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How Harvard Business Review approaches innovation and future development

Strategy for the future has to be iterative and nimble, according to Joshua Macht, publisher of the Harvard Business Review. Macht was at FIPP London today to deliver a session on how the Harvard Business Review approaches development.

And, it comes down to experimenting, to spending a little energy to learn a lot, according to Macht. It’s about trying to balance how they get to the future and innovating when they’re doing business today. Innovating on the changing platforms is difficult. Responsive design helped the magazine spread across platforms, bundled it together and leveraged the technology as best as they could, Macht said. But, when mobile and social media became equated, that changed the whole field for the Harvard Business Review.

“All of a sudden, there were new competitors, threats and opportunities,” Macht said.

However, in HBR’s back pocket was a secret weapon, Vijay Govindarajan, the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, who occasionally wrote for the publication.

“What Vijay outlined was three boxes: by managing the present, forgetting the past, and creating the future, it balanced,” Macht said. “By balancing these three boxes, managers can resolve the inherent tension of innovating on top of running a high-performing business at the same time.”

Macht said the Harvard Business Review started the process by identifying weak signals. These were areas that had to give, that weren’t providing value anymore. “None of us can tell the future. And, you don’t want to make wild bets on the future,” he said. “We wanted to do it methodically.”

Identifying these aspects included:

What changes will impact your future customer? People will be consuming your content in completely different ways. How do you experiment with that now? How do you make decisions on what gives? Who is that future customer? What disruptive tech might open up new opportunities? Who will you be competing against?

At Harvard Business Review, Macht said they started small experiments that were low cost. They jumped on Facebook’s Instant Articles. They launched a Slackbot. They started Facebook Live every day.

“In the few weeks we’ve been doing it, there have been thousands watching,” Macht said of Facebook Live. “This is not sexy stuff, but new ideas popped up.”

Macht advised publishers to pick one big thing to invest time and effort in, too. “For us, that’s something we do with mobile product in India,” he said.

“Our magazine there has reached a small number of c-suites in that market. We looked at the 4G movement and texting there, and how a new generation of workers, executives and potential managers are interacting with content,” Macht said. “We looked at their demographics, the technology, per capita income and vernacular. Was there a way we could help them be more prepared for their careers?”

This wasn’t what Harvard Business Review does. But, the face of new digital India is expected to be far more diverse with a strong youth-centric demographic. The people working on for Harvard Business Review are recasting it in India.

“We haven’t gone after this audience before,” he said. “We talk to elite executives.”

It’s new opportunity for the publisher. And Macht manages the friction between the two.

“The thing is, you might find you’re testing whole new models,” he said. “At the heart of your business model is a job to be done. As you go forward, I’d encourage you to think about new jobs to recast your business, that maybe serves a new purpose. Be cognisant of it.”

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