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Driving Innovation

By Adriana Gardella

John Schueler understands the value of innovation firsthand. As president of Florida Communications Group, a division of Media General, Inc., he has helped his company adapt and thrive in a business climate characterized by change. Mr. Schueler has responsibility for all Media General operations in the Tampa Bay market, including The Tampa Tribune, 12 community newspapers, WFLA news channel 8, and CENTRO, a Spanish language media group.

An appetite for innovation might be expected in a business transformed by digital communications. However, Mr. Schueler emphasized that it is equally vital to organizations including non-profits and law firms. Recently, he discussed the power of innovation across industries, and why no business should view innovating as a task. A condensed version of that conversation follows.

Q: You've said you embrace the disruptive innovation framework developed by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. What are its key points

Mr. Schueler: There are two types of innovation: sustaining and disruptive. Using sustaining innovation, a business tries to improve upon a current model. Building a better buggy whip instead of an automobile would be an example of sustaining innovation, which is most commonly used by incumbent market leaders. Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, creates a whole new way of doing things. Personal computers became ‘disruptive’ to IBM in the age of main frames, which did not connect to other computers in the early days.

Q: Why are incumbents generally less inclined to disrupt?

Mr. Schueler: Incumbents have higher profit margins, larger capital investments, and a reliance on barriers to entry. They don’t want to chase flyspecks.

Q. How has Media General positively reacted to disruption?

Mr. Schueler: In television, big syndicators like CBS and 20th Century Fox have been displaced by providers of boutique programming. We responded by creating Riverbank Studios, which produces shows including Reel Animals and Star Watch. Four years ago, in what may seem like a counterintuitive move in the Internet age, we launched a home delivered Spanish language newspaper. We knew that many of our readers in multigenerational homes were older and unlikely to go online or buy an expensive computer.

Q. So, innovation is not just for start-ups?

Mr. Schueler: Definitely not. In fact, I’ve seen a dramatic example of its benefits in my work as chair of the American Heart Association’s 2010 Heart Walk. Our challenge was that every organization had a walk. We needed a way to stand out, so we brainstormed to come up with pre- and post-walk activities—like blood tests, massages, and team photos—to boost engagement. We brought the event to Raymond James Stadium and walkers got to walk down the sideline of the actual playing field. Our efforts turned a standard walk into something more, boosted participation from 10,000 to 26,000 walkers, and raised $1.8 million, up from less than $1 million the year before.

Q. How can law firms benefit from innovation?

Mr. Schueler: They need to understand their clients’ challenges and help them plan for and respond to disruption. Ask clients what keeps them up at night. Are they seeing encroachment? Read up on their industries to know what they’re dealing with. It’s not just about writing a memo of law, or working out deal points. It’s about putting it into context.

Q. You’ve said that innovation should not be a task. What should it be?

Mr. Schueler: It should be a cultural thread that lives within a company. The best way to get good at it is to practice it.