Life cycle of work begins with an inquiring mind

Posted on May 27, 2011 by Janet Coats

School is wrapping up for the year. My children are finishing up class projects and eagerly awaiting a family vacation in North Carolina.

As the daughter of a teacher, I've always tuned my year to the school year, and having school-age children only accentuates that tendency on my part. The end of the year, for me, is never Dec. 31; it is the last day of school. The new year begins with the return to classes in late summer.

But this year, the winding down of the school year coincides with the winding up of my work with the New Media Journalism Initiative. Our primary projects, focused on networking for innovators and journalism sustainability, are moving from their beginning stages into full-throttle mode. It is exciting to see our work coming to life, and I'm looking forward to sharing more with you about the work as we move forward.

One of the joys of this work has been taking the time to think about what I'm learning along the way and then put that knowledge into action. I haven't had any great blinding flashes of genius -- and I don't expect I will. But I have become more attuned to the cycles of thinking and doing than I was during the adrenaline-fueled days of the newsroom.

There's been a lot written about the life cycle of innovation and project development, and there are several different versions of what it looks like. I've seen it depicted as circles, as ladders, as all kinds of flow charts. And every writer about it uses different key words to drive home the points about how to develop work with purpose.

Here's how I would describe my own process in the New Media Journalism Initiative. Some of my thinking is driven by years as a journalist; the reporting process remains an important part of any work I do.

* Inquiry -- I like this word better than "research'' because inquiry carries with it the idea of intellectual curiosity. I began with few open-ended questions about what drives and sustains innovation in journalism. Then, I asked those questions of as many smart people as I could find. I always asked any person I talked with: "Who should I talk to to learn more?"

* Discovery -- As the inquiry process unfolded, I found myself discovering common themes that helped shape the direction the work would go. That said, I listened carefully to discover the uncommon ideas -- the contrary viewpoints, the startling idea, the unexpected thoughts. The common themes helped me identify the need for our work; the uncommon ideas helped me start to understand where true innovation might live.

* Development -- This is where I began to take the emerging vision of what our work could be and started building the strategy and tactics for making it real. This phase involves a deeper study of not just what tools you could build to meet a need, but how the community would want to use those tools. For me, development also meant cultivating relationships and partnerships that would drive the work forward.

* Testing -- With some prototypes in hand, my partners and I took our work for a test drive with the communities that would actually use the tools and techniques. The phases that have come before -- inquiry, discovery and development -- have convinced you that you really understand how your work will live in the community you are serving. But in truth, you don't know that at all until you test it.

* Evaluation -- For me, this is the hardest part. The feedback the community gives you during the testing phase is like gold, but it is often hard to hear. It challenges ideas and concepts that you have come to love. It challenges the proprietary feeling you've come to have about the work. Sometimes, it feels like failure. But the evaluation phase, when done with honesty and humility, can set your course true. It can keep you from building a beautiful house that no one wants to live in.

* Implementation -- Getting to implementation of the work can seem like a relief, like reaching the finish line. In truth, to me implementation means that you are revisiting all the other phases of your work simultaneously. As you implement, you are asking open-ended questions to help you understand what is working and why. You are open to discovering new concepts that can shape how the community interacts with the work. You are developing and refining the tools and techniques. You are constantly testing, tweaking as you go. The evaluation phase is ongoing; as the community adopts and shapes the tools and techniques you've worked with them to build, you are using their feedback to continue course correction. And in this process, you can start to see the seeds of a new tool or another innovation.

Draw it as a circle, a ladder, a flow chart. Any way you look at it, the process at its best is iterative, collaborative and open.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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