Category Archives: Innovation

5 Key Questions to Move Your Marketing/Branding Conversation Forward

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 9.50.35 PMExcerpted from Francis Cholle’s The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass

Marketing and Branding can no longer be a one-way conversation in which companies dictate to consumers.  To achieve top-of-mind status with the new consumers–who are behaving more and more like community members, prosumers (professional consumers), and influencers–companies have to get into two-way conversations that begin with a mutual understanding and the delivery of a valuable service, and then move naturally to profitability and strong brand equity.

Interaction via social networks and codevelopment of products are two innovative ways the forward-thinking companies are revitalizing their marketing and branding strategies.  Answering the following questions can help you understand how your company truly sees its customers.

  • Do you focus on consumer simply as profit centers or as valued members of your community?
  • Do you approach profit as a function of the value you bring to your community members, or do you relate profit to shareholders’ return on investment, or both?
  • Are you only following trends, or are you truly innovating–are you able to be disruptively innovative?
  • Are you able to create retail experiences in which your employees/sales people are evangelists rather than paid mouthpieces?
  • Do you involve the consumer enough in the innovation and value creation of your company?

Answering these questions will guide you to review your relationship with your customers–what it is founded on and how it is facilitated.  Once you know how your organization views its customers, it will be easier to find ways to improve the relationship you have with them and succeed further in the new economic environment.

Stop Thinking and Start Feeling to Gain Key Customer Insights

Excerpted from Francis Cholle’s The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 11.44.33 PMCreativity and innovative thinking are great, but the ability to notice the one pivotal piece of information in a creative brainstorming session is key to transforming an organization or making a project truly innovative.  This is why we need to carefully pay attention and notice with our senses, open to the unusual or the irrational, but at the same time analyze and evaluate that information.  Just because something does not make sense from the point of view of logic does not mean that it lacks value.  A simple example:  when Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree, he did not simply see a usual phenomenon of nature.  He was inspired to start thinking about a particular type of motion–gravity–which then revolutionized our perception of the universe.  If he had not been open to his inner feeling of puzzlement, he would have simply seen an apple falling from a tree, and he would not have developed his novel understanding of the workings of the universe through mathematics.

This is why I advise clients to stop thinking and start feeling.  If all we did was to think and only think, we would not allow the sensorial perception and emotions that come along with thoughts to feed our creative imagination.  When we are anchored in our conscious mind, we know only what it knows.  Now ideas–ideas we don’t yet about –cannot be found in our conscious mind, because we already necessarily know everything that is conscious to us!  So the ability of move beyond our conscious thinking an access our unconscious is key to creativity.

And excellent example of the business value of the skill of noticing the unusual can be found in the commercial airline industry.  Many of us have probably wondered how air travel ever became so unpleasant.  What began three generations ago as one of the most luxurious of consumer experiences, an event that people dressed up for and looked forward to, has degenerated to the point that the average consumer approaches it as if preparing for battle.  Today it is an experience marked by bad food (or no food), a smelly environment, narrow seats, poor service, delayed flights, stern-faced flight attendants, shabby cabins, and outdated design.  For frequent business travelers on tight schedules it’s often challenging in both economy and business class alike.  However, one company has been able to provide it clientele with quite a different experience:  Virgin America.

Virgin America, a company that first put its planes in service in 2007, didn’t become an award-winning airline in an industry-wide financial crisis by slashing costs or slashing ticket prices; they did it by raising the bar on design, service and customer experience.  Beautiful design, uplifting colors, clean cabins, warm and personable service, short waiting time to check in, and easy upgrades are among the many ways Virgin America has attempted to make passenger’ experience easier and more enjoyable.  But more important Virgin understand our unconscious needs.  The planes have a mood-enhancing lighting system on board that is reassuring because it relaxes the body and, by doing so appeases our discomfort or fear of flying.  Virgin America also gives all passengers on board the opportunity to order their own food from their seats through a personal digital screen, allowing them to eat on their own schedule.  this last detail is genius because control of one’s own eating schedule is key on an instinctual level. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, managing our hunger at our own will is reassuring.

Both relaxing lights and food on your own time touch the passengers at an instinctual level.  Many will say that they choose an airline based on cost or, for people who can afford it, comfort, and they’ll most likely be sincere.  What they don’t realize, though, is that when they get on board, their reptilian brain is unavoidably evaluating whether they’re safe or not.  And when an airline caters to this basic need, passengers at some level eventually feel it and this positively influences their relationship to the airlines.

