Harvard Business Review Editor Adi Ignatius and the Innovator’s Dilemma

Whenever the Bloom Group is approached by an individual or a professional services firm that wants to establish its thought leadership credentials, or give them a boost, the first thing we’re asked is, Can you get us published in Harvard Business Review?   

HBR is inarguably the most prestigious management journal in the U.S., and to many people it’s an intimidating institution, a well-defended castle with an impressive legacy (it was founded in 1922) and seemingly high walls difficult to scale unless your name happens to be Michael Porter, Clayton Christensen, or Tom Davenport. In an attempt to pierce HBR’s veil, we recently sat down with Harvard Business Review editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius to find out what’s changes he has wrought at HBR and why, what he’s got up his sleeve for the future, and how one might go about scaling those battlements.

Ignatius has been a Wall Street Journal bureau chief in Beijing and in Moscow, and before he was hired at HBR in 2009 he had been Deputy Managing Editor of Time, in charge of the magazine’s business and international news coverage. More a journalist than a management type, Ignatius was hired to change HBR. But why?  Why did HBR need to change?

David Rosenbaum: Let me take you back in time. When you were hired in 2009, what was the charge? What was your mission?

Adi Ignatius:  I think the first step was to make everything we did be more reader-focused.

Rosenbaum: It wasn’t?

Ignatius: There was a balance, but it was, maybe, more author-focused. The question at the end of the day at HBR was, “Is the author happy?” And that’s fine – we want our authors to be happy and we want them to believe in us as a platform for them – but we are, actually, a business. Our mission is to disseminate important ideas, but we’re a business. We have to make our numbers and that requires us to deliver things in a way that’s relevant to people.

Rosenbaum: So was the business slipping?

Ignatius: I don’t think there was anything dire. But we were coming out of a recession and that’s a good moment to re-think future strategy.

Rosenbaum: Then the platform for change was . . .

Ignatius: To be honest, it was about the acceleration of digital. One of my predecessors had once said, not that long ago, “We will never blog; we will be blogged about.” And when I came in, the website was pretty much just the magazine online and a tool to sell things. In fact, a couple of my colleagues, the digital team, created a separate website with more timely stuff, blog posts. We had two websites because there was this fundamental split over what HBR should be. We had Harvardbusiness.org and HBR.org and they were different and even internally no one was sure which was which.

So it was easy for me to come in and ask, “Why exactly do we have two websites? Shouldn’t we just have one?”

So now there was a new team, a new era, and a feeling that we wanted to have impact, and impact didn’t just depend on an article being ten pages long. Impact depends on quality and presentation. There was a green light to do new things digitally.

We also re-did the magazine to make it less of an academic journal. The idea was that in addition to finding good stuff in it, readers might also have a relationship with it.

Rosenbaum: Reader focus.

Ignatius: Subscribers. Look. If all you care about is a narrow field – say, you’re a marketing guy and all you want is marketing stories – at some point you’re going to realize that you don’t have to subscribe. You can search to find what you want. So, to make a case for subscription, we had to do more than simply run articles and hope they would appeal at some point to some readers. So we tried to create themes that were in the zeitgeist, that were timely. A couple of years ago it was big data. People were talking about it. Is it important? Is it not? We created departments: a CEO talking about a watershed moment; interviews with leaders. I mean, none of this is revolutionary. It’s just classic magazine stuff.

Rosenbaum: Did you get push-back from constituencies saying you were dumbing it down, turning HBR into Time, it into People magazine for business readers?

Ignatius: That was a fear. You know, we’re owned by Harvard Business School. They have afforded us a great deal of independence since long before I came, understanding that we are a business. We make a decent amount of money that we give back to the school. It funds case study research. They depend on it and they realize that we need to be independent to function best as a business. We’re publishing the best ideas in business, not just the best ideas in business exclusively from Harvard Business School.

That said, there were some people worried that we were going down the path of entertainment rather than sound, research-based ideas. And, you know, it took a while but people realized that impact comes in various sizes.

To be honest, the tougher test was with my own staff. They were justifiably proud of what they had been doing, and they said, you know, we do things this way, and our way is a good way. You change things up and you think everyone will love your new way and, no, they don’t. I’d say it took at least a full year for the staff to think that it made sense and see that our authors weren’t abandoning us and were going along with the changes.

Again, the big change was digital. It was a transition. At one point, the web used to be the booby prize. We’re not going to put your article in the magazine but we’re going to put it on the web. But I think we’re past that now.

