Why do big companies struggle with innovation?

Metro.co.uk is now part of MailOnline. Metro is MOL’s agile cousin… able to iterate and innovate faster. Quizes, games, polls and other interactives have all been live on Metro for months while MailOnline have only got as far as talking about them.

In fact, this is one of the reasons that MOL wan’t to own Metro, to use it as a skunkworks.

What makes Metro different?

Does size matter?

Some people think Metro is more agile because it’s smaller. IMO, that’s only part of the story.

If size does make innovation harder… what will happen as we grow Metro’s content team?


Metro has a much more bottom-up culture than MOL. I think this is the main factor in our agility. Lord Rothermere himself posted on Chatter that DMGT needs more bottom-up innovation.

Being small makes it easier to be bottom-up (but some big companies manage it too).

The other “agile” things we do (quick feedback via short iterations) are just as easy for big companies as small companies.

The challenge

We’re already seeing that being part of MOL is making Metro far more top-down.

We’re currently redesigning the website. The process started six months ago and will probably remain our main focus for the next three months. That’s nine months following orders = nine months of crowding out bottom-up innovation. In the digital world, nine months is a lifetime.

What’s happened to Metro’s “fail fast and move on” described in the Investor Briefing? How do we know if the redesign is succeeding? I’m not even sure what the goal of the redesign is…

We need the vision and expertise from the top brass, but we don’t need them imposing projects and deadlines.

Push vs pull

Even small things are becoming top-down: we’re currently being given one week to integrate some of our interactive pieces into the homepage.

There is a simple rule: inserting a week’s work into the middle of a (redesign) project will add a week to the delivery date.

Needless to say that we’ve been given an extra week’s work and the redesign delivery date hasn’t changed.

People at the top have a great vision but they don’t understand the best way to realise it. Ask any experienced web developer and they will tell you that pull is more effective than push.

Metro has spent years improving it’s “pull capability” and it’s been de-railed in the space of a few months.

A warning from history

The last time we did top down was about four years ago. We (a team of ten or so) spent a year on three big projects: registration, comments and competitions.

We delivered the projects but added zero value to the business. The systems were ditched within a year. The real cost was all the amazing stuff that we could have done in that time had we had more autonomy.

Things are different now but we should heed the warning.

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