Business Models, Experimentation, Marketing, Research, World of Tomorrow

Pizzas and Publishing — Why Disruption in Publishing Isn’t Coming from Within


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The efficiency of working in small groups is not a new idea. The two-pizza rule, generally attributed to Amazon‘s CTO Werner Vogels, is one of the more recent instantiations of the concept — a project team shouldn’t include more people than can be fed by two pizzas.

The two-pizza rule recently came up at the Silverchair Executive Colloquium. What was interesting to me was what happened next.  The audience started making comments like: How many toppings are on the pizza?  Are they 10″ or 12″ pizzas?  How hungry is the team? You get the idea.

We just can’t keep it simple.

I can hear you already. “It isn’t simple. We have constraints. There are membership considerations, revenue targets, limited staff, diverse audiences, limited money for investment, processes that are built around print, the tenure system . . .”  Yes, there are all of those things. However, if we can’t distill our issues and market opportunities down to actionable items, focus on targeted questions, experiment, interpret our results with an open mind, and build on that, we’re going to continue to be rendered relatively motionless by complexity. In fact, the search for “the big idea” can be almost as paralyzing.

Everything we see that is large and good started as something small and good and kept growing . . . take the person with the big transformational idea and lock them out of the building. Clay Shirky

We also tend to reject ideas that don’t align with our view of a market or don’t immediately show a reasonable return. Ryan Jacoby, the head of IDEO’s New York practice, puts it brilliantly in, “The Seven Deadly Sins that Choke Out Innovation.”  Pay particular attention to #4: Being Smart.

Innovation is all about discussing new ideas that currently have no place in the real world. If you’re only comfortable talking about things that don’t strike you as alien, chances are you’re not talking about real innovation.

Publishing (commercial and non-profit alike) is full of very smart people who see where we are today and are genuinely attempting to forge a path to the future. The problem is we’re starting with where we are now. We’re starting with our biases.  We’re starting with the notion of preserving our position.

Instead of asking how can we transform our current organization, we need to be asking what our mission truly is. What business are we in? What is the core problem we’re trying to solve? If it were a brand new problem today, how would we build the solution?

Then, and only then, can we consider whether the organizations we have now can deliver on that, and what to do if they can’t.

If we decide our core problem is figuring out how to stay in business or protect what we have, we’ve already lost — because we aren’t focusing on the needs of the market, the external forces (see Deadly Sin #1) that should be shaping what we do.

So it’s time to order the pizza and pull in the 8-12 people you feel can think about the future.  If they’re all saying the same thing, reconstitute the group.  Repeat this process until you get some real dissent.  Then identify the places you want to experiment.

Remember, no one (but us) cares whether or not we’re in business 10 years from now. It’s all about the users.

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About Ann Michael

Ann Michael is President of Delta Think, publishing consultants focused on innovation in product strategy, development, and content management. Delta Think has worked with many major commercial and non-profit scholarly publishers as they clarified their business objectives, defined new content products and business models, re-architected their content processes, introduced new tools and technologies, and developed the skills and expertise needed to be successful in an ever changing publishing environment.


6 thoughts on “Pizzas and Publishing — Why Disruption in Publishing Isn’t Coming from Within

  1. A great post, but I hope you are not planning to feed 8-12 people on two pizzas!

    Posted by Joseph Esposito | Feb 21, 2011, 11:43 am
    • I can’t eat more than 2 pieces no matter how hard I try! Ok – let’s say 6-8 to account for the people with healthier appetites (uh oh, we’re doing it again)

      Posted by ann michael | Feb 21, 2011, 11:48 am
  2. I was at a restaurant Saturday night. Their menu changes all the time, and they have seasonal specials. The waiter explained that the specials that are well-received often move to the main menu, supplanting items with marginal acceptance. It’s product development at its finest. The only thing not in play is the business model, but by making innovation embedded and the chefs the intrapreneurs, you have small teams making a big difference, and customers provide the feedback (literally).

    Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 21, 2011, 11:43 am
  3. I found this a tremendously insightful post (which also made me a bit hungry!). How do you think the 2-pizza rule can work for virtual teams spread across the globe?

    Posted by Jill Finger Gibson | Feb 24, 2011, 10:32 am
    • What a great point! What I find interesting is that the rule intentionally does not specify the precise number of people that should be on the team (although it does imply an order of magnitude).

      I think the spirit of the 2-pizza rule is to keep the project as focused on the essentials as possible and to streamline decision-making. Given that perspective I think we can go with virtual pizzas in much the same fashion as physical ones. That is, keep it small enough to be productive.

      Posted by ann michael | Feb 24, 2011, 8:53 pm
  4. …take the person with the big transformational idea and lock them out of the building -Clay Shirky

    Mr. Shirky, Logic comes in all sizes.

    Posted by Noel Troy | Jan 24, 2012, 11:41 pm

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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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