5 ways Corporate Innovation is like Everest

“I think Everest is a magical mountain with magnetic qualities,” said Alan Arnette, Montaineer & respected Everest blogger. “It’s like a light to bugs that attracts people once they hear about it.”

This sentiment will have a familiar ring to anyone who has spoken with a senior executive about making their large company more successfully innovative and seen the gleam in their eyes.  Just as many mountain climbers are drawn to the glory and reward of a successful Everest ascent, an increasing number of corporate executives recognize the need to evolve their organizations and position them for continued growth and adaptability in an ever-changing world.  Successfully pulling off this difficult feat would solidly establish their leadership legacy.

But the journey to a successful Everest ascent is filled with discomfort and danger, as is the corporate innovation journey.  As corporate innovators, we can learn from the Everest experience.  Here are five ways corporate innovation is similar to climbing Mt. Everest.

1) Investment – A trip for one person up Mt. Everest can cost over $100K.  Corporations also need to invest in their innovation efforts.  The outlays can be big or small.  You might need to invest in or acquire a promising start-up to push your business forward.  Or you might want to inspire your employees to create the next big thing.  Adobe created a DIY innovation platform for their employees that gives intrapreneurs a $1K, no-questions-asked gift card to experiment with their ideas.

2) Commitment – Aspring Everest climbers get themselves into peak physical and mental condition before embarking on the dangerous journey.  Corporate leaders who want to successfully transform their organizations need to transform themselves first.  Traditionally, senior leaders create a vision, dictate the actions that will achieve the vision and rely on their teams to execute.  Corporate culture isn’t usually intentional, but a by-product of personalities and path. But the most senior job in a successfully innovative organization is different. Ed Catmull, co-founder and President of Pixar Animation said, “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture – one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable they became – wasn’t a singular assignment.  It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”  It starts with the most senior leaders role modeling the behaviors they want to see .

3) Balance your risk – Everest climbers have evaluated the risk vs. reward equation and feel that they can overcome the risks, most often with experience and careful preparation.  Several years ago, I saw a TED-type talk about risk where a guy who jumped off cliffs for Red Bull explained that he didn’t see his job as risky. I thought he was insane, but he felt that he took the appropriate precautions to de-risk his job.  Corporate Innovation is risky.  Just like the most popular paths on Everest can be littered with the frozen bodies of those who didn’t make it, many of us can think of our own innovation graveyard or a visible casualty from another organization. Google Glass, anyone?  So how do you protect yourself against the very present risks?

4) Preparation – Some climbers prepare for their Everest ascent by climbing 7 lesser, but still challenging peaks, so they better understand the type of terrain they’ll be facing.  By climbing those mountains, they learn how to strategize and troubleshoot in (slightly) less dangerous environments.  In the corporate world, it is also important to understand the terrain you’ll be facing.  Here are a few key questions to think about before you dive in (but there are many more):  What types of innovation are you going to pursue?  Moonshots or creative, but incremental improvements to what you already do?  What difficulties have innovation attempts in your company had previously? What will success look like and how long do you have to get there? Who do you absolutely need on your side and what will be required to recruit them?

 

5) Experience & Best Practices – There are many paths up Mt. Everest, but most people (and the successful ones) select from the paths that have been successful for others.  If you are climbing Mt. Everest, you are probably going to start your climb from the Base Camps that have already been established.  Everest’s governing body also requires that climbers hire a Sherpa, an experienced guide, to lead the climbing party. The stakes are so high and the path so treacherous at the best of times, that best practices are crucial for success.  It is not unusual to see people new to corporate innovation balk at the constraints of design thinking, Lean Start-Up or Agile processes.  “Isn’t innovation about creativity?”, they ask.  Yes, that is a part of it.  But like the ascent up Mt. Everest, it’s also about survival.  Success in the corporate innovation world means taking the most direct path to create value for your organization.  Start your climb from base camp.  And hire a Sherpa.

Debbie Schwartz is the Head Sherpa at Blank Page Advisory, a innovation strategy consultancy that helps organizations navigate corporate innovation.

