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InnoWed Deux: Al Gore On Innovation – Build It And They Will Come

A bit more on Current TV.

A bit more on Current TV.

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One of the most intriguing elements of the Current TV trajectory thus far, is how clear Gore and Hyatt were from the start that they wanted to do something completely different. In part, it was to address what they believed to be were the glaring inadequacies of a one-way medium – Gore spends pages exploring this theme in his recent book, An Assault on Reason. It is the very business of television that disturbed them. Hyatt told me that there was “an utter lack of innovation in the media industry”–a barely disguised oligopoly, as they saw it, controlling both content and competition. “We decided that we wanted to build a new kind of media company to democratize–small d–television first and the media industry generally,” he said.

They pushed through their ideas under the toughest of circumstances. “There were about seven or eight times when this deal was all but dead in the water,” recalled Gore about hunting for a cable asset to buy. Innovation can be challenging in the best of times; but under pressures of deadlines, itchy investors and looming revenue targets, even the most high-minded goals tend to be pushed to back burner. But once they had a business to run, the two got busy making it what they wanted it to be. Not without drama, but evidently without compromise.

During the course of my reporting on Current TV, I interviewed several of the senior staffers. Joanna Drake Earl was Hyatt and Gore’s first hire, and no slouch in her own right. She has a varied background, from Booz Allen’s entertainment practice, to Paul Allen’s Digeo . As the President of New Media, she’s actively creating new places for Current programming to appear. “We’re now exploring and concluding partnerships online with new media platforms – mobile, laptops, gaming consoles – any platform that makes sense,” she told me. With healthy license and advertising streams, it’s time to play. “Now that we’ve launched the tv network and reached our household distribution goal (50 million homes), we’re fulfilling our larger goal of becoming a global media brand.”

Drake shared a wonderful story describing the sausage-making that was early Current. It sounded like the kind of “what color is our parachute?” meetings that in the hands of a bad moderator – like one of those annoying consultants – can do more to alienate a staff than to solidify their resolve:

One recollection that sticks with me, early on, happened when we had first assembled a full executive team. We had gotten together for a full day strategy session around Joel’s kitchen table at his home. I remember one session we were talking about our values. We had and have a very diverse executive team from very different background – some from entertainment, some from outside of entertainment – but there was a wealth of passion and experience. And so much business savvy built into this entity with a specific social mission of connecting with young people and empowering them.

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Al gets up to speak – there’s always a lot of arm waving – and he loves to get up on the white board and draw a lot. Some of the values we talked about were not surprising – courage, authenticity and excellence. ‘Listening’ got pretty far along. Then we got to transformational. There was a pretty heated debate around transformational. In the long term, can we live with transformational every day? Embue it in the culture and manage to it? Managing to transformational can be draining. It’s a high hurdle. Al stuck to his guns – he got very animated. He didn’t want to do the venture if we couldn’t be transformational. We had the vision… and market opportunity… A couple of glasses of wine later, we got comfortable.

When I asked her what it meant to manage to “transformational” she said: “we need to be sure we’re on an innovative path in every area. It forces us to re-think everything, every 3-6 months, to make sure.”

When I sat down with Gore, I shared Earl’s story with him, and asked him what he meant by transformational.

He brightened, and immediately launched into lecture mode, a way of being with which he is clearly comfortable. His intrepid wrangler immediately offered him a wide array of tools – pen, pencil, sharpie, paper, file folder. He went straight for the folder and sharpie and began sketching. “This is sort of a geeky analogy, but you’re from Fast Company, so you’ll like it,” he said.

“The top sheet is an early computer with a central processing unit surrounded by a memory field. The CPU would send back and forth to the memory field to get and process data, generating heat and wasting time.

“The second sheet describes a revolutionary architecture, which distributes computing throughout the field with microprocessors, allowing the computer to solve all parts of a problem simultaneously.

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“Okay? So, here’s a brief history of computers:”

gore_sketch.jpg

“ The first computers after Brainiac and all that stuff had a CPU, surrounded by a field of memory. And the CPU would send out to the memory filed and get data, bring it back to the center, process it, then store the result back in the memory field. Three trips. IBM got its initial breakthrough with something called vector processing, which simply meant while one of these circuits was under way, another could begin. And you could have numerous of these under way at the same time. But all the work would still have to stack up at the CPU to be done. So as the challenges became greater and the processors became more powerful and the amount of information increased – the heat that you immediately recognized became an issue – and the size and that this is slow. So some brilliant guys, including Danny Hillis, came up with a revolutionary new architecture.

“And they got rid of the CPU and in the field of memory – and this is sort of a notional representation of it [referring to the drawing]. Every place info was stored they would co- locate a small microprocessor. Just imagine that all of these squares have microprocessors. And each microprocessor was assigned to and responsible for the information stored adjacent to it. So when work needed to be performed or a problem needed to be solved all of the parts of the problems were solved simultaneously. And all the components of the answer were brought to a virtual center. Okay? Instead of one two three trips, one trip. Less heat, less time, smaller spaces, less time still, virtuous cycle.

[He begins pointing to the two sides of the unfolded manilla folder. All things bad are the CPU, all things good are the virtuous cycle.]

So, this is communism [points to CPU], this is democracy [points to virtuous cycle].

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This is a command control economy… this is supply and demand.

[Here comes the kicker…]

This is a traditional television network [top sheet] … this is Current.”

He sat back and smiled. It’s an analogy that was too long to make it into the magazine story, but a lot of fun to hear in person. And it’s given me a lot to think about as I analyze other business ideas – as well as some of my own here at Fast Company.

But in some ways it’s less the business model that they chose, but the commitment to being transformational that I found most intriguing. It takes guts to revisit every assumption, premise, brainstorm, strategy and relationship on a regular basis. It’s uncomfortable not to have familiar benchmarks; reinventing the wheel is harder than it sounds on a whiteboard. Reversion to the mean happens for a very simple reason: Innovation is terrifying when done right.

I can see why the wine might have helped.

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