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Innovation Interview: Sam Ford, MIT

In our Innovation Interview series, we recently caught up with Sam Ford to discuss slow innovation. Ford is a media executive and consultant, an affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program, and co-author of Spreadable Media, named a 2013 Best Business Book by strategy+business. In 2015-2016, he served as VP, Innovation & Engagement, for Univision/Fusion Media Group.

In your session at our BEI conference, you talked about “Creating an Environment for Supporting Slow Innovation.” What do you mean by slow innovation?

Ford: When I use the term “slow innovation,” I am thinking about the work that cannot be achieved on quick turnaround, on which the long-term solution is not completely evident, and which may not have major impact this quarter or even this year. I’m thinking about the slowly developing patterns out in culture that companies often miss if they don’t have the sustained patience to be listening and looking for them over time. I’m thinking about a process that encourages companies to test and consider alternative assumptions to the way their business is currently built and operates, even as the primary operations of the organization forges ahead. I’m thinking about how the process of innovation fosters a spirit of approaching work differently throughout the organization, and encourages people to look for serendipity and look for unexpected patterns in their own work. And I’m interested in how organizations get better at giving small but steady focus to questions that might be number six on the list and that, in most organizations, never bubble up to get any attention.

What led you to think about innovation in this way?

Ford: I was most directly inspired by the work of cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, a longtime collaborator of mine, who writes about “fast culture” and “slow culture” in his book Chief Culture Officer. In it, he writes that companies, when they do listen to the culture outside their walls, have put most of that focus on fast culture, the emerging trends that can be efficiently spotted and responded to quickly. But focusing on “slow culture” requires different approaches, processes, and aptitudes. In the process of thinking about the concept of “slow innovation,” I have stumbled across a few other folks who have been using the phrase in interesting ways. David Froelich has used the term to emphasize how cycles of design usually happen significantly faster than cycles of innovation. Jon Campbell and Zach Hyman at Continuum have used “slow innovation” to talk about the less-detectible ways in which innovation gets infused into the ways in which employees reflect upon their same daily tasks by reflecting on them in novel ways, as compared to the much more visible event-based or “big bet” approaches to innovation. And folks like Derek Cheshire, Ken Banks, and Karl-Heinz Leitner have all written about “slow innovation” as inspired by the “slow food movement."

Why did you first start tackling questions of “slow innovation”?

Ford: I worked with/at Univision/Fusion Media Group for most of 2015 and 2016, envisioning and launching a Center for Innovation & Engagement alongside my colleague Federico Rodriguez Tarditi. Federico had worked on questions of innovation around education and curriculum in Bogota, Colombia, prior to coming to Univision. I had worked on these questions in studying and consulting in the media industries/journalism, marketing, and organizational communications. We came into an organization with many teams that were quite good at “fast innovation.” And our role was to think about how we supplement, rather than act redundantly to, what they were already good at. If you’re curious to know some of the specific types of projects we did while at Univision/Fusion Media Group, here’s a piece Federico and I wrote at Harvard’s Nieman Lab about what we did and learned in our work there.

Your work on these questions has primarily been in media and in communication. To what degree do you think they can be applicable in other types of businesses?

Ford: One of the most interesting things about both the Front End of Innovation conference and the Back End of Innovation conference has been the fact that it brings together people from such a wide variety of sectors to talk about the cultures, processes, mindsets, and skills of fostering innovation. I was one of the only people working primarily in the media industries at the event. So, it was especially interesting to find that many of the issues I talked about with attendees over my couple of days at Back End of Innovation recently were strikingly similar when it comes to how to invest in, maintain support for, and manage expectations for a focus on slow innovation. Of course, there are aspects of these questions that will be particular to the sector and the specific organization, but the question of how to focus on “slow innovation” is a question that every sector, and every organization, that isn’t operating in complete crisis mode should be tackling.

In your presentation, you talked about the challenges of internal visibility, on the one hand, and internal expectations, on the other. Can you share a bit about your thinking on those fronts?

Ford: One of the most challenging questions when it comes to “slow innovation” is to communicate to people why the organization should focus some resources on it, why it’s important, and what to expect from it. When you’re focused on tackling questions that aren’t the most pressing questions of the quarter, it can lead to difficulty reaching people’s radars. If you’re running a team that is meant to maintain focus on slow innovation, you must strike a balance between trying to ensure that a focus on these questions don’t get in the way of teams that are hard at work tackling the issues of immediate primary concern. But you also want to make sure they don’t lose sight of what you’re doing. Further, when slow innovation work over time leads to solutions that have a major impact on organizations, it can be easy for much of that earlier work that led to it to get erased from the narrative. On the other hand, too much visibility for slow innovation work can be dangerous, too. It can lead to inflated expectations inside and outside the organization for what the outcomes might be. That’s why being very careful and realistic about what success should look like, and how it should be measured, is crucial.

