Innovation Blog

Five Minutes on 60 Minutes:   Six Lessons Innovators Can Learn from Don Hewitt

By Shlomo Maital


   The inventor, and long-time producer, of the leading CBS News program 60 Minutes, Don Hewitt, passed away last summer.  He was 86.  He invented this documentary program, and brought it to the air in 1968,  nearly 42 years ago.  He was its producer until he retired at age 81, in 2004. 

    Innovators can learn many key lessons from his life and work. Here are a few of them.  Reading this takes less than five minutes.

  * 1.  “Tell me a story”. 

     Hewitt, when asked to define good journalism, said, “Four words!  Tell me a story!”.   He insisted on a good story, not on dry facts.   TV news tends to be very dull.  Hewitt showed how to make it interesting.    Strong innovations tell a story too.  They create meaning, by creating a narrative, and context, for their users.   If you, innovator, want to communicate a strategic direction to your people — tell them a great story, and vividly portray, with details, where you expect to arrive if everyone fulfills their mission.

    Hewitt once used this principle to explain the success of the Bible.  The people who wrote the Bible, he said, wrote stories about evil in the world.   “And I latched on to this idea. “

* 2.  Foster controlled chaos: 

    Hewitt was a dictator, contentious, argumentative, fierce-tempered, who fought bitterly and continually with his journalists — an all-star cast, including Ed Bradley, Morley Safer, Mike Wallace, Lesley Stahl, Steve Croft.  His battles with Mike Wallace were legendary.   He did not use focus groups, panels, surveys, or anything else, to tell him what people wanted to watch.  Out of this controlled chaos, came great TV journalism.  The arguments ended in fast friendships, because the people who worked for him realized how deep his passion for TV news was, and how everything he did was driven not by his own ego, but by his passion for telling great stories.   Most people who worked for him did so for many many years, despite the constant conflict.  The situation at 60 Minutes was controlled chaos — little formal organization or process.  But it worked well, for creative people. 

 *  3.  The “Mildred” principle —  the common touch:

     Hewitt knew who his viewers are.  They are “firemen, policemen, hardhats”, he once said.  When accused in a Fox TV interview of being “elitist” (the very worst word Fox can think of),  Hewitt said that he uses the “Mildred” principle.  

   “Hey, Mildred!   Do you know what these guys are talking about?  Let’s shut it off or watch the basketball game.”   Hewitt knew he had to catch Mildred’s interest, that 60 Minutes pieces had to be clear, simple, gripping, interesting, telling a great story that you just HAD to watch.  

    Innovators — be sure you always remain in close touch with your clients, as Hewitt did; never forget who they are, how you are serving them, and what they need and want.   If your innovation succeeds, it is the fastest and easiest thing in the world for you to lose touch with your clients, because you are busy, wealthy, bored, or simply neglectful.

*  4. Don’t be afraid! 

     Hewitt was fearless.  He employed people who were fearless too.  Just after the American hostages were released, in Iran, Mike Wallace interviewed  the Ayatollah Khomeini for 60 Minutes.  Wallace said, quote:  “Sir,  forgive me, but, President Mubarak thinks you are a “lunatic”.  Forgive me — those are his words.  How do you respond to this?”…  He told President Clinton, interviewed after the Monica Levinsky affair:  Tell us the truth!  Then when they keep asking you, tell them you said it all on 60 Minutes!   Hewitt was fiercely competitive, and constantly checked 60 Minutes’ ratings.  He once stole an NBC TV truck and hid it in a cornfield (during the Khruschev visit to an American farm), to gain an advantage. 

*  5. Never hire people who always agree with you.

    Hewitt told ABC interviewer Barbara Walters: “Everyone who works for me is smarter than me.  No one is afraid to argue with me.  And they always do.”

*  6.  Turn your failings, your problems, into levers for success, not excuses for failure.

    Today, Hewitt would be diagnosed by child psychologists as “ADHD” (attention deficit hyperactive disorder).  He could not sit still for 15 minutes.  He flunked out of college.  He was endlessly restless and hyperactive.  He brought this quality to 60 Minutes. Each segment was no more than 15 minutes long, because he felt that was the maximum attention span of the viewer, no matter how gripping the story.  He made sure that every minute of the 15 minutes was gripping and interesting, part of the story, because if he lost interest, so would his viewers.

   Hewitt said that he did not understand the 21st C.  He was still living in the 20th C. But perhaps that was an advantage.  Perhaps many of his viewers were puzzled too by the 21st C.  Hewitt helped them understand it.