What to do when there’s nothing to be done

Seven months ago, I was given an incredible gift, although it didn’t feel like a gift at the time.  A strategic shift at my employer of 12 years meant that my innovation strategy expertise was no longer required.  There was no immediate financial concern because I wasn’t being laid off.  As my calendar cleared, my email inbox emptied and my phone sat quiet, I had many feelings, almost all of them bad.  I had been at the epicenter of an exciting cultural and structural change in a large organization, but now I felt excluded, disrespected and devalued.  And the more I tried to hang on to what had been lost, the worse I felt.

A few weeks in, I sat with a former boss, bitterly complaining about my situation when he said, “So what you’re telling me is that your employer is going to pay you to do nothing.”  “Yes!” I answered incredulously, full of righteous angst.  “Debbie,” he said.  “You need to learn how to slack.”  He was right.  I had to let go.  After so many years of showing up for all the meetings, passionately contributing and fully engaged, half-drunk on the flow, it was time to go cold turkey.  My participation wasn’t required or desired now. And at first, that hurt.

But then I jolted myself out of victim mode and reframed the situation.  I was going to have a steady income while I got to do whatever I wanted.  A sabbatical! I hadn’t even dreamed of taking a sabbatical during my career. But now, I was facing my very own blank page.  It was terrifying.  And fantastic.  And at first, I didn’t know where to start, but I figured it out.  Today, I’d like to share some suggestions for what to do when there’s nothing to be done about your disintegrating situation at work.

  • Appreciate the good parts – Yes, it is extremely stressful knowing that your paycheck will eventually stop and wondering how you’ll pay the bills.  But make sure you notice the good parts.  I’ve been able to pick my daughter up from school everyday at 3pm.  That’s never happened before and, once I get back into the swing of things, it probably won’t happen again.  This bubble has been a gift. Find those silver linings in your situation and intentionally appreciate them.
  • Say “YES!” – Waiting for the phone to ring and the email to chime will just make you feel worse, so open yourself up to everything you didn’t have time for before.  If someone offers you an opportunity to do something, no matter how outside of your comfort zone, go ahead and say “yes.”  That’s how I found myself creating an aggressive 10-year growth plan for my son’s school, running strategy and execution as we more than doubled its size over the summer and planned for another doubling next year.  It’s impossible to underestimate what a huge shift this was.  Over the previous 2 years, I’d literally phoned in from the road for parent-teacher conferences.  The other parents had never seen me. But I said “yes” and it’s been a great experience.
  • Apply your expertise to new situations – Most of the time, skills and experience are more broadly applicable than you might think. I quickly learned that the expertise I developed at one large organization is completely transferable to different industries and vastly differently sized organizations.  You are going to need to figure out what’s next and expanding your view of the possibilities will be a huge help.
  • “Be patient with yourself while you wait for the epiphany” – A very wise gentleman in my network shared this advice with me as I confessed my stress around not having my next steps completely figured out.  If you are putting one foot in front of the other and opening yourself up to new possibilities, the epiphany is on its way.  Try to appreciate and even enjoy the journey.

I’ve resolved to help organizations use what I’ve learned to be more successfully innovative via my new consultancy, Blank Page Advisory.  In my next few blog posts, I’ll discuss some best practices that you can use for your own blank page, no matter who you are or what you are trying to build.  In the meantime, please contact me if your organization wants to turn a blank page into something amazing.

Assumptions: Who wants some fudge?

imageA friend of mine has been making small-batch, killer fudge out of her kitchen and selling out batch after batch. Her packaging is very urban hipster and she gets a good profit margin on every batch.  Today she uses the (very) small business to fill in the gaps in her family’s monthly budget. She was approached by a friend representing a potential distributor who wants to include her fudge in his line of foodie-targeted products. After saying “no” repeatedly because scaling the business would create disruption in her already busy life, she decided to consider the question and formed a small team to help her think it through.

One of the first questions to answer is: “Who is the customer for this product?” The team member who brought the distribution opportunity thinks that the audience is definitely hard-core foodies.  This is the best fudge he’s ever eaten, it’s got a great artisanal story, and the packaging is on point.  He’s got lots of ideas for foodie distribution channels and pricing is extremely elastic for that market.  Sounds great!  But until we have data to support the claim, it is only an assumption.  Fortunately, my friend has a record of everyone who has bought her fudge over the past 9 months.  We looked to her records to validate the assumption and…most of the buyers are not what you’d consider foodies.

