The ideas paradox: why publishers fail to innovate

The ideas paradox: why publishers fail to innovate

Publishers can’t innovate. Despite all the resources and talent within publishing, startups have the edge when it comes to innovation.

This phenomenon is called the ‘innovator’s dilemma’ and was spotted by Clayton M Christensen over two decades ago. In short, any successful business will fail to innovate because it needs to sustain its current business model and serve existing customers. This allows nimble startups to find new customers and niches. Startups can develop products faster, so quickly gain ground, and disrupt the incumbents.

Whilst this dilemma is true, it doesn’t mean that startups have all the ideas. There’s no lack of entrepreneurial ideas in business. In fact, the experts at Accenture found that there’s a surplus of profitable innovations within business – the problem is turning those ideas into commercial product.

So, what’s happening? Publishing is packed full of creative people who are buzzing with ideas. This is certainly my experience at Emerald Publishing. As head of innovation, my job was originally designed to develop new product; however, my time was more often dedicated to developing a culture of innovation. Rather than being an ideas-maker, I became an ideas-catalyst responsible for giving colleagues the skills, tools and support to make innovation happen.

It wasn’t always easy. One of the problems I faced was a new ideas paradox where people reject ideas even when they have new ideas as a business goal. This psychological bias is seen across businesses the world over, as bosses call for innovation - yet when staff come up with creative ideas they don’t get listened to. A whopping 82% of 25-34 year olds feel their money-making opportunities have been overlooked by their bosses. This situation leads to managerial cynicism from having ‘seen it all before’ that crushes the optimism of young recruits eager to make an impact. The result is often that those with exactly the entrepreneurial skills needed leave to start up on their own.

In short, our inability to nurture talent in house is creating competition for ourselves... as if publishing doesn’t face enough challenges! So to thrive as a creative industry, we need to invest in innovation within our companies - building a culture that supports and encourages staff to have ideas, whilst also having a rigorous system to test and develop them commercially.

How? Here are my top three tips for managers:

  • Don’t become a cynical old so-and-so. Acknowledge your own bias, and counter it with openness to new ideas and systems to test with users. If an idea is any good, - it will resonate with customers who are the experts in what they want.
  • Invest in the human. By all means automate your systems, but don’t neglect your staff – creative problem solving is one skill at which humans will always beat the bots. Lack of time is the biggest barrier to innovation so make the most of your skilled workforce by giving them freedom for creativity alongside productivity.
  • Be transparent. Don’t hide away innovation. Fling open the doors to your R&D processes with opportunities for cross-business projects and secondments. Have a pipeline for ideas, be honest about what’s happening to them, celebrate successful ideas and give reasons for why others didn’t happen.

And my top three ideas-making tips for staff:

  • Ace your workload. Your primary job is to do your job, so nail that and prove you’ve got space to work on other projects. Only then tell your boss you have ideas, ask them for advice, training, mentoring and time to make them happen.
  • Empathise with your boss. They are under huge pressures to deliver. New product ideas can be a distraction, if not downright scary for bosses, so don’t bang on about disrupting the business as you’ll get rejected. Think of ways to demonstrate your innovation in small ways, build it incrementally, and be persistent – accept that most of your ideas will fail, so dust yourself off, and try again, and again.
  • Have a side hustle. Sometimes it just isn’t going to happen at work, so invest in your side projects and learn from meetups, maker days and hackathons.

I believe that with the right mindset and tools anyone in publishing can make ideas happen. As I prepare to leave Emerald Publishing and I look back on what’s worked, I feel most proud of cross-functional innovation and working with colleagues outside of innovation and product development.

But now it’s time for me to invest in my own ideas and see if I can develop Prolifiko into a business rather than a side project. The coming months will be the ultimate test of my own innovation principles – wish me luck!