A 6 Step Blueprint for Creating a Culture of Innovation

February 6, 2013

Here is today’s Wednesday Work Wisdom

The question I get most often from my Fortune 500 clients: “How do we create a culture of innovation?”

Although there is no simple answer, here’s a blueprint I’ve found useful to get things started and build momentum.

  1. Ask employees for ideas – Most organizations start here with the corporate suggestion box.  Let’s call it idea-driven innovation.  This step is useful for getting people engaged. It also helps capture low hanging fruit and incremental innovations.  However, after a period of time, the ideas become less practical and less valuable.  The “noise” (low quality ideas) increases.  And sadly, even the good ideas often have a difficult time finding a home (sponsor, owner, funding, resources), so they wither on the vine.
  2. Ask top execs for their most pressing challenges – We now move from idea-driven innovation to a more useful approach: challenge-driven innovation.  Find the people with money, power and resources in your organization, and ask them for the  most important challenges that they need solved.  Don’t call it innovation. Think of it as problem solving. This step gets the executives engaged as they start seeing direct value.
  3. Ask employees to solve these challenges – Once you’ve identified the top executive challenges, it is now time to get the employees working on finding solutions. This is done via internal crowdsourcing. Instead of asking everyone for their  suggestions, ask them for solutions. This keeps them engaged, reduces the noise, and provides a much higher ROI.
  4. Ask employees to identify challenges - This step is designed to get everyone to realize that the mantra, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” is wrong. Teach employees that if you bring bigger and better problems, there are many ways to find better solutions. Ask employees to submit good challenges. This steps requires proper education/guidance to avoid being inundated by poorly defined challenges.
  5. Go externally for solutions to challenges – Use alliances, outsourcing, and external crowdsourcing/open innovation as a means for discovering solutions to exceptionally pressing solutions. Or use “tech scouting” in order to find off-the-shelf solutions to meet needs of less strategic challenges. Some organizations do this earlier in the process, starting here before asking employees for solutions.
  6. Go externally for identifying challenges – Most organizations struggle to identify the right challenges. They are too close to the business and therefore have reduced peripheral vision. Therefore, it is useful to partner with trend monitoring organizations, universities, think tanks, and experts to help identify the challenges that might be in the organizational blind spot.

This process is not sequential. Some steps are done in parallel at times. And sometimes they are done in a different order.

If your objective is to accelerate the way you innovate, this model is extremely useful. You will find that less time is spent on innovation with better results.

European Business Review Article

January 29, 2013

An article of mine was just published in the European Business Review. It is a concise summary of my overall innovation philosophy.

Here’s the introduction…

In today’s fast-paced business environment, the ability to innovate is not enough. You need to innovate efficiently, quickly, and with less risk. Tradition innovation methods, such as asking employees or customers for ideas, have proven to be a bad idea. Instead of “thinking outside the box” you want to define a better box. This article describes a five-step process that will help you accelerate the way you innovate. You will learn how to ask the right question, the right way, to the right people, in the right way, while implementing through experimentation.

You can read/download the entire article in pdf form here

Or you can read it online on the European Business Review website.

Best Practices Are Stupid Infographic

December 11, 2012

Sacha Chua, a “sketchnote artist and experimenter-at-large” from Toronto, developed this very cool infographic of my Best Practices Are Stupid book. And she was kind enough to allow us to share it under the Creative Commons Attribution License.  So spread the love, and visit Sacha’s site to show your appreciation.  (click on the picture to get the full size image).  Thank you Sacha!


Stalin Was Right…Statistics Don’t Matter

November 1, 2012

Back in 1995, I was driving Accenture’s (then Andersen Consulting) business process reengineering practice. I traveled the world helping companies downsize. Although downsizing wasn’t the objective of reengineering, it was often the outcome.

While working on one particular project, I knew that 10,000 people were going to lose their jobs as a result of our work. Somehow I was able to rationalize away the impact on the lives of so many people.

Three is More than 10,000

That is, until I was watching a television show about three executives from that very company who were laid-off a year earlier. One person cried the entire interview. Another was optimistic even though he had not yet found a suitable job. And the third person committed suicide.

The next day, while at the client site, I confirmed that the stories were true. I immediately dismissed myself and never returned to the project. After watching that TV show, I could no longer be a contributor to even one lost job.

Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

As I discovered personally, 10,000 lost jobs was a statistic; one lost job was unbearable.

Big Data and Human Desire

Lately, innovation and innovation marketing has been left in the hands of statisticians. It lacks the personal touch.

Big data is driving the decision-making process in many organizations. But numbers cannot address the subtleties of human desire. Statistics only capture what we see on the surface, and can rarely tap into deeper needs.

In order for an innovation to be successful, it does of course need to tap into the needs of the masses. But sometimes the best way to find those needs is to look at the individuals. Listen to your customers directly; not just through surveys, focus groups or data mining as these methodologies can have significant drawbacks.

Surveys and focus groups tend to lead consumers down a particular path due to the way questions are structured. Also, the questioning process taps into the conscious mind; buying behaviors and hidden needs are often only uncovered by tapping into the subconscious.

Data mining, analytics and big data typically capture information about existing customers. But it does little to identify needs of non-customers and ex-customers. Plus it can only capture information about current products and services.

Capture the Customer

Instead, observe your customers. Watch them in action. Watch their struggles. Look for unarticulated needs. What are their pains? And find ways of tapping into their personal interests so that you can share their individual stories and contributions.

One company that has done this particularly well is Kimberly-Clarke. They launched their Huggies MomInspired Grant Program. In a nutshell, mothers who have an idea for a new product can obtain funding and support to bring it to market.

Although the products address the specific needs of one mother, as it turns out, most parents have the same issue. And in many cases, these opportunities are not uncovered through surveys or data mining.

One added advantage of the Huggies program is not just in the identification of new products. The inventor becomes the spokesperson. They become an evangelist, telling their personal story. It is the personal story that humanizes the product making it more appealing to consumers.

Emotion Sells

Humanizing is the key here. Buyers can’t relate to statistics, generic features and functions. But they can connect with the stories of individuals whose lives are changed. People buy on emotion, not intellect. They want a human connection.

If you want to innovate effectively, stop dealing only with impersonal statistics, data and numbers. You do this by identifying the real impact your product or service has on the consumer through observation or stories.

My speeches are to hundreds or thousands of people. At the conclusion, clients often conduct satisfaction surveys. While I generally receive the highest ratings, the responses are too abstract for me to get any real value.

Yesterday I had received a letter from someone who attended a recent speech. He said that the techniques I shared enabled him to solve a problem that had plagued him for a decade. This one personal example provides more value for me than 2,000 “very happy” responses and “great energy” comments on a survey. In addition, this example had an impact on my motivation; I felt energized. It also helped me understand what is really resonating with the audience and I can continue to refine my offerings.

If you own a small business, receiving a high Yelp rating is great. But that is impersonal. Gather stories from customers, in their own words. Go beyond the evaluation of the food, dry cleaning, or whatever you offer. Learn about the deep impact that your service has had in the lives of others. Has your restaurant brought families together? Has your dry cleaner freed up time so that parents now have time to spend with their children?

You are not selling a product or service. You are selling an emotion.

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

TopCoder is Tops

October 4, 2012

TopCoder is one of the best-kept secrets in open innovation.  I had the pleasure of spending time with them.  They are a fun bunch that is passionate about what they do.

After a full-day deep dive in their Connecticut offices, I traveled to Orlando to spend two days at their “TopCoder Open,” a competition they run each year where they invite their top contributors and clients.

I have to say, it’s all quite impressive.

They focus on a specific set of problems: design, coding/testing, and algorithmic challenges.

Their approach to open innovation is distinctive; something I have not seen elsewhere:

  • They “atomize” their challenges to make them so small that they can be solved in two weeks or less.  In some cases, challenges are solved in 24 hours.  Doing this increases the likelihood of success and reduces the impact of failures.
  • Their challenges are not an event; they are an end-to-end process.  Competitions start with strategies, wireframes, user experience design, and go through coding, testing, bug finding and more.  They take a macro challenge and deconstruct it into many smaller challenges that are later integrated back together.
  • They eat their own dog food.  Their own platform was developed by their community.  They have very few internal resources.  Anything they need to create, they use the community.  Imagine an technology company without any technology people and you have TopCoder.
  • Their community is truly a community and not a bunch of individuals.  Yes, they create competitions where contributors earn badges and reputation points.  But unlike similar platforms, the members get to know each other.  While at the TopCoder Open, it was clear that there is camaraderie amongst the community.
  • It is all about the community.  Nearly everything they do is through the community and for the community.  They have 400,000 members in 220 countries. The project managers, called co-pilots, are members of the community.   The crowd is even used to spec out the challenges; a challenge to define the challenge. The community does it all.

