the project you’re all pointing to, and being like, ‘Oh, remember when we did that thing’, that was such a great, and seminal moment for our digital evolution.’
So, I think the current iteration of the website is a big deal, because for us, that was a great leap forward into like, responsive design, and so many, involve so much of work on the back end. The front end, also looked totally different, but that was like, the least of it. If you told me ten years ago when I started, that our static web-page, we had to have in the very beginning we had a separate url.
We were very much following like, a, ‘Have a separate, innovative team that incubates things, and then maybe, brings them over to the mothership’, kind of, business model approach. If you had told me then, that we would have this award winning website that we have today, I would have just been like, ‘Oh, well, you know, that takes a load off my mind’, because it wasn’t always clear, that’s it’s where we were going to end up.
So, I think that the current iteration of the website, is something that took a lot of work, and really set us up for the future, ’cause now we’re in a position, where we can just kind of change the look, and feel of it, and we don’t have to worry as much, about re-engineering the whole back end, which I feel like is the most boring answer, but someone out there listening will be like, ‘Yes, the back end of the website, I care about that.’
Right, if you’re doing something, online and you don’t have the infrastructure to move at the speed of tech, you’re gonna fall flat on your face.
Yeah, totally, and it was one of those things where it’s like, you know, it’s like renovating a house. No one wants to replace the boiler. Like, that’s not fun, but if you don’t have that, then you don’t really have much of a house. So yeah, that was maybe the project that we all look back on.
You’ve also done a lot, with podcasting. I think that’s another example of how your work specifically, has helped evolve HBR, in a really positive way. Talk about how you first got your hands on the podcast, and then also, the second one that you launched, how did you justify launching a second show?
Yep. So, for us, the podcast has been an incredibly important, and influential digital format. So, we had a podcast, before we even had a website. Our flagship podcast, HBR IdeaCast, we launched, I believe in two-thousand seven, and that was our first digital format, so, that chugged along for a good long time, and was successful, and had a lot of great, organic growth, and we kind of, had this moment after the kind of, second launch of podcasts, after Serial, when the whole sector started really going again, and growing again, we decided that we should launch another podcast, and we had a lot of ideas about what that might be, and we launched two new shows.
One of them, is Women at Work, which I co-host with Nicole Torres, and Amy Bernstein. The second podcast, is Dear HBR, and so, we intentionally took two, very different approaches with those shows, ’cause we wanted to kind of experiment, and learn, and see what worked, and what we could do better, and both of them so far, are doing pretty well. So, we’re excited about that.
What is the process like, internally, especially when you have a brand that, you know, things that you launch? I think it’s easier when you’re a startup, and nobody pays attention to you, but people pay attention to HBR, and there’s a certain level of expectation, that I’m sure you have for your work, and also, people have for your work.
So, what’s the process of developing a new show, behind the scenes? I know the format was familiar to you, but I’m sure a lot of the execution, and the talent, and things like that, who you’re going to talk to, and the production value, there’s a lot of variables, that are unknowns. So, how do you come at doing something new, for a brand that is known, and has high expectations?
That is a very perceptive question, because we do feel that we are not in a business, where we can really do something that’s like, a minimum, viable product legitimately. So, we try to be kind of 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 really hard to do that.
So, what we tried to do was, we did some prototypes of the shows, that we only listened to internally. We told ourselves, like, ‘This is probably not going to be good enough to air, but we’re going to give everything that we can, to making these prototypes good enough to air’, and we did that a couple times, until we really felt like we had found the right kind of formula, and the right approach.
So, that was one thing, was just making content that we knew, would most likely never see the light of day, which is hard to spend your time on that, when you don’t have a lot of time. We’re not making a lot of things, that were killing normally.
