4 Ways to Build Flexibility Around Innovation

Sometimes the root of your organization’s future might come in the form of not only finding the right idea, but finding the right way to sell innovation both inside your organization and to the broader world. A recent experiment in the world of publishing offers a lot of lessons on this front.

Did you hear that the book industry recently reinvented the book for the smartphone era?

I know, it sounds wild, but it’s true. The publishing giant Penguin Random House, through its Dutton imprint, decided recently to take a new tactic to the mass-market book, coming up with a tiny edition of the tome that’s about the size of a smartphone. That doesn’t sound like a lot on its own—the trade paperback isn’t exactly a new phenomenon—but the real strategy is how you read those tiny books.

See, the novels are presented horizontally, on thin paper, with the fold right in the middle of the page, rather than the more traditional vertical format. The result is that the books (starting with four titles by iconic young-adult author and well-known YouTuber John Green) can literally be read and held with a single hand, and the page-turning motion evokes the scrolling that one might use when, say, rifling through a Twitter feed. It turns the books into a convenience play of sorts, and revamps the relationship a reader has with a book, at a time when competition is tougher than ever.

The thing that’s great about this book format is that it’s not actually new—it’s a Dutch phenomenon, initially called the dwarsligger and known to English audiences as the “Flipback.” It sounds weird, but Green says it’s actually perfect for his works and the kind of people who read them.

“I haven’t seen a new book format that I thought was at all interesting, but I find this format really usable and ­super-portable,” Green told The Washington Post back in August.

The lesson to be taken from this new phenomenon is obvious: To survive, you must update your formats to match where your audience is. And for a lot of readers, that’s on the go. This is not a technological format—but it is innovative in much the same way as a well-considered app.

And keeping an eye out for new ideas outside of your traditional base of authority can provide great opportunity for the future. So, why does this work, and how can this approach inform your own strategy for keeping up with the times? A few considerations:

1. Observe what’s happening both inside and outside of your sector. The reason why the Flipback is such an effective example of innovation is because it reflects both an observation that publishers were seeing—the increased demand for portability in a product—and also takes advantage of the fact that the innovation wasn’t happening in the center of the industry. An American publisher had to be observant that a Dutch publisher already had a useful solution to a big, annoying problem.

2. Meet your users at the pain point. Recently, the software company Adobe has been making a big deal about the fact that it’s bringing its landmark image-editing app Photoshop to the iPad. The company has offered more narrow variants of the software on the device, but the problem with those is that the kind of people who use its software need the full program on that device, so Adobe has to find a way to make it work—which, as was highlighted at last week’s Apple event in New York, the company is doing. For publishers like Penguin Random House, the use of a new kind of book does the same thing—it doesn’t force users to do things your way. Rather, it adapts to their new processes and shows flexibility.

3. Find a champion. Simply having a good idea isn’t enough. You need someone to sell it—your own equivalent to Steve Jobs, if you will. While not exactly known for donning black turtlenecks and talking about pixel density, John Green is the perfect author for this kind of strategy, as he’s tech-savvy, has a large following both in the publishing industry and the world at large, and can sell new ideas effectively (he even did a TED Talk last year). And, most importantly, he’s bought into the mission of the project, which is quite often the hardest part. Without buy-in, you don’t have passion. For your organization, you need to find such a champion—and that champion may not always be in your executive branch.

4. Experiment, but don’t kill the alternative entirely. Just because you built a mobile-friendly website doesn’t mean that you stop making desktop sites. You build for both, and you organize your tactics around the audience. Likewise, Penguin Random House isn’t going to stop making either full-size hardcover books or less expensive paperbacks. But it can invest in something like the Flipback, which means that if it’s successful, they can build out the experimental idea to the point where it can become a real business. Treat it like a startup, and someday it might become a contender.

Innovation isn’t just about technology. It’s about your response to it. And if you have a negative response to those innovative ideas, it’s going to color your view of what’s possible.

And it might just cause you to miss out on a Flipback of your own.

The Flipbook, a new horizontal book format, is being used for author John Green’s books. (Penguin Random House)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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