The results are astonishing.  Most organizations have found that they can get a better result for 1/6th the cost with much shorter development timeframes.

Because they have a wide range of challenges (design, coding, testing, etc), this allows people to specialize on what they really like.  Studies show that doing this increases effectiveness by 40%.

Open innovation in general is a great model because it allows the organization to pay for results, not hours.  And because there are so many people working simultaneously on a problem, the likelihood of finding a solution is massively increased.  TopCoder has a 90% solve rate.

Open innovation also allows organizations to try out new ideas in a safe and inexpensive way.  TopCoder is a perfect platform for doing this.  With 2 weeks and a few thousand dollars, they can run a challenge that can generate great insights quickly and cheaply.

There are many open innovation platforms.  I have seen many of them. Each has a specific purpose.  One solution does not solve all innovation challenges.

TopCoder specializes on a specific set of problems: design and development.  And they solve those challenges exceptionally well.

SUCCESS Magazine Cover Story

September 15, 2012

The October issue of SUCCESS Magazine recently hit the news stands.  The cover story – Innovate or Die - is 3 pages dedicated my perspectives on how to innovate more effectively. If you get the physical copy (with CD), you will also find a 23 minute audio interview with me and the publisher, Darren Hardy.

In the article I answer six critical questions:

  • What would be your one piece of advice for a small-business owner or entrepreneur who wants to be more innovative?
  • Why do you believe expertise is the enemy of innovation?
  • Why should you work with people who are not like you?
  • What should someone look for in partnerships?
  • What is the #1 cause of innovation failure?
  • Is innovation always about creating products and services that are better and faster?

Read the entire article on SUCCESS.com (only until October 11)

If you find the article of value, please “like” it (Facebook), “tweet it” and share it with your friends. I want to make the article the most popular article in this issue!

Crowdsourcing Content

June 20, 2012

On July 19th, 2012, I will be keynoting at the inaugural Crowdopolis event being held July 19th in Los Angeles. You don’t want to miss this event!  I can assure you it will be incredible.  And at the bottom of this article there is a link which will give you a discount.

I asked Crowdopolis organizer and founder of Daily Crowdsource, David Bratvold, to write me a brief article on his perspective on crowdsourcing and in particular on how it can be used for content creation (I created a video about my perspective that I will be posting soon). Enjoy!

Curating Content with Crowdsourcing
by David Bratvold

Creating compelling and worthwhile content is an essential fact of life for companies looking to attract and engage consumers and incentivizing them to buy. But creating sufficient content to meet business objectives is an ongoing challenge. Besides hiring a large enough editorial staff to meet the content needs of your brand’s community, tapping into what your customers care most about related to your products and services can provide a treasure trove of meaningful content.

Crowdsourcing is a relatively new method of generating content for your brand’s product, and as it grows, organizations are now able to leverage this channel as means of connecting with their customers.  Below are three ways crowdsourcing is impacting the future of content marketing.

Crowdsourcing speeds up the content creation process 

You will never have enough time in the day to create the amount of content you want to create. Writer’s block, vacation, major deadlines, and other business emergencies can get in the way. With sites like CrowdSource.com, you can employ a scalable crowd of workers to create your content. No matter how many articles you write each week, more is better. With scalable labor, the only limitation to posting 5 articles per day is your budget. Keep in mind, however, that crowdsourcing projects do take a lot of moderation & feedback.

Crowdsourcing offers you diversity and creative choice

One of the main draws of using a site like Genius Rocket to crowdsource a commercial or viral video is the number of options to choose from along the way. Imagine what your video would look like if you or your internal team created it.  The scripting, filming, acting, and even editing would, over time, begin to take on a uniform appearance. Once you turn this over to crowdsourcing, you begin picking from 30 different scripts, written from 30 different individuals from several different countries, cultures, & backgrounds. The diverse perspectives these individuals bring to the table are invaluable.

Now apply this benefit of diversity to the earlier benefit of drawing input from your customers and potential customers. Your target audience will begin to show you all the different ways they want to be approached – They’ll essentially be giving you your ideal marketing strategy.

