Inside Project Red Stripe: Incubating Innovation and Teamwork at The Economist

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Andrew Carey
Triarchy Press
2008
0955008166
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited


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In 2006, along with many other printed publications, The Economist magazine were contemplating what the future would hold for them as the Internet matured and as its accessibility spread from PCs to PDAs and mobile phones.

A thought proposed by the Group’s ‘Internet Strategy Group’ was not to look solely at how to extend the reach of The Economist in cyber space, but rather to take a team of some of the brightest people from within The Economist Group to look at what was possible using the Internet.

The idea was proposed to the Group Management Committee by the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and accepted by the Board – Project Red Stripe was born.

The CIO was given approval to recruit a team of five people plus himself from within the Group, remove them from their current jobs for six months and give them a budget of £100,000.  The object was to develop and launch an innovative product, service or business model on the web.

This book documents the observations of Andrew Carey, an author and psychotherapist, who was invited to observe the team during that six month period.

The book that emerged is not a book in the conventional sense in that it does not make judgements or draw conclusions; it is more a series of observations that have been organised in a way to make sense for the reader.  It was written to be published online as well as in print and it may well be that many readers will find the online version easier to follow as the presence of hyperlinks enables readers to jump between related sections more easily than is possible in the printed text.

If the book proves anything it is that a) humans are fickle and require direction, and b) that innovation for innovation’s sake is a flawed concept.  Regarding the first of these – despite selecting some of the brightest and most capable individuals within the Economist Group and despite each of them joining with boundless energy and enthusiasm, I never got the sense that they became a team.  Indeed, my overriding sense was that they resembled the contestants in the Big Brother House, at times working together but at times following their own agenda with it being difficult to distinguish between the two.

The second point is on innovation for innovation’s sake.  It is certainly true that if you bring a group of bright people together and ask them to innovate they will generate lots of ideas, but unless you have a contextual framework with which to assess those ideas how do you know which are of value and which are not.  This is a point that has been proven time and again in history; for example, Penicillin was discovered by mistake but it’s value was only realised because of the context in which the mistake was made.  In other words, if when you are looking for one thing you discover something completely different, you are likely to judge its usefulness in the context of the thing you are looking for.  Because Project Red Stripe set out with such a vague brief, I feel it was inevitable that it would not achieve a productive outcome.

So what was the result of the project?  The final idea was a social/knowledge network codenamed HiSpace for The Economists target market.  In early 2008 the project was mothballed as a stand-alone business idea with elements of it incorporated into The Economist’s own web site.

Now to the thorny question as to whether I would recommend this book?  The short answer is ‘no’.  My difficulty is that not that it’s a bad book, but that it is an observation of people in an artificial environment.  Therefore, for people wanting to understand teams, team leadership or even innovation the chances are that the circumstances of the book are too artificial to be of great value.  I would however recommend that people interested in those subjects browse the web site at www.projectredstripe.blogspot.com

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