Five Minutes on Innovation with Tom Silvestri

Tom Silvestri

Tom Silvestri became president and publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2005 as technology was forcing the newspaper industry to begin thinking seriously about change and innovation. That process was accelerated by the economic recession, and by Silvestri’s own ideas about the relationship between innovation and business. I sat down with Silvestri earlier in April to discuss his views on innovation.

What Richmond Needs Now

It came up at a Greater Richmond Chamber HYPE (Helping Young Professionals Engage) night where they invited me to talk about community and leadership topics. It was really a fun exchange. Somebody asked me, "What does Richmond need," and I had a one word answer, "Innovation." I told them how important they were to the community because innovation feeds off of energy and off of ideas.

Innovation Is A Process, Not An Activity< br />When you get innovation, you’re eager to do it. The first thing you do is set up a summit or a meeting or website. You’re eager to orchestrate this because you’re so excited, but Andy Stevanovich’s [a Richmond-based consultant] three-step process really captured it for me. He put “innovation” on the back-end; he put “ideas” on the front-end; and between the two, he inserted “process.” And you could actually cross process out and put “creativity.” That just said a lot – that to get to innovation, you have to go through a creative process or a period of creativity.

For a mature business, really looking at your processes and how you get stuff done and converting that into creativity is huge, because it becomes cathartic. From the business side, the instinct is to slap a return on investment on that idea. And that usually bleeds the creativity out of it, so there’s no place to flourish it. But if you send it through a creative process, the chances of going through innovation, of testing and trying it out, of conviction and encouragement are all there.

Very few things are profitable at the gate. You’ve died and gone to Heaven, if you find the open space, you have an idea that’s good enough, people are coming in droves and you have money coming out the ying-yang. But that’s a rare occasion. So you have to find innovation that pays for itself. That’s really tough.

Practice Makes Perfect

The first business is to anticipate. You have to practice anticipating to get good at innovation. That is really hard. How do you anticipate? You guess – fiction is anticipation, research can point you, conversations can anticipate.

Anticipation is the greatest sign to the open space where nobody is. But it’s not like you come out of the woods into an open space and you wonder, “How did I get here?” You’ve actually plotted to get there by anticipating. You’ve discovered it.

The next order of business is collaboration. Individually, you can come up with the idea, but that only makes you an inventor. It doesn’t make you an innovator, because an innovator always needs somebody else. So you move from anticipation to collaboration.

And then you have to move quickly to execution, because nobody is excited by all theory. Business people ask what you’re going to do with it. The community goes, “Huh?” And your family wants to know where the money is. So you have to execute it.

This notion of anticipate, collaborate, execute becomes a Wheel of Fortune that you’re constantly spinning. It becomes the basis for your innovation, because then you have to innovate again and you have to lock in that something good actually happened.

If you anticipate, you change the conversation and people start looking forward. And if you collaborate, then you have a place for the conversation to go. And when you execute, you get something done.

How to Get Started...

Innovation literature abounds. It’s all around us.

Here’s what I would do. I would alternate what you really want to do and read something you have no interest in.

For example, the videos from the TED conference. I try to watch one a day. There’s no practical reason for me to listen a 20 minute video about surgical checklists, but the whole conference is about thinking differently and innovation. I find that information fascinating.

I think you have to read history. You don’t have to be a history major. I started to read biographies of presidents, and when you get into them you find out how fallible they were, how crazy the time was, how personalities collided, how things got done. Read histories about your hometown -- you get this new wave of innovation, thinking and thought leaders, but you get it from an historical perspective.

I don’t think you can learn creativity from a workshop.

If you’re interested in it, you’ll always find a way. If you’re not interested, you’ll never do it. So why make the disinterested part of it? Although they play a key role; in fact, they may be the best executors.

I mix my reading up -- business books, history books, magazines. I find myself reading things I never would have read just to understand the patterns of thought.