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March 8, 2018, 2:36 p.m.
Business Models

With Lab 351, The Globe and Mail is creating both new products and a culture of “bottom-up” innovation

A driving principle for the incubator is to make it so “ideas can bubble up from the bottom, or the middle, or the top” of the organization.

Sean Stanleigh is proud of the work that has come out of Lab 351, the innovation unit that The Globe and Mail’s launched in 2015. But he’s also looking forward to the day when the division no longer needs to exist.

Closing the doors on Lab 351 is “the absolute end goal,” albeit a longterm one, said Stanleigh, who is co-chair of the unit. But rather than a sign of failure, the move would be a sign of success because it would mean “the culture here would have shifted to the point where the innovation has become part of what we do on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “We wouldn’t need the lab anymore.”

The Globe and Mail has some ways to go before it can make that scenario a reality. The newspaper launched its innovation lab in an effort to reverse-engineer the ethos of Silicon Valley, bringing the startup mentality of innovation and product development to not only the newsroom, but the business side as well. Doing so doesn’t always come naturally to news organizations, which have prioritized simply staying in business over longterm ideas without immediate business payoff.

“Essentially, we want to get ahead of technology instead of feeling like we’re behind it,” said Stanleigh. “This is a business that’s 170 years old, and innovation has never been one of its core focus areas. We’re trying to build a culture of innovation at an organization that really has no major history of it.” (Lab 351 is named after the Globe and Mail’s new headquarters at 351 King Street East in Toronto.)

This reality is why Stanleigh, along with his Lab 351 cochair Gordon Edall, aimed to create a formal structure for the newspaper’s innovation efforts. In 2016, The Globe and Mail teamed up with The University of Waterloo’s innovation lab and incubator Communitech, which helped Lab 351 develop two program tracks built on top of Adobe’s open-source Kickbox innovation guidelines. For the two-day Redbox program, which Lab 351 runs quarterly, individual employees get the opportunity to come up with innovative new ways to solve Globe and Mail business problems, along with a $1,000 gift card to build the ideas out. The three-month Bluebox program, in contrast, is more collaborative, and brings employees across the company together to build out larger projects.

Anyone across The Globe and Mail can pitch ideas, and that inclusion has become a core principle driving the efforts at Lab 351. While news organizations have a reputation for being top-down when it comes to new ideas, Stanleigh said that The Globe and Mail wants to develop a culture where “ideas can bubble up from the bottom, or the middle, or the top,” which empowers employees and makes them feel like their ideas are heard and can be implemented. “Companies just can’t be innovative unless there is that kind of culture of innovation everywhere within them. It has to infuse itself throughout the organization, and creating through the lab was always our primary goal.”

Lab 351’s first effort was a predictive modeling election poll tool, which pulled together polling data ahead of Canada’s 2015 election. That project, produced by staff from The Globe and Mail’s editorial and data science teams, proved to be a model for future collaborations. A team made up of staffers from advertising, marketing, and editorial spent three months researching the business potential of news products produced for Amazon Echo and Google Home. Another project, dubbed “Sophi,” is a proprietary data analytics platform designed to value every piece of content that The Globe and Mail produces, in an effort to help editors optimize the production and distribution of stories. “Delphi,” a follow-up to that project, is designed to assign value to stories even before they’re produced. A Lab 351 team also worked with Washington Post engineers to test the newspaper’s ARC CMS, which The Globe and Mail uses.

Stanleigh said that the structure of Lab 351 is designed to encourage staffers to think about themselves as employees of The Globe and Mail, not specific departments. “You may be, say, an edit employee, but if you’re building out a project, you should be thinking about it in terms of the overall company, not just in terms of editorial,” he said. “We want people to think about what they do beyond the silos in which they operate on a day-to-day basis.”

The Globe and Mail is still building out the Lab 351 model. With one future project, which is still being developed, The Globe and Mail plans to create a program to knit together the innovation labs across news organizations in Canada. The newspaper is also developing an external-facing website for Lab 351, which will showcase the unit’s work to give others a better idea of what it’s created.

The Globe and Mail has high hopes for the future of the unit, in large part because the vast majority of the hundreds of employees who have gone through the program so far have given overwhelmingly positive feedback. That’s because Lab 351 lets employees do new, exciting kinds of work that they would find challenging to do otherwise. “People really do want to think big, but the day-to-day prevents them from doing so,” Stanleigh said. “When we give them the opportunity to do this, they embrace it and spread the word to other people. That’s how we change the culture.”

Photo of Globe and Mail HQ by booledozer used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 8, 2018, 2:36 p.m.
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