Lessons from the Media Industry on Leadership
Senior Consultant, Donna Tarzian Design
Donna is a consultant and former media executive who is coaching and inspiring others to become creative leaders.
IDEO U COURSE COMPLETED:
Leading Complex Projects
“People are complex. Projects are complex. How can we create a bridge with people so we can understand a little bit of their complexity and they can understand a little bit of ours?”
Could you tell us about yourself?
I’ve had a very long career in media, with 30 years in the corporate world and eventually C-suite management. I started as a designer in my career, and have always incorporated design thinking into my work.
In the media business, we launched a lot of big projects like new media websites that involved collaboration among different functional groups. When there is a big news story, you initially have the breaking news, but there's also a long tail and narrative arc to the story. How do you continue to involve your customers?
It involves design thinking. We’ve done a lot of prototypes, such as a circulation service to get more customers. We worked on these over and over again and got a lot of feedback from many people before they even launched.
Currently, I’m consulting for other companies, coaching, and doing volunteer work.
“When there is a big news story, you initially have the breaking news, but there's also a long tail and narrative arc to the story. How do you continue to involve your customers?”
Why did you decide to take IDEO U courses?
When I left my media career, I wanted to go back and do more creative things, because I had been so in the world of managing people. I wanted to get back to my design DNA.
I wish I could have brought Leading Complex Projects to my colleagues before because it would have helped us get beyond some hurdles. When you have to deal with different people from so many functional groups with so many different projected outcomes, sometimes you just get to the finish line without thinking about how it's all going to work together.
What did you learn from taking Leading Complex Projects?
What’s interesting about this class is that it's so different from all of the others I've taken. There wasn't some big assignment at the end that I had to stress over. Instead, there was a lot of reflection. I was trying to think back like 25 years. How could I have influenced something for a better outcome? What could I have done better? So that was something I would like to impart on other people—how important reflecting and taking a step back is.
People are complex. Projects are complex. How can we better create a bridge with the people we're dealing with so we can understand a little bit of their complexity and they can understand a little bit of ours? Then, we can collaborate to tackle the biggest complex problem we need to solve.
With any new job, project, or opportunity, it's going to be hard. You have the choice to ask, “How am I going to deal with it?” Everybody has that ability to get up every day and figure out what to do next. Find out what people need, and show why they should come in and work on this project.
“With any new job, project, or opportunity, it's going to be hard. You have the choice to ask, ‘How am I going to deal with it?’”
How have you used these insights in your career?
In the media world, there were all these changes. A lot of people would be new and knew a lot of things that I didn't, so the first thing I would do is go meet them and have coffee with them. I’d let them know I was interested in what they do, and then see how what they did could connect with the big picture.
Building relationships with others is a key part of tackling complex projects.
In my last experience with my publisher, we would change corporate leadership practically every two years. There was somebody who was very qualified, who also had a very narrow focus about what they wanted to do with the organization and wasn't listening to people. I was like, “Wow, this isn't working for me and my group.” I decided I would invite him to coffee. I just asked him a lot of questions about what he wanted to do, how he wanted to do it, and how we could help him.
Because I was the head of brand and marketing, I said, “In order for me to help you I need to sit at your table in meetings once a week.” And he goes, “Okay, Monday mornings at eight o'clock.” I was shocked. Because of that conversation, we began to talk frankly with one another. It’s about building these relationships with people in your organization. Leading Complex Projects teaches you the tools to do that.
Do you have any favorite moments from the course?
One of the instructors said something really interesting: it’s not co-creation or collaboration, but co-discovery. It’s like being on an unpaved road and discovering things together. It's a journey, and you want to be discovering things constantly as you're working on the project. If people approached problems with such curiosity, everyone would be so excited to work on them and have “aha” moments.
Lots of times when you're in a big organization, people sit back and wait for the agenda to come to them instead of thinking about how they might influence the agenda. Some of the best outcomes come when people are empowered to lead from below.
“One of the instructors said something really interesting: it’s not co-creation or collaboration, but co-discovery.”
How would you visualize a complex project?
I’ve used a basketball analogy in defining complex projects.
There’s a ball that's always in motion. There’s lots of twists and turns. There's all the different players—some of them are in a good mood, some of them aren't. Some of them don't know what to do. Some are going to agree with the coach and some won’t.
Donna’s illustration of what a complex project is to her.
I like basketball. My father, who’s one of my biggest influences, went to college on a basketball scholarship. And he loved to coach. When I was growing up, he decided to coach a team, and he took this ragtag bunch of guys who were so different in height, in physicality, and in thought, and he got them to win a state championship. It’s because my dad knew how to make them sing together. You can take different people and help them collaborate. You just need to open the door for them to do so.
What’s next for you?
One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was improv, and I've also become really interested in intergenerational connection. During the pandemic, I found an online, intergenerational improv class. We had people anywhere from 15 years old to 85.
There's a lot of stereotypes about different generations. However, as you get to know people of different generations on a personal level, those barriers get broken down. So part of the class’ intention and goal was to do this, but they had a very “green” operation, clunky tools and a lot of user friction.
I’ve thought about the user’s ability to find, access, and use the course, so they asked me to help. So I have this complex problem, which is intergenerational connection through the tool of improvisation. Now, I’m using Leading Complex Projects to help their business.
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