If you aren’t scared, are you really innovating?

Apr 10 2017

If you hop onto Twitter at any given time, you can find someone writing about media innovation, whether it’s about a new technology (chatbots) or a different business model (micropayments). These are both important changes to the media and journalism industries–but are they actually innovative?

Innovative isn’t the same as new. To many of us, the word “innovation” brings to mind new platforms and new technologies. But what makes those new platforms and new technologies innovative?

In other words, are chatbots or micropayments innovative in and of themselves? Or is there something specific about them that make them innovative?

It’s a question that we’re careful about in the Lab. When something is new and exciting, it’s tempting to say it’s also innovative. But we have a specific definition of innovation that we try to keep in mind. In fact, it’s written on our wall:

“If it is truly innovative, it challenges the status quo.”

We didn’t come up with this–it’s from Tim Brown’s “Change by Design“. He’s referencing Clayton Christensen’s concept of disruption and the innovator’s dilemma. (For more on how these concepts tie into journalism, check out the Nieman Foundation’s report, Breaking News.)

"If it is truly innovative, it challenges the status quo."

Every media lab needs a giant whiteboard.

In the context of the innovator’s dilemma, the status quo refers to the status quo of the organization-

-what the organization currently sees as valuable resources, profitable items, and low risk ventures.

Because we think that the value of media is in its ability to inform and engage citizens, we also consider whether our products challenge how people communicate and engage with each other.

So according to our definition, not all changes are innovations. Chatbots are new technology, but creating a chatbot alone isn’t an innovation. Using chatbots to link to existing stories isn’t innovative.

Adapting the way stories are told through chatbots because of the way users interact with them, like using shorter paragraphs or timing incoming messages, is an important part of human centered design. But these adaptions only become innovative if they can replace traditional journalism mediums (or workflows) altogether.

And if chatbots also change relationships—whether it’s the relationship between communities and media organizations, or communities and themselves, or communities and political leaders—then that’s a kind of innovation too.

So in a sentence: If your media innovation isn’t scary, risky, and idealistic– check if you’re innovating at all.


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