So how did Virgin America come to think of these great ideas for the comfort of their passengers?  They put themselves in the shoes of a passenger and truly tried to see and understand the way passengers feel rather than focusing first and foremost on the profitability generated by every ticket sold.  They opened themselves up to their creative imagination by paying attention to two unusual aspects of traveling:  lighting and food service. Two things that were never contemplated before.  Virgin America has been voted the best North American airline multiple times by readers of Condé Nast Traveler, a luxury travel magazine, showing that the ability to notice the unusual is a powerful aptitude, one that can put a company ahead of its competition. 


How Your Office Space Can Affect Creativity and Innovation

Space affects moods. Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 10.57.56 PM A beautiful space can make people happy; a small cramped office can make them feel depressed.  But more important, space also affect behaviors and communication.  Open space offices allow an easier flow of communication among team members and can convey a strong feeling of belonging, but they also can make it harder to focus.  Separate offices allow for more privacy and concentration but can easily create silos that separate people and teams.  Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you need to be ready to manage space not only from a budgetary standpoint but also from the perspective of what it is your creative teams actually need in order to be creative and in a position to deliver the level of innovation your company needs.  To achieve this, some companies will have to literally give away space–that is, to sacrifice space for its positive impact on the environment, the company culture and ultimately the creative output.

Office space is an expensive commodity, especially in the world’s most competitive markets, and historically offices have been designed and furnished to maximize administrative efficiency and minimize facility costs (private offices only for senior executives, “cube farms” for lower-ranking personnel).  But today companies are looking at efficiency differently, and consequently they are looking at space differently.  They are looking for ways to maximize the creative output of their employees, and from that viewpoint the most efficient use of space is one that supports creative interactions.  For example, Pixar’s California headquarters–where bathrooms, mailboxes, and meeting rooms are clustered at the center of the building–are designed to ensure that employees from different divisions of the company are certain to run into each other throughout the day.  This facilitates informal and random conversations among diverse team members and allows creative ideas and collaborations to be born.  I once had a client who wanted to close off an open space in their New York City offices; I struggled hard to convince them otherwise.  The company needed more private meeting rooms.  Moving out of their existing facility was not an option, nor was renting another floor, so the president of the company wanted to build elegant glass walls to enclose what in his opinion was wasted space. 

My observation was quite different.  The open space, which offered an inviting round table nestled by a large staircase, was the only place in the office where different members of the product development team would spontaneously sit to discuss their projects.  Account managers would stop there after coming back from client meetings to share the latest developments about those clients and their projects.  In other words, it was the perfect spot for an informal communication and feedback loops.  In the end, the precious open space was saved in spite of financial pressures.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.


How Artists Teach Kohler Best Practices in Innovation

A notable number of companies have artist-in-residence programs.  American manufacturer Kohler Co., based in Wisconsin, is one of them.  Since 1873, Kohler has been producing household equipment, including plumbing fixture, furniture, tile and stone.  Seen as a renowned leader in this area, Kohler is at the forefront of design, craftsmanship, and innovation.  One way they sustain a high level of innovation is through an ongoing collaboration between art and industry, and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  Founded in 1974 it remains unique among all American artist residency programs.  It has provided artists with an entrée to an industrial setting through two- to six- month stays in the pottery, foundry, and enamel shops at Kohler.  Up to two dozen artists per year have the opportunity to learn new ways of thinking and working.  Here they are able to produce entire bodies of work that would otherwise be impossible to execute in their own studios. Sophisticated technologies, unlimited access to technical expertise, materials, equipment, studio space, housing and transportation, plus a weekly stipend, create an unusually supportive environment.  Over time, hundreds of arts and industrial employees have built rapport as they work side by side and learn from each other’s approaches to work.  Through the arts program Kohler aims to give its employees the opportunity to learn from the proximity of artists at work.  They can observe the artists’ creative process, see how hard work has to become play to produce a creative outcome, and develop a better understanding of how to inspire creativity.  They can deduce best practices about managing the creative process and see their value in real life:  the role of giving oneself permission to fail, the necessity of trial and error, and the importance of a space conducive to creativity.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Navigating the shift to play or Get Over Inertia (Part 4)

Because creativity is such an important factor of success in business today, play should be part of every CEO’s mandate, and companies should be rated according to the level of playfulness of their culture in the same way as they are rated as a great place to work or as a socially responsible organization.  A number of practical steps can be followed to navigate this cultural shift toward play, which then can become easier than it seems.

