In her latest book, RE:Think Innovation: How the World's Most Prolific Innovators Come Up With Great Ideas That Deliver Extraordinary Outcomes, Carla Johnson delivers a road map to sustained innovation.
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In this episode of Marketing Smarts, we get into how you can hire innovative people for your team, create processes that lead to innovation, then encourage employees to use those processes to generate new ideas. You'll learn how to help your employees deliver more ideas—faster.
Carla defines the six archetypes of innovators and the role that each plays in moving your team forward. We'll even get a sneak peek at her 5-step framework to connect the dots, come up with the ideas, and find the opportunities in any market, for any business and under any condition.
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Kerry O'Shea Gorgone: Welcome to the Marketing Smarts Podcast. I'm joined by Carla Johnson, a world-renowned storyteller, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book is RE:Think Innovation: How the World's Most Prolific Innovators Come Up with Great Ideas that Deliver Extraordinary Outcomes. We're going to talk about that and what it means for your organization and how you can encourage people to come up with new ideas that can help you reach your goals.
Thanks for joining us, Carla.
Carla Johnson: Thanks, Kerry. I'm delighted to be here with my favorite audience, B-to-B marketers.
Kerry: Is this book a product of pandemic need to innovate where you walked in and you're like I need to do some stuff, I need to do something?
Carla: I would love to say that I came up with the idea, wrote it, and put it out in this last year. I used to say it took me five years to write this book, but it's really a project that I've been working on for five years because I didn't sit and write the whole time.
It's really come from a lot of marketers coming up to me and saying, "I don't have good ideas and I don't know how to come up with ideas. I can't really do anything innovative." Then a lot of excuses, "We're a B-to-B company, we don't sell things like cool sneakers, booze, or burritos." We all have the stereotype that they have this somehow granted permission to be more creative and innovative.
Really, the inspiration for this came from wanting to help B-to-B marketers who think they can't be that innovative kind of person and to really start to rethink what does innovation look like and how we as marketers can become more involved in and be a big part of the process.
Kerry: Do you think that maybe B-to-B marketers are defining innovation in a way that sets the bar impossibly high for them? When you say innovation, what do you mean?
Carla: I think that B-to-B marketers have two things going on. I think one is the definition of innovation. I think a traditional definition of innovation is that it's a new product or service line and it's something that other group over there with an innovation title or an innovation physical space, or whatever that might be that designates them as the official innovators in a company, that they're the ones that do it. I think that's a limited definition of innovation.
How I define innovation is the ability to consistently come up with new great and reliable ideas. Now, it seems like a short definition, but each of those words is really important. For example, to come up with a new idea, it doesn't mean it has to be completely new and something that's never ever been done in the world before by anybody. Really, a new idea can be as simple as taking something that's really successful and worked well in another industry, another market, whatever it might be, and adapting it to your own situation.
For example, the layout for the drive-up window for McDonalds is actually modeled after a Formula 1 pitstop. They didn't have to go through all of that research and design and everything to figure it out. McDonalds just looked at where is it working in a different situation someplace else and how can we apply that to our industry.
But just having a new idea isn't enough to be a successful innovator. The second one is a great idea. I'll be honest. A great idea is something that's a little bit more subjective. I think about what David Ogilvy talks about; a great idea is one that makes you jealous that you didn't think of it yourself. I think a lot of times we hear great ideas and we get excited about it, and it really rallies us, inspires, and activates us to do something.
Even that on its own isn't enough to be innovative. Even just having a new and great idea isn't enough to be innovative. We have to have reliable ideas. Reliable ideas are ones that actually make money. Now, it could be new revenue generation, it could be a different kind of business model that things are more efficient, it could be as simple as how to streamline something that we do every single month so that we can have our people spend that time on something that's more valuable and makes them more happy, excited, fulfilled in the work that they do.
But even just having a reliable idea on its own isn't enough. We need the spark and the excitement of the new and the great idea. Those three things in total are what make an idea innovative. What makes innovation truly work is the ability to consistently come up with ideas that have all three of these characteristics.
I think that's one part is that we've handed off the idea of innovation and how we define it to make it be somebody else that we aren't as B-to-B marketers. Then I think the other thing is that we start to make excuses like, "We're not that kind of company. I couldn't come up with something like that. My boss would never approve it. We don't have those kinds of budgets. That's not how we do things around here." I know you've heard a hundred of the same kind of excuses for why marketers can't be innovative.