Rosenbaum: Really? I think there’s a feeling – and really, more than a feeling, a belief based in fact – that it’s easier to get published on the website than in the magazine, and that the vetting is not as rigorous for the web and therefore it’s less prestigious. True? False?

Ignatius: True. And that’s one of the challenges. When we made the changes I was talking about, we had two forms of content: long form and 700-word blogs. The challenge is to create things in-between that are as rigorous as long-form HBR pieces but presented differently – perhaps illustrated with really interesting data.

But people are realizing, with the social media phenomenon, that when you start broadcasting interesting pieces through the social network, suddenly pieces get far more attention than something in print alone. I think everyone who experiences that says, Wow. Then, they get it.

Rosenbaum: Yet if you gave someone a choice, do you want your piece on the web or in the magazine, wouldn’t nine out of 10 still say the magazine?

Ignatius: I guess they want copies for their moms. Yeah, I know. Some people think they’ve failed if they don’t get into the magazine. But there are so many influential online authors.

Rosenbaum: So you think it’s like tree-hugging.

Ignatius: I think the challenge is to figure out this intermediate-form piece that’s edited as rigorously as the long form and gets recognized as credible as a traditional HBR piece, with the same impact. It’s on us to solve that issue.

Working the Problem Because Rust Never Sleeps

Rosenbaum: So you’ve been at HBR five years now, and you’ve made these changes we’ve been discussing. How do things look?

Ignatius: If you took a snapshot of HBR right now, everything’s great. The circulation has never been higher; I think we’re about 270,000 paid circulation. The newsstand sales continue to break records. I mean, it’s ridiculous. It’s whatever it is, $16.95 a copy, and we sell almost 40,000 copies per month even though newsstands are supposed to be disappearing and people are supposedly not reading print. Print advertising is down, but digital is making up for some of it. So, again, if you took a snapshot, everything’s great. We’re defying gravity.

But the reality is that the pressures that are really hammering a lot of traditional media are coming after us, too.

People want to consume more digitally, with more video, on smaller screens. They want alternatives to the long-form that HBR has traditionally done. Advertisers believe less and less in print as a preferred vehicle.

Rosenbaum: So what are you doing about it?

Ignatius: We started with a discussion about print frequency. Maybe we should do less, be more digital. But that’s an uninteresting and depressing conversation. However, that evolved into a really good discussion about what we do, what we have. What are our assets?

Our assets are our articles and our archives. And we have an audience that’s super-engaged in what we do. And then we have our authors. We succeed when we deliver stuff to an audience in a way that’s useful and relevant and appealing, but we also succeed when our authors feel, well, I’ve done some research, or I’ve got a new way of thinking about something, and HBR is where I want to publish. And that needs to be nurtured as well.

So we started to think about what it means to be a subscriber, or a part of the HBR community. And our goal is to significantly increase the number of subscribers and increase the price of subscription. And if we want to do that, we have to offer a lot more than a shift from less print to more digital. We really have to offer new products and services.

And that’s what we’re in the middle of doing and testing.

Rosenbaum: You’re thinking of new ways to attract subscribers.

Ignatius: Yes. Ideas aren’t enough. We need to offer a new way for people to implement ideas with their teams or in their businesses. So we’re trying to create tools – whether assessment tools, or Power Point tools, or simulation tools – that people can share with their teams. So we did some testing and we asked subscribers what they would be willing to pay for. And what came out is that people really want Power Points.

So we had to figure out what they meant by that. Did they want slides that summarized our articles? Did they mean something more sophisticated? Do they mean benchmarking? So we’re testing a bunch of those. But we know they want some sort of downloadable HBR-type thing that they could add to their own decks as they’re working with their teams on strategy or whatever. So my guess is we’ll end up with a line of Power Points, presentations, and exhibits that will be part of what subscribers can access when they subscribe to us.

Rosenbaum: So, tracking your thinking back, instead of saying simply that you needed to be more digital, and doing that, you broke that down to what your audience wanted to consume and how you could provide it.

Ignatius: At a high level – and I don’t know if we can do this – can we create a concierge service. Say, I’m a new manager. I’m having my first board meeting. What do I do? And he or she could call or email and we’d be on the other end. And we could say, Look, you’re in this industry, you might want to read this. Or, if you want to be a little off the wall, you could read this.

Rosenbaum: A menu.

Ignatius: Yeah. And we’re redesigning the website. That will come out before Jan. 2016, which is our target date for those services, for re-defining what it means to be a subscriber.