We’re in uncharted territory now, so let’s dive even deeper into this idea, that just because a company is older, doesn’t mean it can’t evolve. In doing so, we’re going to find a few treasures, that we can take back with us to our work, whether we work at a large, legacy organization, or a newer startup. So Sarah, you’re someone who keeps pushing the publication forward, and I think there’s always an inherent friction that humans have to change, whether, or not a company, or a team actually wants to change, and I think it’s clear that you have a very collaborative, positive environment that you work in, but that doesn’t make change easier, or make evolution simpler, right? So, what have been the most challenging moments that you’ve encountered, along the way?
So, after the two-thousand eight recession, we basically used that, as a chance to restructure our business, and we went from three, very distinct, separate businesses. So, the Book Division, the Print Magazine Division, and the digital team, to being one editorial team, and to saying to people, you know, ‘You’re now going to work across platforms. You’re not just a magazine editor, you also have to edit stuff for the web. You’re not just a book editor, you’re also doing stuff for the web’.
And you know, ‘You’re not just a web editor, you also have to contribute to these print platforms’, and that was a time of enormous change, internally, and that meant, a lot of editors, had to learn a lot of new skills, and I think there was a lot of enthusiasm, and interest, but it’s also hard.
I mean it’s like, you’re doing this one thing, that’s taking up all of your time and then, your boss comes to you and says, ‘Oh, we now need you to keep doing all of that, and add this other thing’. That’s hard.
How did you solve that problem?
We had a lot of one-on-one conversations with people, and we tried to institute some processes, that were kind of flexible, and that would kind of, keep us going, but give us room to experiment, and do different things. An example of that would be, you know, when we started doing digital articles, we had a very loosey-goosey process for that.
For the magazine, it was, you know, editors really had to come, and they had to pitch a central editor to say like, ‘Is this an article that you want? Okay, I’ll go develop it’, and with the web, we tried to say, you know, ‘If you’re excited about an idea, there’s a ninety-five percent chance that we will be too’, and I think, especially in the beginning, giving people that sense of ownership, over like, ‘Oh, I can do this, I have the authority to green-light something’, really helped, because it was like, this little piece of property that they could really own, and play with.
So, what do you say is next, for HBR’s digital evolution? Like, where can you improve? I think, you know, if I’m being honest, everything you’ve said so far, makes it sound like you guys have passed with flying colors, and so, I imagine there’s lots of challenges.
If that was the case, that you’re like, looking at, and saying, ‘Okay, we’ve had success so far, let’s keep pushing’. Where else are you trying to push towards? Is it, you know, are these channel specific, technology specific, type things, or are they more like, areas for improvement, that sit horizontal to all your projects?
I mean, there’s definitely channel specific things we can improve. There’s definitely technological things, we can improve. Anyone who’s ever tried to use our site search, knows that it’s not good. So, that is one of the major initiatives that we’re looking at this year. It’d be like, ‘Okay, it’s twenty-eighteen, there’s no excuse for having site search, that is this hard to figure out how to use’.
So, there are some ways in which, you know, we do really need to step up. I tend to think, based on where I sit, mostly about the ideas, and the kind of, competition for ideas. When we started out, you know, there weren’t very many places, covering new academic research.
Well, there has been this whole explosion, in covering social science, in covering psychological science. The New York Times has The Upshot, courts covers a lot of research, so, we really feel now, like we are in a race, to get to new research, the most interesting research, as quickly as we can, but also as responsibly as we can. We don’t ever want to be one of those publications that’s like, ‘on Tuesday, coffee is bad for you, but on Wednesday, coffee is good for you.’
What would you say to people, that are facing similar challenges to you? So, I’d point to two, that you’ve articulated so far. So, one is: Working for an organization, whether there’s high expectations, that everything you deliver will be great, right out of the box.
However, you have to test to learn, right? So, let’s start there. What would you say to an organization, or an employee, or a leader at that organization, that really does want to move faster, evolve, test, and learn, you know, operate at the speed of the world today, but they are either, held back by internal political forces, or just the expectations that are really high, in terms of the audience that they face.
I think what’s worked for us, is doing really small experiments. So, trying to figure out some way, if you can’t test the whole thing, is there a way that you can test some piece of the thing? If you want to try a new format, for example, is there a way that you can do like, a mini experiment?
