Thursday, November 06, 2008

Inside Project Red Stripe book review

I received a copy of the book Inside Project Red Stripe recently and I've really struggled with it, for a couple of reasons. First, it's a book about an innovation project, so of course that attracted my attention. Second, the innovation project was run by individuals within The Economist, my favorite magazine (or newspaper as they like to say). So, when someone writes a book about one of your favorite subjects (innovation) that's based on a real world example of innovation in one of your favorite news sources, that's compelling stuff.

What made this even more interesting/frustrating was the approach the author took to documenting the project. Right from the start you need to know that Inside Project Red Stripe is less a book than a blog, and certainly not a how to book but more a philosophical dissection of the innovation team, their plans and their efforts. The author is as interested in the coming together and falling apart of the team, and the definition of the expectations of the team, and the methods under which they work, as he is actual innovation.

The team is asked to create a big new innovation for The Economist, and throughout the book you can identify "Things they did well" and "Things they didn't do so well". Ultimately the team fell into a trap that meant their work was not strategically aligned to the mission and goals of The Economist. Toward the end of the book two of the team members are seen asking the steering team what they must present so the ideas they have aren't killed by the steering team. At that point, asking that question is simply a signal that you know you've failed.

The book can be confusing because the author chose to write about topics and people rather than functions and process, so the book does not necessarily progress chronologically, and the author makes a number of interesting but arcane references to authors and writings on a plethora of topics, some well known, some that probably require a PhD to understand. This book is also fascinating because it is written almost in real time in a Rashomon style - seeing the project unfold from five or six different perspectives all at the same time.

I think you'll benefit from reading this book, but in a contemplative, meditative fashion. Each chapter is really a meditation on a specific need or requirement for team building, creativity, innovation, communication and a host of other topics, as well as a dissection of what the team was thinking at the time. Probably some of the best insights come from what appear to be direct quotes from the team. Since the author was a live participant, he was also somewhat of a cultural anthropologist as well.

The Project Red Stripe team missed a couple of key factors for success. They did not have a clear brief and ended up with solution not aligned to The Economist core mission. They had internally conflicting goals - each person saw a very different outcome for the project and for themselves personally. They were all committed to the success of the project and of The Economist, but had very different perspectives about what that meant. Also, they were too focused on what the author calls "the whale" - the one big idea, and probably missed or ignored a lot of ideas that could have been valuable.

I'd highly recommend this book to any team embarking on an innovation initiative, but with a few clear caveats. To its credit, this book is not presented or written like the other "how to" books on innovation, nor is it one of those books that looks back at a successful project and champions a specific person or approach. Rather, it examines a lot of the issues and challenges of building an innovation team and doing the somewhat difficult, messy work of innovation and the day to day challenges that the team faces.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:53 AM


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