This doesn’t mean that the assumption is wrong; foodies might be a very attractive market for Artisan Fudge, but they aren’t her current market.  So we need to gather some data to validate or invalidate the foodie assumption. We don’t have any money and very little extra time, so we need to approach this in a low-fidelity way.  Here are our next steps:

  1. Interviews with past customers – We’re going to go talk to people who have bought Artisan Fudge in the past and understand their motivation.  One doesn’t normally think of fudge as solving a problem (unless you’re an emotional eater, but that’s a totally different blog post)
    , but something drove her customers to spend their hard-earned money on a premium-priced dessert.
  2. Interviews with foodies – My friend knows a guy who has a very successful smoked meat business.  He sells turducken for $450 at an upscale farmer’s market outside of Washington, DC.  We’re pretty sure that hard core foodies are the only ones who would lay down that type of green for their Thanksgiving protein.  We’ll ask him if we can speak to a few of his customers about desserts.
  3. Set up an experiment to test the foodie market – What if my friend could share that farmer’s market table for one Sunday only and see how the product sells?

Within a few weeks, we’ll have data on the Artisan Fudge customer today and the potential of the foodie market.  That will allow us to make an initial set of decisions about whether and how she should expand her distribution.  After that, we can work on the rest of our long list of assumptions, validating the most critical and unknown among them.

Remember, if your team is disagreeing about some aspect of your business plan, you are probably talking about an invalidated assumption.  Stop arguing and start working on how to validate it!

Customer Empathy: A walk on the wild side

Customer Empathy, in Lean Start-Up terms, is when you leave the safety and security of your corporate conference room to speak to actual consumers, customers, or stakeholders to get to know them better and understand what problems they need someone to solve for them.

That makes sense, right?  If you want to know what people need, you should talk to them.  However, what makes sense and what’s comfortable are sometimes misaligned.  It reminds me of my college days when I thought I wanted to be a journalist.  I loved to write, but I really didn’t like talking to people that I didn’t know.  So I’d procrastinate my interviews as long as I possibly could and then just interview my friends.  But often, my friends weren’t at all relevant to the subject of my story (like the time I wrote the story about handicapped access on campus without interviewing a single differently abled person).

We do this at work all the time, don’t we?  We’ve got Gen X’ers gathered in a conference room trying to figure out how to attract Millenials customers.  We’ve got Millenials trying to create a product for the senior market.  It’s not like we go at it with absolutely no context.  We’ve got plenty of secondary research.  Perhaps we’ve even run surveys or conducted focus groups.  But let’s be honest.  Do people reliably behave like they say they will on surveys and in focus groups?  Not really.

So why is it so hard to leave the conference room and go talk to the customer?  To go watch them in their natural environment?  A few thoughts about the barriers we put in our way:

1) Fear of rejection – What if the people I approach don’t want to talk to me?  What if they think I’m trying to sell them something?  There is potential for great embarrassment here.

2) Fear of not knowing what to say – How do I even start this awkward conversation? What if I say something stupid or I have no idea what to say?

3) Fear of getting in trouble – As adults, we’re pretty well-trained to follow the rules. A few weeks ago, I was coaching a team who wanted to understand a type of consumer that we thought shopped at Whole Foods.  So we stood in the Whole Foods parking lot asking people to talk to us. There was a very real possibility that security would see us and ask us to leave.  How long has it been since you’ve gotten into trouble with security at a retail establishment?  Never? Oh, clearly you were a different teenager than me.

Getting started with Customer Empathy work is uncomfortable for all but a very slim minority of people.  But the more you practice, the more normal and less awkward it feels.  Additionally, here are a few techniques to make teams more comfortable before you leave the conference room:

– Script your approach and do some role-playing before you go.  Practice your rejection reaction.  Script out your questions and practice if your team doesn’t like to “wing it”.

– If you’ve got someone particularly extroverted on the team, let them take the lead and show everyone else how it’s done.

– Be strategic about your locations.  Our Whole Foods parking lot had two levels and we chose to stay upstairs away from the main entrance to avoid attracting attention from staff.

Teams create the best solutions when they have strong empathy with their target customer, when they’ve observed them and spoken to them directly about their needs so they can catch all of the body language and nuance that is lost in research summaries.  Customer Empathy work can be a walk on the wild side, but the results are often exhilarating and definitely worth it.