A lot of times it's because they're trying to make too big of a leap too soon. We have this idea that innovation always has to be disruptive. I think that's something that's really a disservice to B-to-B marketers. We have so many opportunities, especially now during the pandemic, to truly be innovative if we just redefine, we rethink how we think about innovation.
Kerry: Some companies actually purposely and counterproductively cordon off innovation to the C-suite. The executives feel threatened sometimes if someone, I don't want to say from below, but somebody in the rank and file comes up with an idea. It's like, "Who are you to have an idea?" I've actually seen that happen. They'll slap somebody down. It's like you're insane, a good is a good idea.
Carla: Yes. That's really an old-school elitist approach to innovation, that there's haves and the have-nots with ideas and who is allowed to innovate. One of the interesting things that I found when I was doing research for my book is that 90% of innovation actually happens outside of traditional innovation groups, research and development, product development. If a company, especially executives, are saying, "We're the only ones who are allowed, equipped, smart enough," whether that's an unspoken reason for why they are the innovators and everybody else should really be hands-off, they're missing a tremendous opportunity.
I think that's the biggest thing I want B-to-B marketers to understand right now is that innovation is really about being able to identify and jump on opportunities when they happen. Especially in this last year, everything has changed. Whatever we did 18 months ago isn't what we're going to do now as we start to come out of the pandemic, whatever that may look like from a long tail journey.
It's understanding what does an opportunity look like, how do I come up with ideas consistently that are new, great, and reliable, and how do I take advantage of them or how do I solve those problems to make sure that we're always in front of our customers, because there is so much that is changing.
Kerry: You have to be aware, too, not every idea is going to be the one. You still have to try new ideas.
Kerry: Frank Perdue used to celebrate the worst ideas. The chicken magnate Frank Perdue, I interviewed his widow Mitzi, who wrote a whole book about his business philosophy. They had a worker there come up with a whole new way of packaging chicken that was more efficient, they could fit more on the trucks. Customers hated it, they felt like they were getting shortchanged, they were used to seeing the bigger packages, so they had to switch back.
But he gave the employee that came up with the idea a big certificate and they had a big thing where they presented the certificate for having the worst idea. It wasn't really the worst idea. The guy was so excited because he was recognized.
Carla: It's amazing because just celebrating the fact that somebody is willing to come forward with an idea is a huge thing. I love his celebration of the worst idea. One of the things that I do with people in workshops is when it's time to share ideas we start out with an exercise that's the worst first. It becomes a really hilarious competition for who has the worst idea.
When you do that, you realize that there's a lot of horrible ideas. There really are. Before you can get to great ideas, you have to start with a lot of ideas. It's just a numbers game. If that's what you're going to go through, a lot of ideas, there are going to be horrible ideas. Let's celebrate them because they are part of that journey of getting to the great ideas.
Kerry: Is it even possible to change the mindset of an organization where you are if they still have that "strategy happens here, and yours is but to do and die," is that even possible to change?
Carla: I think it can be inched. I think ultimately if you're looking at building an entire culture of original thinkers you have to have a leadership team that's willing to be open to ideas, that accepts failure on whatever level that looks like, and understands that efficiency and innovation can't coexist. Many times that's the message that we hear, "Innovate, we want you to be more innovative, but be efficient, don't waste money, make sure you hit every deadline, make sure that every idea is the right idea," so it's mixed messaging.
I think one of the things that I love about getting feedback from people who have used my perpetual innovation process is that they say, "I can use it as a single individual and start to come up with new ideas just for how I do my work every day." There's also an opportunity for a grassroots rising of people with ideas and showing that innovation doesn't have to live only within that traditional innovation group. I think the question is always what's the openness and the willingness to learn from your own people from executives about whether or not they will change their whole idea of innovation and whether or not they're willing to believe that innovation is everybody's business.
Kerry: Let's say then that you've either left that organization to join one where they do believe that or they've made the leap. What kinds of people should you be hiring, what people can you look for that will be the right fit for an atmosphere like that? Because that's a lot, that constant rebooting of things.
Carla: It is. We have this stereotype, I would say, of what an innovator looks like. They're these big-picture provocative thinkers, the Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, people like that.
