Guest blog: 10 ways to innovate (in your busy workday)

Teresa Elsey, Digital Managing Editor in the Trade division at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, directs a group that produces and updates more than a thousand ebooks yearly and is no stranger to innovation! At Tech Forum 2016, Teresa will be guiding a panel of industry experts as they discuss ways you can encourage grassroots innovation at a legacy publisher, but while we wait in anticipation she's also shared 10 small ways you can innovate in your day-to-day work processes.

Every digital publishing professional knows she needs to “innovate,” but when you have day-to-day tasks and responsibilities, the way to transform that intention into action is not always clear. Here are 10 quick ideas to help you either jump-start a change you’ve already defined or create an innovation-friendly culture of learning and experimentation. As a bonus, all these strategies are free, don’t require anyone else’s permission to implement, and take less time than thinking up an excuse not to do them.

Read something
My something is the Digital Book World newsletter, which is waiting in my inbox every morning when I get to work. I read it while I eat my breakfast, and if I see something particularly interesting, I forward it to my team for discussion. Yours could be a favourite publishing blog (here’s what’s in my RSS reader), the #eprdctn hashtag on Twitter, or something specifically relevant to your innovation goal(s). (Bonus: Read something that's consistently over your head, which for me tends to be discussion around development of EPUB standards.)

Count something
Things I have counted include the number of ebook files my group sends for distribution each month and year, the number of titles we have on the Amazon rework list, and the number of emails in my inbox at the end of the day. Even without consciously doing anything to change those numbers, just tracking them often causes them to change. (Though mind the economic principle that defining a metric can encourage gaming it.)

Schedule something
A member of my group had mapped out an experimental ebook project, but every week when I asked her about it, she reported that she hadn’t had time to start. Finally, I asked her to send me a calendar invite for one hour every week when she would work on the project. At the beginning of the hour, I would IM her to find out if she was working on it, and at the end of the hour, I would IM to find out what she’d gotten done. If innovation is important to you, put something that you want to be doing in your calendar, and respect that appointment as much as you would your dentist appointment.

Do something tiny
This blog post was written in 15-minute segments; I have a friend who wrote an entire book that way. “Write blog post” is a to-do list item that I will avoid every time, but “write for 15 minutes” sometimes seems easier to do than to skip. David Allen (of GTD fame) talks about identifying a “next action" — making your to-do list item not the entire project (“modernize our EPUBs”) but the single concrete thing you can do next to advance it (“read about EPUB:type semantics in the W3C spec”). Once you know your next action, set a timer for five minutes to work on it. If you’re deep into it when the timer goes off, you can continue, but if not, go ahead and stop. Do another five minutes tomorrow. The small daily actions accumulate to big changes over time.

Help someone else do something
My team is smarter than I am, they’re better at making ebooks than I am, and they outnumber me. So every minute I spend helping them do something is about 10 times more effective than time I spend working on it. Teaching someone something, sending your colleagues an article for discussion, helping someone debug an ebook, making a spreadsheet that lets your team gamify their progress on a project, and helping keep your staff accountable to their goals are all things that build innovation in your organization.

Automate something
Rather than make the choice to do something, set up your systems to make working on innovation automatic: schedule a recurring time for a special project, subscribe to an email newsletter, add a repeating item to your to-do list or calendar, set your browser homepage to an ebook news site, or adjust your operating system to automatically launch your writing project or iBooksAuthor on startup.

Talk to someone
If you’re stuck, someone you know can probably help. I do so much of my job over email that I rarely have the kind of informal conversations that draw out of my colleagues the things they don’t know they know (and don’t know I don’t know). Take one minute now to schedule an in-person meeting with someone (a colleague, an industry contact, a friend) to discuss something you’re working to change.

Try something
Take five minutes to try something outside of the normal way you do things. Try reading an ebook with a different e-reader app or add Readium to Google Chrome to read ebooks in your browser. Ask your team to QA ebooks on their phones in night mode for a day. Export a file that clearly shouldn’t be fixed-layout from InDesign as a fixed-layout EPUB. Change one thing that’s been bugging you in your standard CSS. You might learn something or identify something that needs to change in your processes, or you might just make a chip in the idea that there’s one right way to do things.

Learn something
From an MIT sequence on building a mobile app to bite-sized Codecademy lessons on jQuery or the command line, there’s something you can learn, for free and online, whether you can commit five months or five minutes. Hack Design will email you a design lesson and activities every week for a year. If you have access to (and check your public library for free access: BostonTorontoNew York), it has 29 ebook courses and 1,174 video tutorials at the moment.

Commit to something
The second-best way I know to get something done is to tell my boss that I’m going to do it. The first-best is to tell my staff that I’m going to do it. If you, like me, are motivated primarily by anxiety about failure and having your inferiority revealed, having to live up to your word that you will do something motivates getting it done. It can be as big as agreeing to give a talk on your project or as small as telling your spouse your top priority for the day.

What are you doing today to drive innovation? Comment below or tweet it to me @teresaelsey. I’ll be leading a panel at Tech Forum 2016 focused on nuts-and-bolts strategies for working innovation into your organization from the grassroots, regardless of how busy you are or how little power you perceive to make change in a large institution. Our fabulous panelists — Laura Brady, Meghan MacDonald, Erin Mallory, and Chantal Restivo-Alessi — will tell you about the ways they innovate in their organizations, with examples of their projects and successes, and lots of concrete ideas for you to take back to your desk on Monday. There's two weeks left to register, so don't miss out!