Rosenbaum: Why are you redesigning the website?

Ignatius: Part of it is to make it look better. We’re a premium product; we want it to look like a premium site. We want more people to feel comfortable reading complex or long pieces online. You need a luxurious, readable presentation. That’s the first thing. The second thing is personalization so subscribers will be able to have a MyHBR, where they’ll tell us about themselves, or we’ll know about them from their reading habits.

Rosenbaum: SI.com and ESPN.com did that kind of customization years ago.

Ignatius: I know. You want more NFC East? We’ll give you that. You want more golf? You got it. But all that stuff works better digitally than it ever did in print. And we’re adding a whole lot more functionality so you can save stuff in a folder, share it with a team, and keep track of what you’ve shared. Our hope is to replicate what people can do in print, online.

The Thought Leadership Industrial Complex

Rosenbaum: Are your authors writing differently due to these changes at HBR? Are they constructing things to be more web-friendly?

Ignatius:  There’s a lot more use of data. A lot more use of infographics. We’ll sometimes get a research paper and it’s interesting but dry and tough to grasp, but maybe there’s a visual representation that’s either in the paper or we think about and we say, “Why don’t we just do your big honking paper in three charts?” Some people that get that and those pieces tend to do really well if they’re smart and interesting and get shared a lot. Social media is great for eye-popping data.

Again, there are some authors that are only comfortable with the long-form thing; that’s all they’ve done all their lives. They don’t write so good short. Others do.

What we have to figure out is how the HBR brand can exist in both places: shorter pieces, online, and our traditional big, research-based pieces where we can sell a lot of reprints.

Rosenbaum: When you hear the term thought leadership, what comes to mind?

Ignatius: I’m not sure what it is. There’s real thought leadership and alleged or declared thought leadership. Every single enterprise now seems to have a thought leadership division or a thought leadership mission so, I mean, it’s great, I’m quite happy to have thought leadership democratized beyond a few publications like HBR, but it’s so ubiquitous. Everyone can’t be a thought leader. There have to be followers. Of course, no one is going to say, We’re a thought-follower institution. My colleague coined the phrase the thought leadership industrial complex. There’s a whole industry, as you know.

Rosenbaum: I’m part of it. So, as part of it, what advice would you give to somebody about how to pitch HBR, how to get into HBR? Most people think it’s hard, almost impossibly hard.

Ignatius: Well, we’re always criticized for publishing the same people: Michael Porter, Clay Christensen, Tom Davenport, Rosabeth Moss Kanter. The reality is, we’re incented to bring in new authors.

Rosenbaum: How so?

Ignatius: Our end-year bonuses are tied to bringing in new authors. We set up incentives so we don’t, in fact, always publish the same authors.

Rosenbaum: How do you go about finding these new authors?

Ignatius: We divided up the editors, creating beats and idea teams. The idea is that if you’re our marketing guy, or our strategy guy, that means you have to know the canon and you have to get out there and find the new voices and go to conferences and meet people and work networks. So it’s not just editing whatever comes into the in-box.

You know, HBR used to be whatever articles were ready when the publishing truck came by. It was, Okay, staple the articles together and there’s the magazine. Now, we say, well, in October we’re going to do the Workplace of the Future. So the editors know months in advance what we’ll be covering and they’ll have time to figure out who are the smartest thinkers.

Rosenbaum: That’s an editorial calendar.

Ignatius: We have an editorial calendar publically available to advertisers, so they can see, HBR is doing Workplace of the Future; I’d like to be in that issue.

Rosenbaum: Is the calendar available to authors so that they can see it and think, I’ve been working on that; I should submit an article?

Ignatius: We haven’t done that. But maybe we should. I get people calling me saying, Wow, you just did an issue on sustainability. I would have liked to be in that issue. The thing is, we all have to get over that old-fashioned competitive pressure.

Rosenbaum: You mean being afraid that if you tell people what you’re working on, months in advance, you’ll get scooped?

Ignatius: Yeah. I was thinking about that when Newsweek debuted in print again and they ran the piece on the Bitcoin guy. I followed it a little. I don’t understand Bitcoin, but I followed the drama. Who is the Bitcoin guy? Is he a Japanese guy? He has a Japanese name. But maybe it’s not a Japanese guy. Maybe he’s just using a Japanese name. Maybe he’s a whole bunch of guys. There were all these interesting questions. And then Newsweek comes out in their first issue and says they found the guy. Well, they didn’t find the guy. They found a guy who could conceivably have been the guy. But they didn’t have him. They were feeling that old-fashioned competitive pressure to be first.