Crowdsourcing inherently atomizes your content marketing process

By its nature crowdsourcing does not atomize the process. It’s only after you get unsatisfactory results will you start to break processes down so small that you will arrive at your desired goal.  It’s tough to imagine that projects need to be broken down into steps that could take no more than seconds to accomplish. However, to effectively use crowdsourcing, every project must be atomized as small as possible.

Consider the task of moderating your forum. As an alternative to hiring a forum moderator, every single post could be fed through MTurk with a simple Yes or No question: “Is this post offensive?” Any Yes responses could be removed or reviewed. By atomizing this process, crowdsourcing can keep your forum (or any UGC Content) valuable and problem free.


As you sit and think about your content marketing strategy, engage your community and solicit their input. Each industry and community is different, offering quality analysis and creative ideas. Content marketers will be able to accomplish their objectives by using crowdsourcing as a means of better engaging and growing their social networks.

David Bratvold is the founder of Daily Crowdsource, an open-format website that aims to educate the public on the topic of crowdsourcing and a producer of Crowdopolis 2012, a major crowdsourcing conference teaching the future of crowdsourcing in advertising, technology, and content marketing scheduled this July 19.  You can follow David on Twitter at @TDCrowdsource.

P.S. If you use this link to register, you will save $100 and pay only $378 (until June 25th when the price goes up)

Stop Calling it Innovation!

June 18, 2012

A potential client asked, “What is the best way to create a culture of innovation?”

My response: “Stop calling it innovation!”

Innovation has become the word du jour.  Is it important?  Of course.  But the term has been used and abused by so many people that it means nothing. I am seeing a backlash against the word.  Inside many organizations, there are antibodies waiting to kill anything called “innovation.”

If you want to have a chance at innovating, call it something else.

Although this is an old fashioned term, I like: “problem solving.”  It is calling it what it really is.

Yes, maybe the problems when innovating seem bigger, like business model changes or the creation of new product lines.  But you are still solving a problem (ok you can call it an “opportunity” if you prefer).

If you have an innovative idea and if doesn’t solve a problem, it will not be valuable.* (see footnote)

When starting an “innovation” program (excuse my perpetuation of the word), I ask the leaders of the organization (top executives, P&L owners, Business Unit/Lines of Business leads) to give me their three most important issues; ones that if solved would be incredibly valuable.  These problems/opportunities could be related to improving productivity, developing new service offerings, stimulating sales, addressing changing market conditions, or dealing with commoditization.  We look for leverage points; things that will create exponential value.

Everything ties back to an issue, challenge, problem, or opportunity.

Once the challenge is identified, we use the best method – brainstorming, skunkworks, open innovation, outsourcing, alliances, etc – to find solutions.

After doing this with the senior leaders, we can then engage the entire organization in identifying and solving pressing challenges.  This starts the cycle.

Every organization wants to know if they and their ideas are “innovative enough.”  Who cares?  The more important question is, “Do you know which problems, if solved, would create substantial value for your organization and your customers?”

There are many companies that produce unsexy products with few “breakthrough” technologies (they are not considered “cool” like Apple, 3M or Google). However, these organizations adapt and grow at incredibly fast rates.  Does it matter that others don’t consider them to be innovative?

Explosive and continued growth is the name of the game.  By calling it innovation, you may in fact be killing what you hope to create.

Look for important problems to solve and then find the best means for sourcing solutions.  This is what you really want.

* FOOTNOTE: Please note that this does not mean that the problems/opportunities needs to be known/understood by consumers or others.  Focus groups and surveys are poor ways to identifying problems as they only tap into conscious beliefs.  For more on this, read my tip, “Your Market Research Sucks” in my Best Practices Are Stupid book.

eCornell and TrainingIndustry.com Webinar

March 14, 2012

Innovation Book of the YearI recently gave an hour-long webinar for eCornell and TrainingIndustry.com.  Over 3,000 people registered for only 1,000 slots, maxing out the system.  Thousands of people were unable to attend, so they made the recording available to everyone.

I discussed some of the key concepts from my book, “Best Practices Are Stupid.”

Watch this wildly popular webinar by clicking here.

Full Length NASA Speech

March 12, 2012

I recently spoke in Houston at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.  For copyright reasons, I can’t post the entire video here.  But you can watch all 81 minutes on NASA’s website. Just click the image below.


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