When I worked at the New York Times, from 2013 to 2015, my job was to lead a team in the creation, launch, and development of a new, revenue-driving product that would help restore growth to the company’s bottom line — which, like the bottom lines of all newspapers around the world, has been endangered by wave after wave of new technology.
During those two years, I got to see and be part of a great, mission-driven company’s effort to grapple with moving into the 21st century, trying — for the first time in its existence, really — to be innovative and find new paths to growth. As someone who had spent most of his career working in and cofounding startups, it was big, heady stuff.
It was also a resounding failure. By the end of my two years there, two of the three products the company had launched to drive new revenue had been repositioned as free offerings intended to drive engagement, and the third had been shut down entirely; there were no meaningful plans for new products underway.
But the exercise wasn’t a complete failure. Those three products fit into a bigger story: how one company was trying, desperately, to discover the ingredients it needed to become truly innovative.
In my first year there, the Times was first focused on finding entrepreneurial employees. Indeed, that’s why I was hired. By hiring people who had cofounded companies, the Times was working to bring in entrepreneurial DNA into the building. That year there was much talk about entrepreneurship, lean approaches, hypotheses, etc.
During my second year, when it became utterly apparent that the new products were not going to hit their targets, the Times shifted to growth-minded leadership. We created a special executive board to evaluate new initiatives, and they tried to adopt VC mindsets in their approach. We had meetings where people talked about sizing opportunities, evaluating risks, and so forth.
None of this is an unusual story for big companies. Many companies were undergoing similar awakenings at the same time — becoming aware of the need for employees who were entrepreneurial, and then becoming aware of the need for top leadership who think like VCs. And although the Times wasn’t executing either particularly well the last I saw, they were well aware of the need and working toward that.
There is a third piece, however, that the Times, along with the rest of the corporate world, is still missing: the Ecosystem Mindset.
Most big organizations resemble organisms. They have discrete boundaries, inputs and outputs at specific places, and wholly internal engines. They are like a giant animal — head, eyes, mouth, stomach. This makes intuitive sense to us; it’s how we were taught to think of organizations. And it was useful and worked through the 20th century, when change was slow relative to how things are now.
The Times is a perfect example of company-as-organism. Employees at the Times rarely go offsite for lunch or meetings. When you work there, your network is inside the building. That’s where all of the action is, where the valuable information is traded, where the battles are fought, and where the victories are won. When the Core Team or the Newsroom Team or the Beta Team finds a solution, it is a Times solution. Naturally there are inputs and outputs to the company, but like an organism, these are discrete — a mouth, a nose, an ear. At the Times, the Strategy Team pursues and manages strategic relationships for the company, takes in the resources needed to stay alive, and channels those to the rest of the organism. It’s the model of the companies our fathers and mothers worked at. And it worked great for them.
But in today’s world, it doesn’t. Companies with the organism mindset are too slow to adapt to survive in the modern world. The world around them changes, recombines, evolves, and they are stuck with their same old DNA, their same old problems, their same old (failed) attempts at solutions.
Ecosystems, by contrast, are boundless, constantly able to grow, absorb new entities, adapt, react, and transform. They don’t acquire new elements by ingesting them, but by absorbing new components at the edges of the network. And when they do that, they create new value for the whole ecosystem.
Organizations that pursue strategies like these have what I call the Ecosystem Mindset. All startups have it, while almost no big companies do. It’s an understanding that your organization is not a bounded entity, complete unto itself, but part of a wider ecosystem. It comes with an implicit understanding that the solutions to your key challenges are not all inside the building, but are out there — and that you must locate and interact with them to thrive.
The venture firm Andreessen Horowitz is a great example of an organization that uses an ecosystem mindset to great effect. Other than those relatively few people in the firm focused squarely on the portfolio companies, everyone else is focused on what is out there, beyond the walls of the organization. Marketers market themselves, directors research deals, the executive talent team doesn’t recruit — that is very much “organism think.” Instead, they build relationships. Managing directors open doors to corporations for portfolio companies in the ecosystem — hundreds per month come through their doors. The entire firm is organized to function as a series of inputs and outputs, permeable membranes with the outside world around it. As Jeff Stump, a partner there, said to me, “If a pin drops in our network we want to know about it.”
They also measure the value of this activity, and expect to see a real ROI. They measure efficiency, productivity, quality of the network, quality of inputs and outputs. Rather than just networking, they continually ask the question, “Is our network working?”
When you think about that kind of organization, and the implications of that kind of continual network activity and the sheer volume of new ideas, new partnerships, and new collaborations it produces, and then you look back at big companies with their entrepreneurial employees and growth-minded leaders, you understand why organizations like the Times are not nailing it. They’re like a bear stuck in a swamp. All around them swirls new kinds of life interacting with itself, evolving, transforming, and they’re there with their fur and claws trying to swat at it all.
So what’s the solution for these companies, who have stocked themselves with entrepreneurial employees and VC-minded execs but still can’t seem to round the corner and start innovating and growing at a pace that keeps up with the outside world? Open the doors. Let the light stream in. Get out of the building. Interact. Not just the strategy team, not just the CEO, but everyone. The new value is not inside, it’s out there, at the edges of the network.
Embrace that, and grow.“