A crystal ball doesn’t pay the bills

From a sensor technology standpoint, my Dad is about 15 years ahead of everyone else.  For example, in 2000, I moved to Maryland to help my Dad with his new IoT (Internet of Things) start-up.  That’s right.  My Dad had an IoT start-up in 2000.  He was combining sensors, algorithms and mobile communication so that buildings or bridges could tell a central monitoring facility they were structurally unsound after an earthquake.  Or that a commercial vehicle could tell a central maintenance function how they should be serviced the next time they returned to home base.  Today, that technological combination is a huge commercial winner.  You probably think my Dad is sipping umbrella drinks on his own personal island and that none of us have to work anymore, but that would be incorrect because, back in 2000, we didn’t know how to find product/market fit for his technology.

We thought we had found important problems that needed to be solved.  And we discussed their importance with great intensity in our little office space.

“I’d want to know if a skyscraper was structurally sound after an earthquake, wouldn’t you, Dad?  That’s got to be a huge problem!”

But we didn’t make a list of real estate management firms or vehicle fleet managers and start dialing to figure out whether anyone was currently experiencing and feeling pain from the problems we wanted to solve.  What might we have learned if we had made those calls?

  • What the maintenance process looked like for large buildings and vehicle fleets
  • Whether real estate managers or vehicle fleet managers saw any problem with the current process
  • Whether they outsourced maintenance to a different company
  • How and whether building managers tested for structural soundness after an earthquake
  • Whether or at what point earthquakes effect structural soundness of large buildings
  • The frequency and risk of vehicles breaking down in transit
  • Who the subject matter experts and decision-makers were for this kind of maintenance
  • Whether the problem was felt more deeply in one industry vs. another, so we could prioritize our business development efforts

If we had pushed to personally watch maintenance professionals service buildings and vehicles, we could have gathered valuable information about the optimal size and structure of a winning solution or any challenges involved in retrofitting installed equipment.

That data would have provided a clearer picture of our potential customers and their needs and allowed us to build and position a solution with a custom fit.  Or we might have learned that the decision-makers didn’t view that kind of maintenance as an important problem.

If we built it, they WOULDN’T come. 

That news would have been disappointing, but so valuable, allowing us to pivot and apply the technology to someone who really wanted it.

Since those days so long ago, I’ve had the opportunity to use Design Thinking and Lean Start-Up principals to vet and develop a variety of solutions for different industries and the importance of this lesson doesn’t vary.  It’s always worth the time to talk to your potential customer before designing your solution.  How could you apply this practice to your work?

I’ll re-visit this example in future blogs to explore how other innovation best-practices could have made my family extremely wealthy.

The Blank Page

I love the blank page.  I see a horribly renovated row house in a cool neighborhood and decide to turn it into an amazing B&B, even though I’ve never owned property before. When a senior leader says “It would be great if we could create a thought leadership platform about healthcare” and I don’t know what a thought leadership platform is, my stomach aches and I’m exhilarated and I put one foot in front of the other until I’ve created something great.  When I had to transform the culture of a 5,000 employee division of a global insurance company and I had no idea where to start, I just started.  To me, figuring it out is the best part of the journey.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that for some, the blank page is terrifying and baffling.    I’ve seen individuals and teams tread water for months and years not knowing how to take the right steps (sometimes ANY steps) to putting something on that blank page.  The blank page is an amazing opportunity to create something perfectly aligned with your customer’s needs.

While I’m out filling the blank page (and helping others do so), my husband is the CEO of our busy household.  When I told him I was thinking of blogging, he asked me to explain what I do, because people ask him and he doesn’t know how to answer them.

I’m a blank page innovator.  I take on the biggest challenges, dive in and talk to customers or stakeholders to understand them, then create solutions to meet the need.  Sometimes I do this directly as an entreprenuer, but for more than a decade I’ve been an Intrapreneur (an entreprenuer within a large organization) and then an executive building a corporate innovation function.  Inside a large organization, I worked to transform the corporate culture so it was more nurturing to new ideas and the people who incubate them.  I built structures and processes that support other intraprenuers as they disrupt the status quo with their own blank page innovations.

In this blog, I hope to share some of the insights I’ve derived along the way and begin to fill my next blank page.