So, can you do a short Instagram video, where maybe the stakes are relatively low, and then use that to inform, maybe what you do with your higher end video program. So, we were able to use Facebook Live, for example, as a way to do a lot of new video experimentation, and since Facebook Live was brand new, and since it was Facebook, it was kind of like, people’s expectations actually were pretty low, even for established media companies.
I feel like, it’s sort of finding those spots, when you know the audience will forgive you, and finding the right people, who are enthusiastic about your brand, and will give you a lot of rope, and who want to see you succeed, but who will also tell you, when you are doing something that is not what they want.
Finding sort of, the right people to give you that feedback, is really helpful, and I don’t think that, sort of, focus groups work, so, I’m not suggesting that. I’m talking about sort of, real experiments, with the right kind of customers, live in the field, I think can be really helpful.
I love the live in the field idea. There are some people that are probably like, ‘I can’t even get something out the door’, but I would point to a documentary film, by the tech company InVision, called Design Disruptors. Sarah, is this something that you’re familiar with?
I am not.
So, Design Disruptors, is like, an hour long, fully produced documentary, which is gorgeous, from this software company that helps create tools, to help product designers, and the reason I bring this up is, the way it got started, wasn’t to create a film.
Like, the people behind the film didn’t get sign off or budget. They were creating these like, slightly more innovative, or more refreshing case studies, and then, they were like, ‘Well, it’s not really going to cut it, look how great these are, wouldn’t this be better, as a whole film?’.
So, they actually didn’t share the test externally. They were like, sharing it with each other, and their executives, and being like, ‘This was our proposed solution’. Like, in the back of their minds, they wanted to make this big film, but when they got started, when they got permission, or budget, all they could do, was create case studies.
So, into those little case studies, went a few questions, and some production polish, that resembled the documentary, and they convinced the stakeholders internally, that we actually need to blow this out. Which, I thought was just, a genius way to come at this idea, of testing something small.
Yes, I think that sounds helpful. So, one of the challenges that we have had, is figuring out what quality is, in different contexts. Because, I think one of the things that was challenging for us, especially in the beginning is that like, a one-thousand word article, to some editors, might not seem like it’s very high quality, ’cause it’s, you know, only a quarter of the size of a four-thousand word article.
So, I think we had to have a lot of conversations about like, how to do really good, short form content, for the web, and how a sort of, different way of measuring quality, wasn’t a different standard of quality. But I think what your story sort of conveys to me, is that like, a similar kind of conversation, has to happen in a lot of businesses, where you’re like, ‘Okay, we want to make this different kind of product, it’s not the thing that we’re known for making. We haven’t tried it before,’ and the first reaction is often kind of like, ‘Whoa, what is that, that’s not our brand’.
But, you have to kind of figure out like, ‘Well, is there a way that we can do this new thing, that does feel like us, even though it is so different, than what we’ve done before.’
I love that. So, that’s the first thing I wanted to talk to you about, which is this problem, that you identified, and the thing that you were good at, in terms of pushing a new project with high stakes.
The second thing, I think you seem to be really adept at doing, is using new tools. So, it’s not just the size, or newness of the project, it’s the digital side, of a legacy business. So, how were you able to convince people at HBR, or what would you say to others, who are struggling to do something like you did, to actually convince people, who are thinking about legacy channels, or modes of operating to evolve?
I mean, it’s hard to do if you are not at the top, right? ‘Cause I think, if you were at the top, you can kind of say, ‘Listen, we’re gonna start an Instagram feed, and there might be people in this building who are like, why is our shipping container company, starting an Instagram feed? But we are gonna hire someone, who is gonna do it, and you know, manage our other social media, and they are gonna do it differently, than we’ve done before, and it’s not gonna be stodgy, and boring. It’s not gonna be just responding to customer service, like, we’re gonna try to be creative’.
If you are an executive, at a level in an organization, where you can sort of, plant that flag, and create that room for someone to come in, and be creative, like, that is much easier, than being someone in the middle, or kind of, towards the bottom, who sees a need, and is trying to convince some older, more powerful, skeptical people, to go along, and give you that breathing room, and that chance.