If innovation is key to corporate success, and if play is the door to innovation, then the next logical question (logic does have it place!) is how to create a corporate atmosphere that is conducive to play, how to turn workers into players.

Think about what play look like.  It is personal, engaging, and interactive.  It is often exuberant and messy.  It is filled with light, color, and sound.  When you think about play, you may instinctively think about a children’s playground or children’s toys.  Now, think about corporate offices, or, more specifically, corporate boardrooms.  There are lots of straight lines in boardrooms, (or perhaps, artistically, an elegantly curved accent wall); there is typically an imposing table made from fine polished wood or sleek metal.  That table likely suggests a hierarchical seating arrangement that people intuitively understand: the boss will sit at the head of the table and the chief advisor will sit next to the boss or perhaps will anchor the other end.  The rest of the employees will fill in the sides of the table.  So, before the meeting even starts, everyone knows his or her relative importance.  And everyone knows that polite behavior is expected: sit up straight, papers stacked neatly in front of you, a pen at the ready, smartphone close by in case of an emergency.

These rigid boardrooms are where major strategic decisions are being made about innovation and the future of our organizations.  They represent a very logical environment geared toward conscious conversations that will unfold in a very linear and efficient way.  They appeal to the 20 percent of our intelligence that lives in our conscious mind with its wealth of creative ideas, and the intelligence that we can reach through play.

Dr. Marian Cleeves Diamond, one of the world’s foremost neuro-anatomists advocates the establishment of “playful environments.” I too believe that we need to create offices, boardrooms, and activities that engage our playful nature—a corporate sandbox or playground.  We are playful by nature and efficient by necessity.   So let’s embrace our nature, and less effort will be needed for the same, or better, results.  When we do this we can break through the mental barriers that are keeping us stuck. Certain corporations are already doing this. Some of the things that they do to create a play-friendly atmosphere include:

–       Allocating significant time in which employees are explicitly encouraged to play

–       Creating, or giving employees access to, physical spaces that are conducive to play

–       Giving employees implicit and explicit permission to “fail” or be “unproductive” in their pursuit of innovation.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Get Past Inertia (Part 2)

It is relatively easy to see how play can generate fabulous new ideas, but what is less obvious is the critical role of play in giving those ideas a chance at life against some very serious odds. Innovation is change, and change sends many of us running for cover—for good reason. Change activates our survival instincts and is at least partly responsible for our tendency toward inertia, and inertia, again is a serious barrier to innovation.

Experts agree that the critical stage of innovation is implementation. Implementation is where the rubber meets the road. It requires us to change our behavior, and changing behavior is not only an intellectual but also an emotional challenge. It also requires us to step into the unknown. But perhaps the greatest challenge is that it requires us to overcome inertia, and that is something that humans are hardwired to resist. That hardwiring is key to understanding how inertia works and what its function is.

The human brain wants to say where it is, in the comfort zone. If we stay in our comfort zone, we don’t have to struggle to survive. We minimize the risk to our survival by staying where we know we are safe. I often explain to my MBA students that the reason they take the same seat in class every week, and the reason we lay our towels in the same area of the beach every summer weekend, is that we are, at our core, instinctual animals. Once we have chosen a seat and made it through class safely without being attacked, the part of our brain responsible for our survival tells us that our best option is to repeat that behavior, because in a way it is the most economical use of our energy. As part of its strategy for survival, our brain wants to conserve energy, so once we sit in a particular spot and know that it’s safe, we will subconsciously want to sit there every time and avoid having to reevaluate the safety of a new spot.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.


Get Past Inertia (Part One)

Arie de Geus, an ex-Shell executive turned consultant, has researched why certain companies over one hundred years old have been so successful. The twenty-seven companies he studied were able to successfully get past inertia, sustain themselves, and grow over time. They managed to withstand economic changes while staying true to their mission, without resorting solely to the tactic of acquiring companies to stay afloat in their market. He found three characteristics common to these successful companies:

Once we start moving in a certain direction or doing something a certain way it is hard to stop or change. That is inertia. And while this is true for individuals, it is even stronger in a group dynamic. If you want to innovate, you need to change. And in order to effect change you need to overcome the natural tendency toward inertia.

