News Leadership 3.0

July 18, 2008

Loop management

@ Leadership conference:
Stacy Lynch shows editors
how to get to market faster

If you ever participated a newspaper redesign, you know this sad truth: Product development in the newsroom tends to take on a life of its own, and it is often a very, very, very long life.

That tradition is a significant obstacle in the online world, and editors are fretting more and more about “time to market” when their organizations come up with good ideas for online. As if technological and sometimes corporate constraints aren’t enough, the cautious culture of news organizations is a significant obstacle.

Stacy Lynch, a project director with Media Management Center and former Innovations Director at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has seen the problem up close. And that experience informed a presentation at Knight’s Leadership conference that I think editors everywhere will find very valuable.

A few key points:


Someone has an idea (run Auto section inside the Friday entertainment section to save production costs). It goes from the production department to the operating committee, which forms an interdepartmental team. The team explores the idea and reports pros and cons. The fun begins. Different groups and departments see how it will impact them (losing color positions, earlier deadlines…). The questions and new requirements (keep the color positions and the deadlines) pile on - what Lynch calls “process looping”— and the committee may be mired in research and discussions of tradeoffs for weeks. Meanwhile, the new requirements significantly reduce cost savings are not that significant.

And importantly, “process looping” makes idea vetting take far longer than it’s worth. Too often, Lynch says, that means key newsroom people are working for weeks and months on a small idea, expending valuable time and brainpower that would be better spent elsewhere.

The auto section effort was a small idea, Lynch said, when the organization should have been “asking ‘what is the best thing we could do to lower production costs?’ “

To eliminate the loops, Lynch recommends working all options simultaneously. “This isn’t a waste because it leads to better decisions and guarantees that you’ve have a workable option available.”

“Multiple options force creativity and depersonalize decisions.”

Innovation traps
Lynch listed three traps that kill innovation (based on the work of Michael May in “Elegant Solutions.”)

- Swinging for the fences, “homerun or bust.”
- Getting too clever, too many “bells and whistles.”
- Solving problems frivolously with misguided creativity.

I think this is a particularly valuable caution for newsrooms. With their tendency to be perfectionists, newsroom groups too often load up every project with every conceivable possibility. We like long lists. Great. Learn to edit them down.

The alternative, Lynch suggests, is to “embrace iteration,” meaning breaking projects down into components or chunks and rolling them out one at a time. So a new Web channel might start with core information, add social networking a few months later, and keep adding features until it’s finished. That’s a smarter, faster approach than waiting until every conceivable piece is ready to launch.

And even if it means making mistakes, Lynch says, they are more than offset by the value of getting the product out the door.

Who is the D?

Another problem that plagues newsroom project development, Lynch says, is that everyone wants to make decisions and nobody wants to make decisions. So decide at the beginning of the process who gets to decide and stick with it. This is part of a process called RAID, which I saw used effectively in Atlanta. Go to Lynch’s presentation for more detail.


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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