Disrupt yourself

In a time when the leaking of internal documents and the publishing of hidden agendas on Wikileaks is becoming en vogue, along comes another entry into the public domain. It appears The New York Times let fly an internal manifesto that appears lay bare the dirty secrets and desires of the editorial behemoth as it continues to scramble and adjust to the digital realm.

The NYT went from editorial titan to digital dwarf even after a massive effort to digitize their presence. Realizing the miss they attacked the problem as any reporting organization would: they talked to people like crazy. They talked to employees. They talked to vendors. They talked to readers. They talked to anyone anyone they could. They wanted to learn what was happening and how to positively effect the changes they so desired.

What they came up with was a two-pronged approach: disruptively grow their audience and digitally fortify their newsroom. And to accomplish this feat they chose to apply the scientific method, generating hypotheses and rigorously testing them through a battery of experiments, continuously evaluating the process along the way. This effectively adopted the innovative techniques of their competitors (who were eating their lunch) and pretty much any startup worth its salt.

Hypothesize. Build. Test. Repeat. It’s an open-ended goal. Are they succeeding? Possibly. Will improvements continue to occur? Probably. Can we learn from their efforts? Definitely.

It’s no secret that industries across the board are being disrupted. If you look at finance alone, witness: GoBank, Kiva, and Kickstarter just to name three.

In light of this focus on disruption and innovation, it would behoove any established company not presently scrambling to establish itself in its industry to quickly begin scrambling in some fashion. Challengers abound, both seen and unseen. And if they aren’t there today, look again tomorrow. They’lll be there. Established practices and technologies are shifting more quickly than most can even imagine. Disrupt or die.

  • What are the common themes of concern for established companies?
  • How can an established company adopt a disruptive mindset?

Common Concerns

Most of the universal themes mentioned in the manifesto are not terribly new. In fact, they are the worn-thin mantra of anyone whose job title has anything to do with web. Some of the themes within the NYT manifesto could be applied to almost any business in any state.


Experimentation. A/B testing. Multivariate testing. Testing. Testing. Test…wait. Is this thing even on? Seriously folks, how often is testing even considered in the normal course of business?

Experimentation is the root of the scientific method and as far back as the Egyptians and Greek philosophers we’ve been employing the scientific method to seek out knowledge and understand the world around us. Seems like a worthy tool.

As we all know, the process entails the following steps.

  • Hypothesize
  • Predict
  • Test
  • Analyze

Perhaps we could be more literal in its applications within the business setting to turbocharge our efforts. We could restate work requests in terms of hypotheses, tests and expected outcomes. We could employ mandatory analytics retrospectives to compare actual performance against projections. We could also walk around in lab coats and beakers, but that would be a little weird.

The goal of employing this methodology would be to move forward with the work that has been appropriately thought out and to set expectations for future work based on past performance, not on the Conjecture of the Hippo (hint: Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).

Digital First

Again. Not to beat a dead horse, but any business that conducts business online needs to consider said business from that perspective first.

Simply restated, any new product, service or experience needs to be thought out from an online perspective first. And then consider the fact that more and more transactions are happening on mobile devices, and you’ll realize the title of the section should be: Mobile First.

Break down the silos (already)

Ok, now we’re just grinding up the dead horse aren’t we. The concept of silos is from the 60’s people. Remove. Them. Already. How? Pick up the phone. Walk over to the group down the aisle. Downstairs. In the other building. You’re all in the same company. Stop pretending that everyone outside of your day-to-day doesn’t exist. The silo starts with your cube wall. Knock. It. Down.

Applying Disruption to the Brain

The NYT decided that the core tenets of their efforts should be to disruptively grow the audience and digitally fortify the newsroom. Here’s how these principles might be applied to any business.


Whether you’re in publishing, finance or any other industry, the spirit of the NYT’s work is to become more relevant in the eyes of the public, and not simply try to increase subscribers. The social economy is as much about impression as it is about bottom line, and sometimes the ‘twain do meet.

So really we’re talking about the perception of the company’s brand. And by that I mean now. Timeliness is also paramount in the social economy. In six months, vast fortunes can be made and lost. It might as well be fifty years. Act now. There’s only now. Perhaps we should embrace the late Alan Watt’s worldview that now is truly the only reality.

Tell me he’s wrong. I dare you.

Digital heart

A newsroom is defined as “the area in a newspaper or broadcasting office where news is written and edited”. It’s essentially the very core of a publishing company.

What is the heart of your organization? Is it your sales force? Your customer support? Your technology group? Your mascot?

No matter the case, the goal is to digitize that heart. And by digitize, I mean bring into the 21st century. Embed that heart right up inside the very core of your technology stack. Get those servers stuck in there.

This could be a useful lens through which you can evaluate ongoing work as well. Are you doing enough to support digitizing the core? What does that core need? Why don’t you ask them? And then listen to what they say.

State digitizing your heart as a specific goal and qualify work in flight to evaluate your efforts. It might help you to understand how well you’re doing. And perhaps a highly circulated SWOT analysis of the effort and resources in your competitive landscape might assist in qualifying opportunities.

Getting there

So how did the NYT accomplish this? I mean, actually turn things around? They did two simple things.

  1. They created a team to figure out what to do, and
  2. They got the hell out of the team’s way.

Innovation team created

A multi-disciplinary team was assembled, containing members from across the organization. They were charged with the following goals:

  • Figure out what’s happening.
  • Propose a solution.
  • Kick that solution into gear.

How did NYT find the needle of trouble in the haystacks of data and opinion? They interviewed and researched. How should you find it? The answer lies in what kind of organization you are. Are you a service-based organization? Maybe start with clients and the front lines? In any case, you’ll have to figure that part out, but the good news is that the Innovation Team you just picked is in charge of that. Let them figure it out, and you should go back to your business (see #2 above). And once they’ve uncovered the trouble, you can again let them propose a few experiments to get out of the rut your in.

Autonomy bestowed

And that brings me to the second point. The team needs to have the autonomy to make decisions and move forward and keep the executive council advised until they have figured out what is happening. You obviously need to set some parameters on communicating status, and a timeline for obtaining the first outcome, but the team should be able to focus on this exclusively. Otherwise they will ultimately get sidetracked and bogged down back in the day-to-day, which is why you’re where you are now: unsure of your footing.


The NYT dug deep. They identified a gaping hole in their armor. They interviewed scads of people. They formulated a plan. They embraced a methodology. They are succeeding here and failing there. But they are always moving forward. And the do so with the understanding that there is no ‘final’ destination anymore. There’s only now and the next steps.

So the question is what can established companies learn from their thought process?

First you could more closely embrace some of the universal truths they have so politely restated.

  • Experiment, fervently.
  • Always Be Digital.
  • Enough with the silos already.

You could even lift directly some of their tenets for your own.

  • There is always room to improve upon how to grow your audience.
  • Find your heart, and digitize it.

And if you could dream up our own guide, you could

  • Put together a multi-disciplinary task force to find the problems, create an opinion, recruit ambassadors and walk the walk.
  • And then get out of the way.

And in case you’re interested, here’s the original manifesto. All 90+ pages of it. Happy reading!


Drummer. Techie. Futbolisto. Daddy.