SmartBrief’s Henry Tam, on why alignment trumps ideas - SmartBrief

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SmartBrief’s Henry Tam, on why alignment trumps ideas

5 min read


SmartBrief is proud to announce that Henry Tam has joined the company as chief product officer. Before joining SmartBrief, he worked as vice president and managing director at Atlantic Media Co. and as general manager and director of product development at The Washington Post.  He was responsible for co-creating and launching The Atlantic Wire, recently named “smartest aggregator” by AdAge, and the Food Channel on The Atlantic website, which was an ASME finalist. Prior to the Atlantic, Henry led the double-digit growth of the product at WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive and oversaw various local digital initiatives, including hyperlocal.

When we look back at the early 21st century and the way technology  shaped journalism during that period, what will we say? Are you excited  or concerned about the effect technology has had on the news?

I think what we’ll see in the years ahead is acceleration of change. As fast as things are changing now, this is just the tip of the iceberg. While the core principles of great journalism will always be rewarded — being the first, seeing things in a unique light, providing high-quality insight — form will continue to be an increasingly important part of the media value equation. From the reader perspective,  I’m excited, in that at no other time in history has information been so easily accessible and the proliferation of content so explosive. My concern is that information proliferation will not actually increase perspective but actually narrow it, and technology will be that enabler.  I think the opportunity for SmartBrief is to target a subset of these readers that want an intelligent view of the world and what it means to their personal and professional lives, and figuring out the right balance between technology and curation, whether it be human/artificial/social,  will be a critical question for the future.

What’s your product development philosophy?

my philosophy is that there are plenty of great ideas out there, but it all comes down to execution.  I mean, newspapers were talking about online coupons for ages, and I believe they should have created Groupon before Groupon did; but they didn’t and they missed a huge opportunity.  Part of execution is ensuring organizational alignment, or else new products will be doomed to failure. I don’t generally believe in skunkworks team because the very nature of it  means that it is disconnected from the rest of the organization. Even if the idea itself is brilliant, because of  its disconnected nature,  the idea will rarely be allowed to blossom and succeed. Without organizational alignment and functional buy-in, product development is a waste of time.

What’s more difficult — making something new or fixing something broken? Why?

Making something new without organizational alignment is easy — you just sit in your ivory tower and that’s the end of it. If you need to get organizational alignment, making something new could be just as hard or harder than fixing what’s broken. It really depends on the organization and its culture.

How do you build consensus within an organization around a new idea?

I actually don’t think building consensus is the challenge. Generally, I’ve found that people in small, medium and big organizations generally can agree on what is best for the company, at least at a high level. The issues arise because of context, incentives, culture, politics and egos. So the task is not necessarily building consensus, but building coalitions of like-minded people who can see beyond their own department and narrow interests and can become agents of new ideas and change.

If context, politics and ego are really the problem, how do you address those issues? How does one go about creating the coalitions that move a big idea forward?

The key to building coalitions is to understand the culture of an organization and use the cultural values of that organization to form those coalitions. I’ve just finished Tony Hsieh’s book and his argument that culture will determine the destiny of a company is simple but very profound. So figuring out what cultural levers to pull internally, whether it be appealing to a culture of risk-taking or wowing your customer base, for example, are probably the most powerful tools for creating momentum and rallying folks around an idea.

How do you inspire innovation in others? How do you make it part of a company’s culture?

Competent people want to innovate. That ability distinguishes who will succeed and who will not — that ability is critical to succeeding in a global economy (I say this as I channel my inner Tom Friedman). So to me, inspiring innovation within a company is really about giving people the tools to innovate. Most of the time, people rightfully feel that innovation is just lip service. Acknowledging that there is no one owner or department that is responsible for innovation is the first step. Creating a transparent process that gets the right people involved, being forthright and definitive about decisions, and making people feel that their voices are heard (even if not necessarily acted upon) are all necessary ingredients to create an innovative culture.