Investing in Innovation

by Scott Burg

Scott Burg
Apr 5, 2016 · 8 min read

Latest in a series of articles from Disrupting Public Media (transformation at KQED). Find the other articles here

It had the feel of an Apple product launch. The SRO crowd at KQED headquarters in San Francisco was stirring, texting furiously on their phones or taking selfies with their friends. Video cameras lined the aisles while ’80s Motown and funk blared over loudspeakers. Anxious presenters were huddled in the wings, making last-minute changes to their product pitches. It was Demo Day at KQED. Wait, what? Demo Day at KQED? Why would a nonprofit public media station like KQED be hosting its own Demo Day?

Demo Days are typically a big deal in the Bay Area. A direct outgrowth of the region’s many tech incubators and accelerators, these events provide a forum for innovators to pitch their ideas to potential investors. Aspiring entrepreneurs are given about 7 minutes to present their product or service as convincingly as they can. For these presenters, Demo Day marks the culmination of months of intense planning and rehearsal, all for the opportunity to attract the critical funding and recognition necessary to build their fledgling companies.

The audience at KQED, which included staff and local business entrepreneurs, was eagerly anticipating presentations from five KQED staff teams, all recent graduates of the inaugural KQED Lab. KQED Lab is a ten-week design thinking boot camp, where participants develop, test and refine ideas for engaging and retaining new audiences. Much like entrepreneurs pitching their ideas to venture capitalists, these teams were hoping to parlay their product or service concepts into investments by KQED.

KQED Lab is not an isolated experiment, but part of KQED’s deliberate corporate strategy to participate and invest in the Bay Area’s culture of innovation.

An Accelerator for Public Media

Traditionally, public media has a reputation for being staid, not particularly innovative, and relatively risk averse. Operating in the Bay Area, however, exposes KQED to organizations ready and willing to experiment and explore new ideas. KQED management realized that in order to stay relevant in the new digital media space, they had to shake things up. More broadly, management wanted to better understand how the station could weave innovation into the public media space. How could lessons learned in Silicon Valley ferment fresh ideas and incubate new products and services that would drive the station’s “audience first” strategic focus?

Working with colleagues from the Public Radio Exchange and the Knight Foundation, KQED CEO John Boland, and VP for Digital and Education Tim Olson began to explore these questions in more depth. Their self-imposed challenge was finding a way to adapt Silicon Valley’s startup accelerator model to create a similar opportunity for public media. This idea came to fruition when, in late 2012, KQED, along with Knight and PRX, became a co-founding limited partner in Matter Ventures, a startup accelerator to support media entrepreneurs

The announcement of KQED’s involvement with Matter came as a surprise to many. This type of fiscal investment into a VC fund was atypical, if not unheard of, for a public media station. Why would KQED, a trusted public institution, want to take the risk associated with this kind of venture? Could they work with media startup companies funded through Matter that might be perceived as competitors? Did KQED have the creative and financial wherewithal to be a strong partner?

For Boland and Olson, KQED’s investment represented both an outside-in and inside-out innovation strategy

“Outside-in is one of the reasons that we invested in Matter. We’re not actually looking for a financial return per se as much as an innovation return. Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, emphasizes that the cultural forces inside an established organization push very hard against disruptive innovation. Matter is one way that KQED can not only set up an environment for disruptive innovation but also remain close to it.” — John Boland

Involvement in Matter has also provided KQED an inside-out opportunity to partner with and mentor a new generation of media entrepreneurs. Matter teams have benefited from KQED’s perspective and feedback, learning firsthand the challenges faced by a large public media organization. Many of Matter’s young media entrepreneurs credit Olson and Boland with helping them shape a more media-centric corporate vision.

“We aspire to be like an NPR or KQED when we grow up. We want to be much more like NPR or KQED than Snapchat, Twitter or a lot of other tech or social media companies.” — Matter alum

In addition to mentoring young companies, KQED management believed that “funding the competition” through Matter would create a kind of super-disruptive space within public media that would push KQED even harder to innovate. A number of interviewees from KQED’s management and Board of Directors concurred that encouraging and being connected to a generation of energized public media-related startups would best serve the organization’s mission.

Through Matter, management also hoped to shift the perception of KQED within Silicon Valley from an old media company to an active participant in the region’s technology ecosystem.

