Lessons for Insights Leaders from Jon Stewart and the Daily Show

By Jay Newman, Jump Associates

Jon Stewart and Michael Mullen on The Daily Show” by Chad J. McNeeley — This United States Navy photo, taken from this Navy webpage. This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 100106-N-0696M-127 (next).This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

If you lead a team of people responsible for providing insights to an organization, the recently released The Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests is a must-read. It’s chock full of lessons, best practices and practical systems that any team with a mix of creatives, analysts and strategists could take advantage of. And, of course, it’s a hoot.

To figure out how Jon Stewart led his team to 22 Emmy awards and 44 nominations, watch his very last episode of The Daily Show. In particular, watch Stephen Colbert’s sendoff to Jon. In it, Colbert describes what Jon was like as a leader, and what he brought to his teams (while Jon tries oh so hard to get off screen — click below to watch).

Click the photo for a link to the video clip (via Comedy Central)

Here’s what Colbert said in his final note of appreciation: “You said to me and to many other people here years ago never to thank you because we owe you nothing. It is one of the few times I’ve known you to be dead wrong. We owe you — and not just for what you did for our careers by employing us to come on this tremendous show that you made. We owe you because we learned from you — by example. How to do a show with intention. How to work with clarity. How to treat people with respect. You were infuriatingly good at your job. All of us who were lucky enough to work with you for 16 years are better at our jobs because we got to watch you do yours. And we are better people for having known you. You are a great artist and a good man.”

As I read through the entire oral history, it was striking to see how consistently the principles of “working with clarity” and “doing a show with intention” were repeated by the team that worked with Jon.

Here are a few notes and ideas about how you can bring more intention and clarity to your teams.

Work with clarity.

Clarity may seem like such an obvious thing, but it’s so essential — for leadership broadly and especially for leaders in charge of bringing insights into an organization.

So often, the goals for insights teams are much more ambiguous than the goals and plans for the rest of the organization. While everyone else is responsible for executing an existing business, insights teams are charged with understanding change, finding new opportunities, and envisioning competitive markets that might not yet exist.

Because the problems of insights work can be so ambiguous, teams need their leaders to emphasize clarity in everything they do. Expectations and goals. Roles and responsibilities. Vision and strategy. And of course, in the findings, insights and recommendations they’re communicating.

Being clear means:

1. Getting the words AND the meaning to be simple and concrete.

2. Carefully (sometimes exhaustingly carefully) wordsmithing and designing.

3. Making sure that insights are actionable in your team and enterprise.

The Daily Show creates real clarity for its audience with a carefully designed production schedule that is built to “reliably generate comedy four nights per week with minimal backstage problems.” Each morning begins with a writers meeting, followed by research and drafting segment scripts, then a script review and re-drafting process, a walk-through of the show’s headlines and story arc, and finally the rehearsal.

Then, in what several insiders called “the most distinctive element of a Daily Show day,” Jon hosted an “intensive re-write session” in the hour between rehearsal and taping. At this point, everything went through Jon. “The goal of the re-write room was to make the words on the screen match the words that Jon wanted to say…not necessarily to make the funniest joke.” Jon would sit in a room with two executive producers, the head writer and the script supervisor. He’d read the script out loud, re-write it, crystalize and clarify it. As elements of the script got captured, they would send some lines off to rooms of writers to “gang” them and ideate a list of joke options. They’d send others off to graphics to get new overhead images. It would all come back together, and the show would go on.

While I really like the idea of formally creating a re-write room, a production process or even something like Pixar’s “creative brain trust” to improve the impact your insights team is having, there are also simpler ways to get moving in the right direction.

To bring the same clarity to the audience your insights team serves, get in the habit of always working through the answers to a strategy-into-action framework that’s tailored to your business. Start by working through the answers to the following five questions.

(1) Who are we? As a company, who are we at our core and how are we going to leverage new insights to fulfill our purpose?

(2) What’s going on? What’s going on in the world that matters to us? What trends must we deal with? What do we know that no one else knows?

(3) Where should we play? What part of the market matters to us? What specific opportunities are we going after? Why are those right for us?

(4) How are we going to win? What could we create that is a match with these opportunities, is differentiated and fulfills unmet needs for our customers?

(5) What are we doing about it? What actions do we need to take, who’s going to do it, and how are how are we going to get started?

Do the show with intention.

Colbert also praised the intention with which Jon Stewart always did his show. As Jon describes in The Daily Show: An Oral History, “Intention is a really big thing at The Daily Show. ‘Where is the intention? Let’s find a path to that intention.’ A lot of my day is spent finding the writers enough time to bring what’s great about their writing to the process.” According to his correspondents, he would constantly ask “Why are we talking about this?”

Digging deeper, it becomes clear that Jon wanted each individual story to have an answer to that “why,” and he also wanted the show itself to have an answer. “You want it to be pointed, purposeful, intentional, surgical.” As another correspondent said, “the show needed to have a point of view and couldn’t just be the kid in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs at the teacher.”

“Intention” is a surprising word to hear in the context of work, so I was taken aback the first time I heard it. For me, it’s also especially surprising because that’s actually a word that shows up in our business, too.

Recently, a pair of clients — who had spent several months encamped at Jump’s offices to work alongside us — offered their observations on what it’s like to work at Jump. (It’s always enlightening to see your own world through someone else’s eyes!) One key takeaway they had was that “everything at Jump is intentional.”

I’d never really thought about it this way, but it’s true. They were talking about everything from the architecture of our space to the food in the kitchen, from the cadence of our daily rituals to the research methods that we use, from the people we recruit to the teamwork that we foster.

You can ask me “why do you do XYZ” for any of those things, and there’s a backstory and an intended link to our work, our strategy, our culture and our purpose. (OK, there’s often also a very nerdy philosophical or anthropological or neuroscientific theory involved, too. You know, for those who REALLY want to know why.) Everything we do is intentional.

It’s not easy to work as a team, day in and day out. It’s not easy to push teammates or clients beyond their comfort zones — to enable real learning and growth. And it’s not easy to push for deep insight or spot an opportunity for a new business — and then to turn around and start working again the next week.

Being intentional about designing all the different elements of our organization, our team and our business certainly helps make the work repeatable and successful. But even more than that, it helps make the work be filled with meaning. If you’re going to spend the few hours you have in a day working, shouldn’t there be a reason “why” for everything you touch? Don’t you and your teams deserve that?

Here are three ways that insights leaders we work with have built more intention into their work.

(1) Link to the “big why” behind it all. Talk regularly about the purpose of this business or problem and why it deserves our energy and commitment.

(2) Push for a point-of-view. Take a stance on what you’ve learned in your insights work, what’s critical and what’s most important, and especially in the implications for what the organization needs to do because of it.

(3) Design meaning into everyday activities. Make choices about how your meetings, office space, technology — even your buzzwords — are contributing to doing better insights work or helping the organization understand its customers.

Our friends and partners who focus on just one or two of these suggestions find that they dramatically increase their effectiveness. Intention and clarity lead to bottom-line results. But more than that, they boost morale, unite your team, and help you move faster and more effectively. Why not give it a try?

If you want to learn more about The Daily Show’s creative process or about Jon’s leadership techniques, the entire Oral History is worth a read. My colleagues have also been writing about how to get more impact from your insights, how to be more bold in the point-of-view of your recommendations and how to get other leaders in your organization to take action, faster.