But the interesting thing that I discovered when I was researching what it's like to be an individual innovator, how teams are created by innovators, and then also this full culture of innovators, because if you want to have an innovation culture, you have to reverse engineer it into the people that you hire and how you look at teams. It's such a great question because one of the things people don't realize is that when we go through the hiring process or moving people around on teams, we really focus on the role and the job description, we don't look at what is that person like personally and how do they naturally come up with ideas.
You and I may be very different with how we come up with ideas. A little bit of the hint that I have is your background as a lawyer and mine is very right-brain creative marketing kinds of things. It doesn't mean that either of us is right or wrong. However, a single job description cannot determine the success or failure of us as innovators.
What I came up with is the six archetypes of innovators, how they come up with ideas, and how they work with other people who innovate differently. The six archetypes are a strategist, an orchestrator, a culture shaper, a collaborator, a psychologist, and a provocateur. The interesting thing is when companies start to look at how do I recruit not just based on the role that I want to fill, because these roles are behavior driven. We often see this even in job descriptions where it says, "In this role you will be expected to," and it's all behavior oriented.
When the rubber starts to meet the road and we get under pressure or we need ideas or we need to understand how to collaborate, we have conversations like, "Let's go ask Kerry, because Kerry is such a people person, she'll be able to help us through this and help us understand how to get traction for this idea," or, "We just aren't getting things moving along as we should, let's go ask Kevin, because Kevin is such a strategist and planner, he understands these things." Those are characteristics of archetypes, but that's not how we lay out the job descriptions. We're very focused on roles and behavior, not how people naturally show up in the world.
It isn't that you need to scrap all of your job descriptions and make them only about how people naturally show up in the world. It's an understanding that you need a blend of both and really looking at what's the current makeup of these archetypes for your existing team, for your existing departments, even your company. I do have some companies that are starting to map their entire employee population. It's not about we need to be this way or we need to be that way or have this kind of balance, or anything like that. It's an understanding of where are you today and if you are heavily weighted in one area versus another. I think especially for B-to-B companies that are very engineering driven, they tend to be more strategist kind of companies.
How do we start to bring in at least the awareness and the understanding of ideas from these other archetypes that we don't really have? You can start to look at your hiring process and perhaps this is an assessment that you can have people do when you're looking at your teams and how you fill those roles. Maybe it's just a training of your existing team so that you have awareness of this is our makeup now, how do we as a team start to understand the characteristics and the thinking of these other archetypes so that we can either fill it out ourselves and ask those kinds of questions that we're missing now or we can go look for other people within the organization who can help us look at a situation, and idea, a potentially very innovative opportunity that we might be missing.
Another thing that I'm starting to see is that as teams do this within a company, it helps people understand how to work across silos and build collaboration in really delightful and unexpected ways.
Kerry: There's something in what you're saying that makes me think while you're doing this innovating there might be people above that are like, "How much actual stuff is getting done?" How do you strike the balance between innovation and keeping things going on the things that are making money right now?
Carla: I don't think there has to be an either/or situation between innovation and making money. Again, a big part of innovation is about finding opportunities. I talk a lot about Jeff Perkins at Park Mobile, who was their chief marketing and product officer who was promoted to be their new CEO. One of the things he talks about with their innovation program is that when you show that innovation is everybody's business, you start to democratize it and inspire and motivate people to be innovative in their own particular way.
There was a woman who worked in their finance department who found that she was spending 40 hours a month on a process that was really monotonous, kind of soul-sucking, and just drudgery. She identified the problem, understood what needed to be done, and taught herself a programming language to automate it. Now instead of spending 40 hours every single month, it takes 20 minutes.
Now, there isn't a decision there between doing the right thing for business and being innovative, because the right thing for business is to look at the work that you do and understand the opportunities that are there so that you can take advantage of it. Now this woman in finance has 39 hours and 40 minutes a month to do work that is more valuable to the company.
Kerry: Or to not tell anybody and just mess around.
Carla: I'm sure she's not just taking longer lunch breaks and things like that all month long. It's a huge opportunity. As we look at something like the great resignation going on, it's something really important to think about, about how we can help people become more innovative thinkers so they can start to get rid of the drudgery and do the work that truly inspires them, that makes them feel that they've made progress every day, that has purpose behind it, so that we can build stronger teams and a better company.
Kerry: You talk about citizen innovators in the book. What's that about? Are we all citizens?