When I talk to people at Google or Apple or with venture capitalists, the typical reaction is ‘Oh I love KQED. You’re great, I listen to you frequently.’ But when I talk to the tech community about KQED as part of the new media, they say, ‘Oh that’s nice, I’m glad you’re trying.’ However, the minute I say we have this accelerator, like Y Combinator [a prominent accelerator startup fund], their perception of KQED transforms dramatically; they view us as being a part of the new evolving media space.” — Tim Olson

Introducing Design Thinking

Matter promotes an environment where entrepreneurs are encouraged to take risks, experiment and apply a disruptive lens to their product or service idea. Over a five-month period, participants are run through an intense, human-centered, design thinking process that provides a framework for empathy with their intended customers or audience.

Using design thinking as a framework, Matter encourages innovation and community within a public media focused lens. As one Matter graduate explained:

“Matter has been the single best startup experience I’ve had. Part of its strength is the design thinking expertise and the drumbeat that it imposes. Emphasizing the needs of the user is very grounding. What I think separates Matter from most Silicon Valley accelerators is its values-based approach. People who come here are interested in public media and public media values. Over time, you get this cumulative effect of people who all want to change media and want to make a difference. It’s like having a giant advisory board full of people aligned with you. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”
Matter alum

Design thinking involves a problem-solving mindset. The process is composed of three main components: being user-centric, experimental and collaborative. The user- or audience-centric component focuses on understanding user needs and motivations. The collaboration piece requires conversations, critical input, feedback and teamwork. Experimentation creates an environment for trying something new, giving permission to fail and make mistakes and to come up with new ideas. As a methodology, design thinking can sometimes be messy and frustrating, but it does form a systematic approach to creating new innovative opportunities.

Introducing design thinking at KQED, and getting staff buy-in, was not a simple matter. Management first had to address a number of key organizational challenges that could easily stifle innovation. To realistically put audience first, the culture and mindset within KQED had to change.

For one thing, audience-centricity was not the top priority at KQED (like at most public media organizations). For example, content producers too often based programming decisions on an overly generalized view of their audience, rather than being driven by more sophisticated, data-driven profiles of audience interests and characteristics.

Also, KQED’s management structure was extremely hierarchical. Midlevel managers were not empowered to make decisions, especially those affecting organizational change. There was little room (or patience) for experimentation. Staff had little support or encouragement to pursue new ideas for fear of failure or for the perceived risk of being distracted from their primary job responsibilities. There were few opportunities for staff to collaborate with colleagues from other departments. New staff hires, many coming from more agile work environments, were frustrated by KQED’s plodding, top-heavy ways, as well as its inability to generate new ideas from within.

Finally, there was concern that staff at a mission-driven organization like KQED might not be interested in carrying out the organization’s mission in a more dynamic way. There was concern that staff might be reticent to try new ways of approaching their jobs, because of the station’s aforementioned systemic barriers to innovation.

For design thinking and entrepreneurship to have a sustained impact, management had to legitimately empower staff with the time and opportunity to run with new ideas and, if necessary, let them fail. Rather than present design thinking as a fait accompli, staff had to be given the opportunity to work through the process themselves.

“Getting staff to step back and examine how they work, how they approach audiences, and how they measure success is very difficult to achieve in an organization. It’s one thing for the internal KQED digital team to talk about the importance of the design thinking approach; it’s totally another for staff to experience the process firsthand, to get outside and do empathy interviews, to build a prototype and get immediate feedback from audiences who would use it.” — Tim Olson

Over the past year, KQED has initiated a series of activities to more directly align design thinking as a strategy to support the implementation of its strategic plan. These activities include providing all levels of the organization with opportunities to participate in design thinking boot camps and workshops, many facilitated and supported by Matter staff and alumni. This exposure to design thinking has resulted in a range of innovative staff-generated ideas, from KQED’s internal podcast design competition to new products and services from the KQED Lab. Elsewhere within KQED, design thinking frameworks are also being applied in planning for departmental reorganizations and large technology rollouts and conversions.

Designing an organizational structure in which this kind of cross-fertilization of ideas can take place effectively can be challenging, particularly within an organization where systems and departments have become entrenched over the years.

In our next blog we will look more closely at some of these challenges, and the impact of these “intrapreneurial” activities on staff, the organization and KQED’s relationship with Matter.

Disrupting Public Media

A Study of Transformation at KQED

Scott Burg

Written by

Qualitative researcher and evaluator (@rockmaneval)

Disrupting Public Media

A Study of Transformation at KQED