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From a bright white conference room at Macmillan, we saw clouds forming. The tween romance book segment was expanding, creating an opportunity of enormous potential for Macmillan’s children’s publishing division. But self-published authors in this genre were growing in popularity, making it more difficult for traditional publishers to convince great writers to sign with them.

Traditional publishers like Macmillan were being shut out. The system was broken and would only get worse.

Sitting in the conference room that day two years ago, as we facilitated the strategy discussion, Jean Feiwel had an idea. Jean is something of a legend in children’s publishing. She is known as the editor behind successful children’s series like Goosebumps and The Baby-Sitters Club. At age 28, she was one of the youngest senior editors at a major publishing house. Her intuition, primed by reading hundreds of manuscripts each year – during train rides into Manhattan from Bedford, NY, at her desk, on her couch over the weekends – gives her remarkable insight into what’s coming. And her intuition was telling her the idea would work.

Jean’s idea built on a concept she had before, but now it became clear to her that if the company was really willing to try something innovative, this idea could not only fix the system but also put Macmillan ahead of the competition.

But what happens with most good ideas? They end up in a file, at the bottom of a stack, never acted on. A good strategic planner will tell you that what should happen is someone writes a business case, presents it to a committee at the annual planning session, gets a budget, staffs a team, and a year later you have a new business.

Luckily, Macmillan did neither.

It started with pizza. After our strategy session Jean told her boss in private that she wanted to pursue what she called “Romance 2.0.” Her boss, Jon Yaged, head of Macmillan’s children’s division, listened to her case.

Jean is curious and restless. Describing her creative process, she said, “I take elements, extract them, and translate them into a new space.” And that day she explained to Jon what she saw: “I am not a romance lover but having done a lot of teen fiction, having lived through the supernatural phase of world-ending fiction (e.g., The Hunger Games),” she felt people were at the point that they were ready for a “happy ending.” She said that if you look at The Hunger Games and Twilight, you see it’s been romance all along. Romeo and Juliette with vampires and werewolves.

She explained they were losing opportunities because successful new writers in this genre will feel they don’t need a traditional publisher, especially not one that specializes in children’s books. “We have to go beyond the system,” she argued.

Her answer was “American Idol meets publishing”: a competition in which emerging writers share their work with a community, get feedback and get voted on, all leading to a winner which Macmillan will publish.

What strategic planning best practices suggest they should have done next was create a business case and submit it for funding. This is where most of our projects lead. But Jon and Jean chose a different path.

Jean sent out an email to the entire Macmillan children’s publishing team that essentially said, “I have an idea. If you like romance novels, meet on this day for lunch. I’ll bring pizza.”

Jean hoped a few people would show up and was shocked to see 30. The invitation attracted not just editors but sales people, marketers, operations, etc. What they shared in common was a love of romance.

They started meeting every three weeks, splitting into sub-teams, doing work in between, coming back to share. How would they attract writers? How would the technology work? How would they do the editing?

Jon was skeptical at first. He was worried about how much the idea would cost, but he thought it was worth trying. “There was a lot of groundswell for this,” he said. “This was their part-time job in addition to their day job; they were working late [on it]” because it was fun for them. Not because they had to. Sales people got a chance to have editorial input. The effort was engaging and empowering. “They had an authority in that context that they didn’t have in their day-to-day job. All these people are not leaving at 5pm, they are leaving at 7pm. They are engaged,” Jon said.

This was not a job. It was an act of love.

The pace of the “meeting – work – review – adjust” cycle accelerated. They were falling naturally into a new form of strategy making – a model that technologists call “agile,” entrepreneurs call “lean start-up,” and military call “OODA.” Jon explained that they later came upon the “lean start-up” concept and realized, “We were [already] doing it unknowingly.

The result is SwoonReads, a website, community and competition by which new authors, mostly teenage girls, write manuscripts and publish them for a community of romance lovers to review. Readers offer ideas like, “If I was to critique anything it would only be small things. About halfway through I started to think Rachel seemed a tiny bit too ‘needy,’” to which the author responds and makes improvements to her manuscript.

Readers then score each book on an index composed of “Heat,” “Tears,” “Laughs” and “Thrills.” The competition lasts months and culminates with a few finalists and then a winner. On Valentine’s Day this year, Macmillan’s SwoonReads announced its first winner, A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall.

So Macmillan has turned a threat into an opportunity. They did this not through the best-practice top-down strategy process but through adopting agile strategy, Strategy 2.0, in which you are driven by passion over profits, ideas rise up the organization rather than down, and you try and adjust rather than analyze and bet.

You can do this too. Like any good relationship, it just requires a few fundamental ingredients:

    1. Understanding: Do your people understand your strategy?
    2. Love (and know) your customer: Do your people intimately love your customer the way Jean knew and loved romance readers?
    3. Trust: Do the leaders in your company trust their team to make the right choices (Jon never attended the planning meetings)? Do your people trust each other so they can move quickly and synchronously?

photo credit: Petur via photopin cc

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