Carla: Actually, I do believe that we are all citizen innovators. It came from the idea of citizen journalism, when we started to not rely just on media and journalism for the stories but looking at citizens as a whole and how they reported. News bloggers are examples of amazing citizen journalists. Now we start to look at that whole idea and as we make innovation everybody's business, then that means that we also have these citizen innovators. That was the idea behind the six archetypes that I came up with.
If we're all innovators, it doesn't mean that if you have 10,000 employees you have 10,000 different ways that people innovate, because that truly, back to the C-suite wanting to innovate, really creates a definite group that is allowed to innovate, it's because they have a fear that they're going to open up a huge can of worms and saying that innovation is everybody's business means that they're going to end up herding cats, and we certainly don't want to do that.
It's really looking at as citizen innovators which of these six types of innovators are you and understanding how you bring ideas to the table and interact with other people, and how does this look in a team when you're looking at team dynamics. Ultimately, the success or failure of a company depends on the performance of teams and how they all come together and function as a business.
Kerry: How do you break down those silos? If I have one interaction with an accounting process that I can see as an outsider doesn't make much sense and I have ideas about fixing it, how do I go about that?
Carla: I think in her case it was something where she needed to talk to IT at some level to be able to automate it, even if she taught herself a programming language. Nobody operates in a vacuum. We all have to collaborate and interact with other people at some time or another. Just understanding that there are five other types of idea people out there and that to make your idea the best idea you really do need to bring in the perspective of other people to make sure that it is fleshed out, that it is thought out.
For many people, we think of innovation as we definitely need a plan and a strategy, and that is a strategist, but oftentimes we forget about the whole other parts of innovation. Is there a culture shaper who can truly tell the story of the idea? Because it doesn't matter how great your idea is if you can't pitch it or tell that story of it to other people so that they come on board with it, your idea won't go anywhere. Then we have those collaborators who are all about integration, and they understand how to reach across those silos and talk to the right people who can help that idea move forward.
We have the psychologists, and especially in B-to-B right now they're the ones who are all about empathy. If we're looking at ideas, it's never just the left-brain side of this is an idea, here's how we develop it, here's how we release it, take advantage of the opportunity, solve that problem. There's always that human element of it. That's a really important part to remember about innovation and coming up with ideas is that we have to have empathy for the user of these ideas. Back to the chicken whisperer and the idea that his employee had. You run it by a psychologist and they might say, "Well, how does this make people feel when they open this up and everything is so much smaller?" It's one of those things that can help you bring out those ideas.
Then we have an orchestrator. It's interesting, an orchestrator is the least common of all six of the archetypes. They're the ones who lead fearlessly. They're the people who are willing to have these tough conversations early in the process and they know how to maneuver the political stepping stones and get people to buy in and build excitement.
Last is probably another type of innovator that we recognize on the opposite end of the scale from the strategist, and that is the provocateur. They're the ones who are always pushing the status quo. That's the Steve Jobs where whatever you have now, there's always a next step beyond it. Companies like Netflix, Google, and Amazon, we get excited about how they're always pushing what we believe is possible.
You can't just have one of these or even maybe two or three. You really need to look at ideas from all six perspectives in order to make them truly successful.
Kerry: If you ever have just a provocateur, or even more than one, you'll never get anything done.
Carla: They don't. They really frustrate other people because they're saying you're idea people, you never get anything done. They're great ideas, but they can be a hot mess when it comes to execution.
Kerry: Right. I don't want to give away the store, because I want people to go and get the book, RE:Think Innovation, but you do have a framework in the book. Could you give us a little sneak preview?
Carla: I do. It was interesting because as people came up to me and would say, "I don't know how to come up with ideas. I don't get it," or, "I'm not an idea person. I'm not a creative thinker," one of the things that I wanted to answer with this book was is it possible to develop a process that people can use to teach themselves or their teams how to become innovative thinkers, how to become these prolific idea people. You held that book up, so you know that the answer is yes.
It was interesting, as I was interviewing all of these people, I would ask them about a major idea that they came up with that had these extraordinary outcomes for results. I would say, "How did you come up with the idea?" Inevitably, they would say, "I don't know, it just popped into my head," running, in the shower, doing whatever. What I did then is to say, "Let's reverse engineer it. What were you doing right before you got that idea?" and then back, and back, and back.