Arie de Geus, an ex-Shell executive turned consultant, has researched why certain companies over one hundred years old have been so successful. The twenty-seven companies he studied were able to successfully get past inertia, sustain themselves, and grow over time. They managed to withstand economic changes while staying true to their mission, without resorting solely to the tactic of acquiring companies to stay afloat in their market. He found three characteristics common to these successful companies:

  1. They practice fiscal conservancy.
  2. They are open to new ideas from both inside and outside the organization.
  3. They have established a strong community of values that resonates with their employees, making them feel they can take risks and not be fired if they don’t succeed—the feeling of belonging to a community helps overcome the fear of failure and the anticipation of potential negative consequences at a personal level.

Although point one relates to classic best practices in business, points two and three tell us why play—something not in the typical business best-practices toolbox—is key in a work culture in ensure the longevity of an organization. Openness to new ideas and a fundamental level of trust are inherent in a playful atmosphere, and play is an essential ingredient in generating innovative ideas.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Pathways Beyond Logic

Logic and reason alone can no longer guide us toward innovation or success.  They will not be enough to get us to the level of creativity and reinvention we need to address the challenges of the new economy.  We need to deal with the deeper part of human nature: intuition and instinct.  Science, evidence in the real world, and experience tell us that our intuition and our instincts, although sometimes difficult to completely understand, very often point us in the right direction.  Sometimes they can even save our lives.  To positively influence the deeper part of ourselves, we need to appeal to the heart and engage the guts. We need to honor the sometimes-cryptic clues sent up from many accomplished people in science, industry, and the military.  As business leaders we can take steps to create a corporate atmosphere that speaks to the hearts and instincts as well as the minds of our employees.  Doing so puts a great deal of agility and creative power to work for our companies.  One powerful way we can harness the creative power of our teams is by introducing rituals at key moments in business ideation and development.  Management and leadership—which increasingly require dealing with human motivation, behavioral change, and, now more than ever, sustainable innovation—are much more about the intangible part of business than about what’s tangible, much more about the unconscious part of human interactions that about the conscious part.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

You Already Have All the Resources You Need to Innovate

Play opens us up to the possibility that we don’t need more of anything—time, money, knowledge, and so on—in order to produce more.  It is a radical idea, especially in business, where we often hear the argument the budgets are limited and therefore the ability to innovate is limited.  How can you get the same result with half of the resources?  How is that possible?  It’s possible because human motivation is not linear; the way one person gets motivated is a complex function of many intertwined factors, which do not follow a linear continuum, but which can be greatly influenced by play.  When we tap into the part of people the responds to play and inspiration, we unleash possibilities and huge potential for new sources of motivation that we could not have predicated or accessed otherwise.  Thus when people are engaged in play, truly and deeply engaged, they lose track of time, they stop thinking about whether their paycheck is bigger today than it was yesterday, they form close and fruitful bonds with their playmates, they withstand discomfort and inconvenience, and more often than you might imagine, they create magic.  Play moves people into an optimistic frame of mind, a place where they are more adaptable to change and more likely to improvise, and where they begin to dance in the groove of life.  In that joyous groove, success and innovation become far more likely outcomes than they ever could be in an atmosphere of grinding unhappiness and perceived lack.

Take, for instance, a story of how dice games were invented, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.  In pre-Roman times, 2,500 year ago, the kingdom of Libya was suffering a famine that left it only able to feed half of its citizens.  The Libyan king invented a game—sheep knuckle dice—and established a policy that every other day, every person in the kingdom, would do nothing but play sheep knuckle dice.  They would not work, they would not just hang out, and they would not run errands for their grandma.  And they would not eat.  Such was the level of immersion the sheep knuckle dice provided that the people managed to survive an eighteen-year famine.

What does this tale reveal to us? It shows that the impact of play reaches far beyond the realm of reason.  It also tells us that the power of play is such that it can provide an effective distraction even from something as elemental as hunger.  Play is a strong catalyst for changing behavior, helping people shift perspective and refocus their energy to overcome hardship or challenging situations without necessarily increasing material resources or the number of team members.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.