In order to pull off innovation in a large organisation, you need to roll up your startup sleeves

How Chief Product Officer Gaurav Sachdeva leads the Digital Products and Design Innovation department of Singapore Press Holdings Limited.

Singapore is in all its facets digitally focused. Even though you can buy the local newspapers The Straits Times and the Business Times almost everywhere, their publisher, The Singapore Press Holdings Limited, lost its monopoly position to digital competitors. Consumption of print is going down, like in the Western part of the world.

With over eighty magazine titles in four languages, 5 radio stations in both English and Mandarin, a thriving property business, investments in different subsidiaries like an employment agency and a marketplace for cars, Singapore Press Holdings Limited has mastered the art of print and analogue products. Some of which are over 175 years, such that they now run like a well-oiled machine.
The company is trying different techniques in digital space, including creating artificial intelligence based products and most recently a stock photos marketplace called Photonico to monetise archives.

A year and a half ago the listed publishing conglomerate hired Gaurav Sachdeva as Chief Product Officer to steer the company into the digital future. As a fairly young but already very experienced product person with engineering & business background at Grab (south-east Asia’s Uber), Autodesk (AutoCAD) and Adobe (Adobe Creative Cloud), Sachdeva founded the company’s Digital Products and Design Innovation department. It took him some diligence because he realised that his task would not just be to churn out product innovation but also to lead the organisation through change at all levels — people, mindsets and processes. He wondered whether the decline in print circulation and the need to not only acquire new digital subscribers, but also retain them, was immediately felt in the organisation as a priority, or not? On the sunny rooftop terrace where he sat for inspiration, he tells where innovation should begin: “If you are looking for ways to innovate, why not start by looking at what your strengths are, and what do you already have in the armoury, and in SPH’s case the armoury is rich with history of over 175 years”. For SPH those are good quality journalism, trustworthy reporting, skilled people, a huge archive and a massive network in society.

Sachdeva.jpegThe definition of a product manager varies even in technology organisations where Product and Design teams churn out digital products daily. It was a new function at SPH, and so the initial hurdle was education: what is product management, what do product managers do and how can they instil customer-focus and LEAN and Agile methodologies to drive the strategy and execution of digital products. Sachdeva says: “In media, people were familiar with project managers, IT and engineers, and so we had to go around convincing them why they should talk to a product manager.”

He adds, “Large organisations often become comfortable, and that’s when small startups are able to disrupt that space. The challenge is how to make a large organisation think like a start-up, and possibly, get inspired to move faster”. And so, in his first many months, a large chunk of his time went in making his colleagues understand that it’s important to define the persona you’re making your content for: “To think about the problem that needs to be solved, otherwise the solution doesn’t serve a meaningful purpose. To ask the question “Why?”. Who is your target audience, what is your value proposition that makes them come to you to read and not go to another source? How will you make them stick and read one-more article than they normally do? How do you use analytics data to inform your decisions? What are your hypotheses when you decide to start a new section or write an article? ”

Sachdeva is very results-oriented and believes you need to lead by example and demonstrate that things can be done. For example, digitising a big photo archive was pinpointed as low-hanging fruit to do exactly that. It is one of the projects Sachdeva is proud of. Finding stock photos with South-East Asian faces is a challenge that many design, advertising and creative agencies face in the region. With Photonico, a photography marketplace, SPH solves that problem and contributes a valuable asset to the region.
To identify a gap in the market, a pain-point, and develop hypotheses, validate through user research and rapid experimentation, launch and then iterate, is the product and design thinking approach that got seen in-action in this project. Next step in that process is to try some experiments and be conscious of the little things the audience wants. “It is important to have empathy with the reader, to understand what they think and feel. What do they do after they read or watch something in our publications? If they read a recipe, for example, it could be helpful to identify the ingredients and connect it digitally with the Redmart (grocery delivery service). Always think about what the readers are doing next!”, Sachdeva adds enthusiastically.

Empathy and prioritisation are among the key skills to be able to outserve your customers, according to the CPO: “It’s easy to say yes to ideas, but it’s hard to have 100 ideas and say no to 99 of them. A journalists job is not easy; they have to react fast, write a story quickly, which must be released as soon as possible, and in many different ways, as long form, short form, listicles, visuals, audio and video. And so, digital product feature planning is an expectation-management exercise, which all Product Managers must undertake with journalists. After all, just as readers are, journalists are also the “customers” of a product that Product Managers and Engineers build. It’s not a question of when to involve who. Just because you’re a journalist, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about design.”

Journalists can handle an experimentation culture very well, Sachdeva noticed, as they go through several iterations of reviews of their work with their supervisors and editors: “They just have to be explained that what we’re doing is no different from the process they already know”. He adds smiling: “When something fails, we don’t call it a ‘failure’. In an experimentation-based product culture, failure is a way to learn, so we say the sun sets for this experiment”. Inculcating this experimentation culture has been key to Sachdeva’s approach to bring rigour and innovation. The digitalization of the Tamil language newspaper Tamil Murasu, revamp of Zaobao user experience, A.I. based personalisation capabilities, tablet-based news app, start-ups portal on Business Times, biometric access on flagship apps, and many such enhancements, along with data-informed decision making, customer-focus, and design thinking, have been some of the outcomes that he says are humbling and make him proud.

In the meantime, the Digital Media Product & Design team established by Sachdeva has grown manifolds, with external hires as well as with internal staff who have likened and grown into the transformation challenge. The latter encourages him as it is indicative of steady in-roads in the right direction, of implementing a cultural change. He is therefore not afraid to roll up his sleeves himself, a proven way to also challenge others to put their shoulders to the wheel.

This article is originally published in Dutch for the Journalism Promotion Fund SVDJ