But, I still think that you can do it, even if you are sort of, not the most powerful person in the room. You kind of have to take a, ‘Well, let’s just try it, and see what happens’, approach, right? Like, ‘Let’s just try a small experiment, it’s an experiment’.
It’s hard to say no to something that’s just an experiment, and if it doesn’t work, I mean, the thing you also really have to be willing to do, is you have to be really willing to admit when your idea hasn’t worked, and you have to be willing to pull the plug on it. Otherwise, you know, it’s not an experiment, right?
Yeah, I mean, I put a pin in a couple of things there. One is, lower the stakes in the minds of others, right? Like yes, you might want to transform your business, or operate a certain way that hasn’t been done before, but seems more modern, but if you get friction, if you get push-back, just lower the stakes.
It’s not radical change, it’s a tiny step, or a tiny experiment, and then the other point, which really resonates deeply with me, which is like, be willing to kill your darlings. You have to be willing to just kind of, step back once in a while, and look at something objectively, in terms of how it’s performing, and be willing to kill it.
Yeah, and I think it’s one of those things, I wish I could remember who gave this advice, but I thought it was so helpful. They were like, ‘If someone ever says to you, like, this isn’t working, you should believe them. If they try to tell you why it’s not working, maybe you shouldn’t believe them’. Like, on why, but like, to have a sort of, listener, or reader, or customer and they’re like, ‘This just isn’t working for me’. Like, that’s feedback you need to be able to take.
Absolutely, and I know we keep talking about content, but you can substitute the word, ‘creativity’, for ‘quality’, but I think ‘creativity’, with a capital c, makes sense. So, it’s a creative approach, not necessarily creative, so to speak, but let’s, let’s talk about our worlds, and content, you and me, Sarah.
Good creative, or good content, should measure well, and I have a lot of people who come to me, and say, ‘I want to create a podcast like you have, Jay, or write something more creative, or whatever, but my boss needs to measure everything I do’, and it’s like, that’s fine, great. Creative should measure well. Data, and ideas, they work together, to give you an insight, like, that this should be harmonious, not full of conflict, and yet unfortunately, it becomes a tension.
Yeah, I think that’s a good point, and I think one of the big challenges that media companies have had, and in some ways media companies are just, the leading edge of transformation, that’s happening in lots of businesses that is, sort of, coming to the realization with the rise of the internet, that a lot of the content, they were really proud of doing, wasn’t what people were willing to pay for.
And, this whole disruption we have been seeing, is companies from HBR, to the Washington Post, to BuzzFeed, coming up with ways to figure out how to make a business model, around doing stuff that their people feel like really matters. You know, the stories that really matter, and the old newspaper business model, people could think, ‘Oh, you know, our readers are paying for this hard news’, when actually, the readers were just paying for the classifieds, and the sports pages.
And, the internet kind of, ripped the cover off all of that, and exposed that ‘Actually no, like, readers were paying for the stuff that, a lot of the journalists thought was kind of, fluff, and didn’t really matter’, and I think that was a really hard pill, for a lot of people in the industry to swallow, and I’m glad that we now seem to be on the other side of that, and we’re instead, thinking about like, ‘Okay, how do we make a go of this? ‘Cause, this is the new world that we’re in.
Big thank you to our guest today, Sarah Green Carmichael, who shared all that wisdom. Be sure to give her a shout on Twitter, at SKGreen. You can follow Tettra on Twitter, at Team Tettra, or head over to the show website, for culture decks from some of the world’s top brands, at OrgUncharted dot com.
All of these links, are in the show notes. This show is a production of Unthinkable Media, which makes refreshingly entertaining shows, about work. It’s hosted by me, Jay Acunzo, and produced by Annie Sensabaugh. This was the second, to last episode of season one, and we’re back in another couple of weeks, with a very special season finale. I’ll talk to you then, on that final, season one episode, of OrgUncharted. See ya.