Don’t be Ned Stark

10 tips for innovating within institutions while keeping your head


Don’t be Ned Stark: 10 tips for innovating within institutions while keeping your head

The US has built a robust infrastructure in support of the startup. Over the last few years accelerators, incubators, mentors and academic curriculum have emerged as common tools for advancing new, lean businesses. The startup was central at last week’s South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, with a Startup village, an accelerator pitch contest, and a series of panels. In our embrace of startup culture, however, I fear we risk ignoring the potential of established institutions. A handful of innovation agents are trying to apply startups’ culture of experimentation, appetite for risk and acceptance of failure to government, educational and corporate institutions. Transformation is lonely work; when they’re not successful internal agents of innovation can find themselves isolated and out of a job.

To explore issues of driving innovation within institutions four of us gathered on a panel at SXSW on March 9. The panel’s title, “Don’t Be Ned Stark: Change Your Institution & Live,” was a reference to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones fantasy book and TV series. To summarize without spoilers: Lord Stark reluctantly took on an assignment from a new king to reform the realm as his chief of staff. Stark is confronted by entrenched interests on all sides; he has inherited middle managers who are confident they can outlast him, and he struggles with bureaucracy. Suffice it to say, he doesn’t succeed, thus the title.

The panel featured three people who have been far more successful than Ned Stark at driving innovation in three different industries:

Here are some of the stories and advice that came from our conversation.

  1. No man is an island. Not even Steve Jobs was a one-person show. The panelists noted that external advice networks have been vital to their success. Ramos relies on friends from outside the journalism world: “your go-to people that you can rant and vent to” even if they don’t know the details of your situation. Reed hired engineers and designers from his personal “cabal,” people with whom he had worked over the years.
  2. Don’t outsource the innovation. Use outsiders judiciously. Bannon shared an experience of engaging IDEO to help drive innovation within the library. To sustain innovation he learned he needed to adapt IDEO’s practices to the particular circumstances of the library. “We were tempted to allow them to come in and create new stuff for us,” he said. But instead they worked with IDEO to enable library staff to design their own programs.
  3. Win with small ball. “The conversation always comes back to resources,” said Reed. “When you just do small things, prove they work; that’s when people would be willing to plan more aggressively.” Ramos agreed: “Find the smallest thing to work on for that problem and grow on that idea.”
  4. Innovate at the edge, bridge to the core. Ramos shared what she learned through the Bold Italic, a news startup she helped found within Gannett. Disruptive stuff cannot happen in the core,” she said in describing how she used the internal startup to experiment with of publishing local news on the Internet with lower stakes. The challenge then becomes to bridge lessons back into the larger organization.
  5. Manage up. Reed emphasized the importance of having a boss (campaign manager Jim Messina) who provided cover from above. It’s important to “have one person above you who supports you and lets you build the infrastructure to execute and succeed,” he said. Ramos said that scheduling regular meetings with her boss has helped her to establish and maintain trust.
  6. Manage down. Building a team is vital for internal transformation to take, but also tricky. Hiring for cultural fit while ensuring divergent viewpoints requires careful planning. Reed shared that in the past he hired people he knew; now, to avoid working in an echo chamber, he posts all his new company’s open positions. Bannon said that some of the best thinking in the library space done has come from people from other sectors.
  7. Nurture chaos. “Never be too comfortable;” emphasized Bannon. An environment of chaos forces you and your team to try different things, he said. Creative chaos can get push you off your own agenda towards better understand the wants and needs of the people you’re serving.
  8. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Reed shared the most valuable advice he received during the campaign from John Maeda, former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, to “manage by your outbox.” Maeda’s advice was to proactively reach to internal antagonists. Reed said that by sending out brief status updates he received positive responses resulting in a more welcoming environment.
  9. Surrender is an option. Bannon emphasized that sometimes leaders stop being effective drivers of transformation; when that happens it may be time to move on.
  10. Civic institutions matter. In introducing the panel, I mentioned that it was only upon meeting Brian Bannon and learning about his work that I began to appreciate the importance of libraries as civic innovators. (Disclosure: my wife works with Brian at the Library.) Bannon describes libraries as “the greatest innovation story never told.” His 140-year-old organization, which has 1,000 employees and 80 locations, serves 200,000 people each week— attributes that can constrain risk-taking. Under his leadership the library has become more focused on learning than worried about failure. The result has been the creation of a series of successful projects that began as experiments, such as the Geeks-in-Residence Program, a Maker Lab, and YouMedia, making it a model for civic innovation.

(Thanks to Alexis Rapo and Michael Bolden for sharing their notes from the session.)

Cross-posted at the Harvard Business School Open Forum.