Another approach they could have taken – and I didn’t think this up; Felix Salmon wrote a real interesting piece about it – they should have crowd-sourced it. And they should have done it for their first issue. There are millions of Bitcoin freaks who think about this all the time. Let’s get together and let them figure it out. That would have been cool and a new approach to journalism.

So for us, if we could go on social media and say we’re going to do this for October, would we be giving away our competitive secrets?

Rosenbaum: I’d argue that with something as broad as the Workplace of the Future, you’re not giving much away. 

Ignatius: I know. So if Businessweek decided to accelerate a project after seeing what we were going to do, would that matter?

Rosenbaum: You’ve got a competitive advantage. You’d do it differently.

Ignatius: Well, we’d do it longer. And we’d have more data points.

Rosenbaum: Speaking of competition and scoops, do you think HBR has real competition?

Ignatius: There’s Sloan Management Review, McKinsey Quarterly, strategy + business – they’re rivals. They all publish pieces I sometimes wish I had. But I think they’re more conflicted about what their staples are. Sloan has more responsibility to MIT than we do to Harvard. McKinsey Quarterly is for the public but it’s more for McKinsey. strategy + business is the same thing. It’s to get our guys ideas out there. And that’s fine, and that used to be HBR’s situation more, but years ago we decided that we needed to be more independent.

Rosenbaum: Is that your competitive differentiator?

Ignatius: I think it’s just partly the historical advantage of being created in 1922. People want to publish in HBR. And having Harvard in the name is a huge plus.

Rosenbaum: Is that sustainable?

Ignatius: So far so good.

And Speaking of Sustainability . . .

Rosenbaum: What are some of the big concepts HBR will be following?

Ignatius: Sustainability is one, and it’s really tricky. If you polled our readership, they’d all lie and say they wanted to read about it. They’d all say, yeah, this is the most important issue of our time. But we did a cover on sustainability recently and it was maybe our worst selling cover of the new era. But we’ll continue to do it. We believe in it. We think it’s important. But, it’s a tough sell.

Workplace design is another theme. There’s a big re-think going on. Offices got broken up some years ago for the sake of collaboration, creating common spaces, spontaneous spaces. Now, maybe not so much. Like our work, editing work, you need a quiet space. So there’s a lot of thinking about how to re-balance that.

Rosenbaum: With all the digital change we’ve been discussing, I’d imagine that we’re due for a cycle of revisionism concerning some of the big management and strategic theories – Porter, etc.

Ignatius: That’s a good debate playing out on our pages right now. We did a piece and a book with Rita Gunther McGrath. It’s really a theory of transient advantage. Sociologists might not buy this, but it sure feels like things are changing more rapidly – because of digital transformation – and companies need to think more about transient advantage than long-term advantage. And that would be an assault on people like Michael Porter and Roger Martin. And there’s a split. Some people think she’s really onto something and some people think transient advantage is baloney. Basically, you do strategy right or you don’t do it right, but the idea of hopping opportunistically for short-term strategic advantage doesn’t make sense. But that’s okay. HBR is a publication where competing ideas coexist. We don’t take an institutional point of view.

Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruption is having a huge renaissance as start-up culture is all about taking aim at incumbents and, again, you can argue whether the world is changing more rapidly or not but there are certainly a lot of people taking aim at traditional institutions – like media – so he has a great description of how disruption happens, how competitors come up, and how to make yourself resilient. “The Innovator’s Dilemma” is sort of a bible in Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs said it was the only business book he ever read. Jeff Bezos swears by it.

Rosenbaum: So what if I gave you a bunch of money, a blank check, and said, Adi, build me a competitor that could take HBR down. What would you do?

Ignatius: Why would I answer that question?

Rosenbaum: Because you’re on a roll?

Ignatius: Let me answer it differently.

Our version of that is to rapidly move toward a new publishing model. Like everybody else, almost all of our revenue and most of our profits still come from print, but we’re accelerating digital because that’s where the market is going, that’s where our competition could get us. So, we have to get really good at video, really good at infographics, really good at those new products and services I was talking about. You see the challenge from Buzzfeed. They don’t have the legacy burdens. They’re born, like Huffington Post, and in a few years they have more readers than the New York Times. That’s the world we live in.

There’s no reason why that couldn’t happen to us, to HBR, which is why, like the New York Times, we’re trying to figure out how to change and innovate.

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