Summer Retreat Report: Looking Ahead to 2015-2016

“If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation.”  Don Draper’s now-infamous advice rang true in the context of Mad Men’s 1960’s advertising industry, and also reflects our approach to projects at the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

At our Summer 2015 staff retreat, we enjoyed some classic team-building activities: we talked about what attracted us to the lab, we shared what we valued about our teammates, and we highlighted the projects we’ve been most proud of.  However, in true AIL fashion, what came out of these exercises were far from the same old workplace-retreat clichés.

Organizations are usually attractive because of the salaries and benefits they offer employees, their focus on work-life balance, and maybe the difference they make in the lives of clients or other stakeholders.  Employees are often valued due to personal qualities like attention to detail, a strong work ethic, and the ability to work well with others.  Projects are often memorable when they bring in new business, achieve a high ROI, or earn industry recognition.  None of these qualities came up in our discussion.  Instead, the qualities that had attracted many of us to the lab were also the personal characteristics that we appreciated in one another.  As a group, we place importance in nobler, if somewhat more nebulous, characteristics like thought leadership, optimism, and commitment to doing meaningful work.   

This nebulousness is a two-edged sword: on one hand, we may lose some work-life balance, and it definitely takes a certain type of person to thrive in our unique environment.  On the other hand, though, we let our personal thoughts and interests influence our work, which, as we discovered during our discussion, has led to a uniquely humanist approach, especially when dealing with new technology.  While many organizations may willingly adopt any shiny new technology that comes their way because it’s simply the Latest Must-Have Thing, we step back and ask why we would use something (technology or otherwise) before asking how we can use it. This is a much more human-centric, as opposed to tech-centric or profit-centric, approach to innovation.

This humanist method, we decided, is the “secret sauce” in our approach to working at the dynamic intersection of media and culture.  What sets the Annenberg Innovation Lab apart from other innovation labs isn’t our prestigious partners, or our access to cutting-edge technology, or even our distinguished staff (if we do say so ourselves).  While we do enjoy all of these things, our secret is how our little team of rabble-rousers is willing to step back and look at challenges as people, not just researchers, writers, businesspeople, technologists or academics.  

We may work largely in the entertainment industry, but we’re not entertainment industry drones; we use new technology when it makes sense for our objectives, but we’re not techies; and we're part of academia, but we leverage critical thinking with practical application, and don't consider ourselves "academics" in the traditional sense of the word.  We’re uniquely willing to be rulebreakers in order to be groundbreakers: breaking the rules of entertainment, or tech, or any other industry in order to do groundbreaking work that will inform the decisions of the world’s biggest thought leaders.  We’re shaping the future of media and technology by purposefully not following what other successful groups (innovation labs, advertising firms, or otherwise) would do, but changing the conversation to address the core, future-shaping issues at the heart of complex challenges.   

One complex challenge we haven’t yet addressed?  Our own communications strategy, ironically enough.  In the coming school year, we’re going to use a few of the tactics we’ve observed among the New Creators and Makers to get the word out about the lab and the work we’re doing here.  We’re taking an idea we developed during an off-the-cuff brainstorming project at our staff retreat, and turning it into a fully-formed initiative in support of a more robust communications strategy.  We hope that by practicing what we preach, we’ll inspire more innovative, human-centric rule breaking, making this our best year yet.

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