What I found was they all used the exact same five-step process whether they realized it or not. This is another thing that I want people to rethink about innovation. We think that it has to be complicated, it has to be expensive, it has to be time-consuming. Interestingly enough, the most prolific and successful innovators in the world use this very simple five-step process. It's just that they're so practiced at it that it's a habit and they can use it at any time whenever they need an idea. You think about we as B-to-B marketers a lot of times need big great ideas that have a big impact, but we're under deadline, we have a lot of pressure on us. The way that we can do this is to practice using this perpetual innovation process.
It's as simple as starting out with being more observant of the world around you, or maybe something that you like to do as a hobby. I know you love music, Kerry. Looking at what is it about music that I love and doing the second step is taking those observations and starting to distill them into a pattern and understanding things like maybe it's about community, maybe it's about energy, maybe it's about excitement. There's really no rhyme or reason as to what patterns you distill them into, it's just your ability to see those patterns.
The third thing is relating it into the work that you do. How can you start to think about building more community with whatever it is that you're working on and trying to develop? Then using that as the inspiration to start to generate ideas and then pitch them.
What happens now is that when we say we need new ideas, we get on a Zoom call or into a conference room and we start to brainstorm, and we don't even do the first three steps, the observation, the distill, and then the relate. All we do is start out with let's generate ideas, a traditional brainstorming session. Then we go to pitch them, but there's no context, there's no story behind it, there's no inspiration, and inevitably our boss or our client says no, "We're not that kind of company. We don't sell that kind of product. We don't have that kind of budget. The boss would never go for it," and all the excuses that we're really sick and tired of hearing.
When we start out with ideas that have inspiration because we're more observant of the world around us, we end up with great ideas that are easy for us to tell the story about through a pitch. I think that's one of the things that can be deceiving about this process, but it's what I saw over and over again with these prolific innovators, is the simplicity of these steps that they followed.
Kerry: I'm thinking of just observing the world around you reminds me of the movie Patch Adams. Do you remember when he gets his nickname?
Carla: I remember the movie. I didn't see it, though.
Kerry: There's a leaky cup and he's looking at it leaking on the table. He picks it up and puts a sticker or something over the leak, and it's fine, so he gets his nickname Patch and it's a big thing. I thought a lot of people would just politely ignore that if somebody's cup is leaking all over their desk, but now we have innovation.
Carla: He's a creative thinker. He could connect the dots between I don't have to throw this cup away, I don't have to do this major fix, I don't have to do all these things, it can be a simple answer.
Kerry: I have what I need to fix it.
Kerry: Thanks for joining us today. Where can people get their copy of RE:Think Innovation?
Carla: It is available where all great books are sold, Amazon, Barnes and Noble. I always like to give a shoutout to my local independent bookstore, The Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado.
Kerry: Did you do an event there? Are they doing events again?
Carla: I don't think they're doing events yet, but I'm always a big fan of spending lots of time in their aisles. If nothing else, support your local bookstore, that's for sure.
Kerry: And people can find you at CarlaJohnson.co.
Carla: Absolutely. That's my website, co for Colorado. When you go to that page, about halfway down there is a link where you can take your own archetype assessment. You can take it for yourself, have your team take it, and you'll see lots of information about whatever kind of innovator you are. Whatever your archetype is, it helps explain how you think, how you interact with others when you're really in the groove or when you struggle and why. If you take that assessment, let me know what it is, hashtag #MarketingProfs in a tweet or something like that.
Kerry: Oh, you're on Twitter @CarlaJohnson.
Carla: Yes. Twitter @CarlaJohnson, share your results. Then I always love it when people connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know that they heard me on the Marketing Smarts Podcast.
Kerry: That's easy. There's lots of Carla Johnsons, but there's only one internationally known storyteller, keynote speaker, and author of RE:Think Innovation, so look for that one. Carla, thanks so much for joining us. This was fun.
Carla: It was delightful. Thanks so much, Kerry. It was great to see you.
Kerry: Thank you for listening here to the very end. This has been the Marketing Smarts Podcast. Talk with you again soon.
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Published on August 5, 2021
Carla Johnson, a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author. Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Carla's latest book is RE:Think Innovation: How the World's Most Prolific Innovators Come Up With Great Ideas That Deliver Extraordinary Outcomes. Follow Carla on Twitter: @CarlaJohnson.
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