Competitive journalist becomes full convert to collaboration gospel

Protect your sources. Don’t talk about what you are working on. Keep it close to the vest. Trust no one. Those were the mantras that editors would repeat over and over when working on a big project. In the newsroom, that made sense. In Silicon Valley, it can be a recipe for disaster.

Journalists are cautious by nature, we are always worried that a competitor will scoop us, which fuels a healthy paranoia that helps us keep on top. I arrived at Stanford with this mindset, planning to guard the details of my project as if they were the ingredients of a secret sauce.

However, in a program like the Knight Fellowships that attitude is destined to fail. One of the pillars of the culture of entrepreneurship and innovation of Stanford and by extension, Silicon Valley, is collaboration – not only with your peers, but with people from extremely different backgrounds who can help you reach creative breakthroughs.

Challenges to my proposal

My decision to not share was challenged from the very beginning by the fellowship directors. At our first group meeting, they prompted everyone to talk for a few minutes about their projects. As the session progressed, I noticed how much I could learn from other fellows and how passionate they were about their projects. It now seemed pointless to worry about protecting my idea: I needed, and wanted, to hear what they had to say.

When my turn came, I gave an overview of my project and the challenges on the horizon. The response was overwhelming and unexpected. Some fellows challenged my assumptions about the situation of the industry. Others offered new paths to tackle the problem, and all of them provided more ideas than I could have generated on my own. The exchange of ideas continued spontaneously after the end of the session and everyone left with a new perspective on their work.

The next step on my “collaboration education” came from the d.school at Stanford. As part of our orientation, we attended a two-day boot camp centered on the techniques of design thinking, a process — some consider it a philosophy. It’s a creative and interdisciplinary approach to solving complex problems.

One of the most attractive and useful features of design thinking is the way participants brainstorm. Using a white board and lots of post-its, they share their solutions to a particular problem, focusing on the needs of the individuals who will use the product. Wild and impractical ideas are not only accepted, but encouraged. What emerges from this process is a torrent of ideas (much more than from any regular brainstorming) that mirrors the diversity of the people who provided them. Not every idea would be used, but most would inspire and provide features for the finished product.

Explosion of new ideas

The next step was applying what we learned to our projects. Some of us fellows began a series of “fellows’ only” brainstorming sessions. We invited former fellows to get a more experienced perspective, established a format where two fellows per session would detail their proposal and the problems they encountered so far. The next step? Who would go first. I volunteered, convinced it was a great opportunity to get feedback on my project at an early stage.

The session surpassed my expectations. That, I believe, was the moment when I became a full convert to the collaboration gospel.

For more than 45 minutes the fellows concentrated exclusively on my project, offering new ideas, poking holes in my assumptions and suggesting solutions or new ways to focus the problem. Some even brought dossiers with examples of possible competitors and inspiration for possible project features. I received enough ideas that day to create five different projects.

Now I’m starting to refine those ideas, reformulating the premise of my project and leveraging the resources of the fellowship to make it a reality. None of that would have been possible if I had not changed the way I approach work and collaboration. Now I am thinking that if these procedures were applied in a newsroom, how would that change the way we produce news? I don’t know the answer to that question yet. Maybe I’ll ask it the next time we brainstorm.