You also led a roundtable discussion at BEI focused on relationship-building, internally and externally, for supporting slow innovation. What were some of the highlights from that discussion? 

Ford: Inside the organization, we talked about the importance of not just having C-Suite leaders being aware of and understanding slow innovation and what you’re doing, but also/especially the levels of management who handle daily operations and who would be the folks for which the questions of slow innovation might eventually become questions that are operationalized and that could eventually impact how business is done. If these managers/functions don’t understand what slow innovation is or why the company is investing in such work, it can be a great challenge to gain traction. We also had some good discussion about where/how slow innovation efforts might be of great benefit to be structured with, or have a close relationship to, knowledge resources within an organization and especially with human resources. A vibrant “slow innovation” that people see and understand can help an organization with recruitment, onboarding, development or organizational culture, continuing education, and leadership advancement opportunities. I’d argue that an employee who shows interest and vision on slow innovation problems could be the sort of employee who might want to be eyed for a leadership track within an organization.

 

Meanwhile, we also talked about the crucial role external partnerships play in tackling slow innovation as well. Organizations must be honest about how deeply and how consistently they will be able to tackle slow innovation questions internally and seek partnerships with organizations that might be better poised to tackle aspects of these questions. In our case at Univision, I maintained a very small team, with a significant eye toward partnering with academic institutions, as well as startups, nonprofits, and other initiatives—knowing that we would never be able to match many of those groups when it comes to resources and bandwidth to tackle questions we knew were important but weren’t of central immediate concern at the depth at which we’d like. Our department’s role, then, was one of matchmaker, in a way. When people throughout the organization learned about an initiative or met someone from a lab doing something of potential interest to us but that didn’t speak to this quarter’s priority, it was my team’s job to keep that relationship alive. And part of our time was spent on keeping an eye out for potential partners we should be talking to, exploring potential partnerships or running experiments together directly, and then bringing other internal teams in when there was an experiment that made sense for their goals. And then much of the relationship management and project management was on our function, working in between our internal team and external partner. 

You suggest that those looking to support “slow innovation” should fight to keep their budgets lean. Do you really believe there are times where people may actually want to fight for fewer resources?

Ford: Absolutely. Tackling slow innovation questions means making steady progress on questions/problems that aren’t ready for solutions to quickly scale up, and it means tackling questions whose urgency might be some time off. Getting too much budget to explore areas where you have no idea what might need to be done can lead to a dangerous waste of resources, if you aren’t careful. Being overenthusiastic is in some ways more dangerous than being a philistine.

Are you working on projects now that focus on slow innovation? If so, what can you tell us about them?

Ford: Since leaving Univision at the beginning of the year, I’ve set up my own consultancy. And I’ve had the opportunity to work on questions in and around slow innovation thus far with media, tech, academic, foundation, and non-profit clients, ranging from early-stage start-ups to large institutions. It’s exciting to work on these questions across a range of sectors and sizes with passionate people. And I’m especially excited to be applying these ways of thinking to some projects I’m engaged with.

For instance, I’m working with Grant McCracken, who I mentioned earlier, and other collaborators on a project called The Artisanal Economies Project  aimed at studying and better understanding the rise in interest in businesses that offer handmade, homemade, and local products, the barriers to entry in the artisanal market for both producers and consumers, and the ecosystem of support needed around the artisanal economies. “Artisanal” is a buzzword in marketing circles and is considered trendy, but we believe there’s a much deeper, slow culture shift happening here, and that understanding it now could be transformative for helping cultivate the potential to come. We’re interested in finding the institutions—foundations, government entities, companies, think tanks, chambers of commerce, economic development offices, you name it—who understand that we’re just scratching the surface layer of understanding artisanal economies and need to dig deeper into them.

 

I’m also working on a series of projects on the Future of Work in Kentucky with partners at MIT, the University of Southern California, Western Kentucky University, and elsewhere. We’re interested in looking at all the Future of Work explorations of the moment through the lens of a place at the front lines of disruption, and to focus on the long-term opportunities for those places, as well as the potential barriers of entry. There are “fast innovation” questions that need to be solved around immediate economic development needs for the future of work in these places. But it’s crucial for economic development conversations to be significantly focused on where the economy is headed over the long term, too. These are questions of the stories we tell ourselves, and—to borrow a phrase from the University of Southern California’s Civic Paths team—of the “civic imagination” we have for what possible futures could look like.

Find more about Sam’s work at https://samford.wordpress.com/.

Read his recent piece in Harvard Business Review here.

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