If you want to know what it’s like pitching a new media project, just go to the experts:

This South Park clip, a classic in its own right, is a favorite around the MIT Center for Future Civic Media because every single new media project — ours and those from our Knight News Challenge colleagues — inevitably hits a wall at “Phase 2.”

For South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, “Phase 1: Collect underpants” is like every great idea we’ve all had: It doesn’t quite make sense to everyone else yet, but we know it’s gold. We also know it totally will lead to reinventing the news industry for the better. It will use technology in a new way, it will draw upon existing competencies in communities, and it will be financially sustainable. Totally. It therefore leads to “Phase 3: Profit.”

But the sound of crickets at Phase 2 is the challenge. You have that revolutionary idea, but how can you be sure you’re meeting an information need of a particular community before you spend your time and money?

Pony Diving

Rick Borovoy, one of our researchers and a veteran of a few media startups himself, calls Phase 2 “pony diving.” What’s striking about his explanation of pony diving — of diving into the muck that you think is evidence of something awesome — is that the idea plays only a small part. To come out of the muck with a full, finished project, you have to have other things in place. You need a sponsor on board. You need a staff ready to move. You yourself need to be able to communicate a vision of the finished product. (Adam Klawonn discusses these points in his post Top 5 Lessons from the Failure of The Zonie Report.) Phase 2 is all about ripping your own project apart, having disinterested people critique every aspect, and then seeing if you’re still excited about it. That’s how you prepare for Phase 3.

Be Open to Change

Being well prepared also means being open to, and even expecting, change. Just as no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no project survives first contact with the real world.

Traditional project management would dictate that Phase 2 has to include contingency planning. You need a stack of notebooks or (here at MIT) a roomful of whiteboards to list the thousands of things that could go wrong, and what you’re planning to do to mitigate those risks. (In fact, the News Challenge application process has put increased emphasis on contingency planning.)

But when you’re developing new technology, at the top of your contingency plan should simply be a directive to be open to change. You discover new things. You want to incorporate those new things. And if you have a sponsor willing to support experimentation, you can take comfort in the remarkable history of accidental inventions:

  • Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, presumably during a dramatic slow-motion dive, after he dropped nitroglycerin in a pile of sawdust.
  • George Crum invented potato chips, literally out of spite, after a customer kept complaining that his fried potatoes were too thick and soggy.
  • Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber during a failing sales pitch when his floppy rubber fell onto a stove top.
  • Ice cream cones, Play-Doh, Post-Its, penicillin, the pacemaker, and even Viagra were all discovered while trying to invent something else.

And therein lies the lesson for developers of civic media technology facing Phase 2. “Chance favors only the prepared mind,” Louis Pasteur said. Or, as Jeff Israely recently put it, the only straight line from point A to point B is where B is failure. Keep at it, but no matter how much you love your idea, be ready to seize — or propose — unexpected applications.

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