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3 Ways to Turn Your Newsroom Into an Idea Workshop

Last week The Globe and Mail interviewed Steven Berlin Johnson, author of the book Where Good Ideas Come From, and put together eight of his ideas that can “turn your workplace into an idea workshop.” Most of them are obvious: don’t be a know-it-all, don’t keep secrets, accept failure. But I think three are missing from a lot of newsrooms.

Become an omnivore

This isn’t a new idea. New York Times staffer Nate Silver gives the same advice to new journalists. But how can you possibly add more to the firehose of information you’re faced with every day? That’s not a problem with information overload, says Clay Shirky, “It’s filter failure.” Find your filters and you’ll be able expand your focus and discover trends and ideas developing outside of your sphere.

[Johnson said,] “Steve Jobs hired people not only trained in technology but in humanities and graphic design. And he let the folks who came in with other perspectives have as much say in product development meetings as the programmers and engineers. If there was poetry in things Apple produced, it was because they have actual poets in the company.”

Show And Tell

Brainstorm happens when we’re coming up with headline ideas, with story ideas. It happens when we’re planning how we’ll cover something. But it rarely happens when there’s not a specific goal. That’s a lost opportunity. There needs to be time for unstructured brainstorming, said Johnson, but only a few companies allow it to happen.

He’s a proponent of a concept used by design company Ideo Labs, in Palo Alto, Calif., which has developed a number of cutting-edge products, including the first mouse for Apple computers. Owners Tom and David Kelly bring their managers together for 20 minutes every Monday for what they call “show and tell.” The managers talk about things that grabbed their attention: “My seven-year-old just loves this crazy new toy” or “I saw an art installation that was amazing.”

The free-wheeling session clues in people to new ideas “and it’s been a great generator of innovation for the company,” Mr. Johnson said.

Promote pollination

Like a bee who brings the pollen around, a key role of a leader today is to be a pollinator, a person who talks to the engineering people and then talks with the marketing people and then the finance group. It’s important to not only know what everyone is doing but also to encourage people to link up. “The leader can say: Bob, it might be a good idea to talk to Bill because the two of you are facing similar challenges and what he’s finding might be relevant to what you’re doing.”

Or to take Maureen Dowd out of context: “As in Darwinian evolution, cross-pollination with diverse strains promotes species development.”