Illustration by Samantha Harrington
It’s the classic story: business is good, your product is selling, your customers are happy, so you keep doing what you’re doing.
Everything seems great, but in reality you’re stuck.
This is a principle that I came across often as a student in an entrepreneurial journalism lab. It’s identified in Clayton Christensen’s business-world famous book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.
“The techniques that worked so extraordinarily well when applied to sustaining technologies, however, clearly failed badly when applied to markets or applications that did not yet exist,” Christensen wrote.
When I studied it in school, it all seemed so theoretical. The principle made sense, but I only recently realized how real its effect is.
Christensen’s work focuses on the inability of big companies to innovate when they are set in their successful model. What I learned this summer, a year into running my startup, is that the innovator’s dilemma isn’t just a problem for big businesses.
I imagine it’s easier for a small company to shift its focus back to innovation than it is in a big company. There are fewer ropes to cut and people to convince. But still…
My startup is a media company, and our product is stories. Last fall, we produced a series of stories as our pilot launch. Everything was new. Every time we worked on a new story we reported it, produced it and designed it in a different way. We constantly pushed the boundaries of what we could do, how our stories could look and what they would mean to our audience. We tried out video and audio pieces so our audience could connect completely to our story subjects. We combined writing and design to flush out hard-to-understand problems and statistics.
This summer we set off on our second storytelling series. And we knew what we were doing. We knew how to find stories and we knew how to produce them.
But two stories into July, we were struggling to create anything new. The stories themselves were different, but everything from the the way they looked to the way the narrative flowed, was the same, traditional format — long-form, chronologically written text pieces. They had pretty photos and words, but they weren’t doing anything new.
There are four of us on my team and two of us handle the brunt of the storytelling, so once we realized we were in a rut, we decided to change it. But that doesn’t mean we’re just blindly trying crazy new things.
We work, through analytics like page views and time-on-page and more personal conversations with our readers about their reaction to our stories, to make sure that we’re filling a need for our audience. But we also need to focus on figuring out what they’ll want in the future before they even know it.
“In disruptive situations, action must be taken before careful plans are made,” Christensen wrote in The Innovator’s Dilemma. “Because much less can be known about what markets need or how large they can become, plans must serve a very different purpose: They must be plans for learning rather than plans for implementation.”
So that’s what we’re trying to do. Instead of mapping out a story before we start, we map out who we want to learn from. When we were working on a story about small family farmers in Iowa, we sat down and interviewed a farmer to learn what issues were relevant and important to them and interesting to us. After interviews, my colleague, Hannah, and I, sit down and try to figure out the best way to tell the story. While we’re doing that, we’re referencing techniques that have worked in the past. “People really responded well to audio,” Hannah said. “Well, 75% of our audience views our site on desktop. So let’s give them something to look at in addition to audio,” I responded.
But even then, we’re still in the learning stages of planning our story.
In Iowa, after we had a format worked out that we liked, we sat down for another interview and we realized that the essential narrative was actually much bigger than individual farmers. So we decide we need to be innovative. We tried a completely new narrative structure by embedding a personal story of a farmer within a bigger piece on changes in agriculture by using different colored boxes.
This is how we used colored boxes to tell three stories at once.
Then we publish the story and ask our audience what they liked and what they didn’t like. We move forward from there on another story. Rinse and repeat.
The most essential way we keep on our toes is to make innovating a constant thing — like we did within our storytelling process in Iowa, or like in the first-person narrative, scrolling-parallax story about a Polish bakery in Chicago that we just released on Monday. Every time we do something, we ask ourselves and our audience whether there’s a more effective, simpler or just more interesting way.
And if we can keep innovating, so can you. It’s when you lose sight of moving forward because you’re too swamped with your daily to-do list that you have a problem.
So to make sure your company is always looking toward the future identify when you’re in a rut, pay attention to the needs of your audience, and make innovation part of your daily work.
This article first appeared in www.forbes.com