A conversation with Braden Kelley, author of ‘Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire’ and ‘Charting Change’


This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.

Braden Kelley started his career as an undergrad working for Symantec. As the internet became ubiquitous, Symantec enlisted him to establish a web presence to serve their customer support online. In the process, he found himself immersed in the world of innovation and design thinking as he worked with designers and customers in focus groups to uncover their needs. Inspired by this work, Braden returned to school for his MBA so he could fully embrace a career that allowed him to focus on providing new value for the customer.

Braden Kelley, author of ‘Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire’ and ‘Charting Change’

Gaining more knowledge over the years, Braden realized he had contributions he thought would be valuable to the industry. After writing numerous articles, he eventually distilled his observations in two books: Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire and Charting Change.

He shared with me his views on how companies can create a solid foundation for innovation and successfully move their ideas from invention to adoption.

“Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into widely adopted solutions valued above every existing alternative.”

Braden’s definition of innovation highlights some key distinctions. First, in order for an idea to be more than an invention, it must be widely adopted. Second, more than just being useful, an idea must be valuable and monetized at a point customers are willing to pay for it. Third, it must displace an existing solution providing so much value that customers readily change their habits. Products like the VCR, mp3 player and Gorilla Glass are a few examples of products that were invented and then experienced a 20–50 year gap before they were widely used by consumers as true innovations.

Value creation, value translation, value access

The ideal components for successful innovation include value creation — the initial invention — as well as value translation and value access. “The parts that often get neglected are the value translation component, which is the component about both internally and externally helping people understand how this new thing will fit into their lives. The third point is value access, which is, how you help people get to the value that you’ve created.”

Headphones, tea and glasses

The story of the iPod provides an illustration of the successful employment of all three components. In creating the iPod, Apple not only created new value, but they also created a way to access existing value — a person’s existing music library. Having access to one’s entire music collection in one device created another opportunity for innovation.

“Think about the initial invention of a hard disk-based music player and trying to navigate your entire music collection with two buttons, forward and backward. It’s pretty hard to go through thousands of songs with a forward and a back button. So, Apple created the scroll wheel, and that allowed people to navigate their music collection much more easily.” Then iTunes was created to organize and eventually add to the music library.

In a move to open up value access, “Apple also broke out of the Macintosh mold of keeping things Mac only. The key inflection point for the growth of the iPod was creating a Windows version of iTunes.” Realizing it would be tricky selling a device that wasn’t easily described, Apple knew customers needed a place to experience the iPod. “Apple understood that people working in Target or Best Buy weren’t going to necessarily do as good of a job giving people the experience of using the devices as they thought they could do themselves.” Enter the Apple store and Genius Bar.

Busy people walking through building

“The Apple store serves partially in that value translation component. The Genius Bars serve on the value access side by helping people understand how to get more value out of the device they might be purchasing.”

Start with the end in mind

Measurement provides a good starting point for establishing a strong foundation. “No innovation idea emerges fully formed. What people come up with are idea fragments and you have to collect and connect those dots to create a fully formed idea.” Based on those ideas, begin by identifying the value you want to create.

In order to make sure an initiative creates all the value it intends to, Braden advocates for the use of experiments with checkpoints. “You can have checkpoints that you establish along the way in terms of getting from what you’re able to do now versus your vision for the full value that you hope to create.” When thinking through experiments to validate assumptions about feasibility, viability, and desirability, also consider the flaws that might be present in your experimentation process.

“Start plotting out all the different experiments that you plan to run and the learning that you hope to get from each one. Those are the things that you can measure against to show that you’re making progress, to show that you’re going to get to the end and that you’re on track.”

Planning with the end in mind also includes consideration for scaling the invention. “Make sure you’re laying out checkpoints around your ability to scale it, because if you can’t get to that [wide] adoption point, then most likely you’re not going to get your investment back.” Think through what you’ll have to work against in order to scale so that profitability is part of the long-term plan from the beginning. Braden looks to companies like Tesla as an example of the potentially disastrous effects an inability to profitably scale can have on a product and a company’s viability despite having strong ideas and exploration practices.

A core team of innovation catalysts

Rather than siloing innovation to a single team, Braden has observed that having a core innovation team to facilitate innovation across the company has many benefits. The core team defines frameworks and methodologies for the organization and educates people on the innovation tools at their disposal. The team can work with HR to organize ways of staffing and funding innovation projects. And they can facilitate communication across the organization about ongoing projects both internally and externally. “The approach that I see working the best is where you have a group that’s moving information around, connecting people across the organization with the tools and resources that they need, and helping to tell those stories so that people get excited, engaged, and stay engaged.”

“It doesn’t make any sense to go out and ask people for ideas if you’re not ready to process them and develop them.”

The company’s role, then, is to support the core team with business strategy and goals to align innovation efforts with overall organizational strategy. When establishing this clarity of purpose, Braden encourages having the backend process in place first. “It doesn’t make any sense to go out and ask people for ideas if you’re not ready to process them and develop them and to help people move them from an idea to reality.”

Starbuck’s My Starbucks Idea initiative — a site that solicited ideas from the general public — offers an example of the difficulties in opening the ideation process up too much. Approaches like this produce far more ideas than an organization is able to process and can create a dip in trust and enthusiasm when people don’t see anything come of their suggestions. This can have the unintended consequence of limiting an organization’s ability to solicit ideas later on when they are truly needed and can be acted upon.

Braden Kelley, author of ‘Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire’ and ‘Charting Change’

To establish the backend process for innovation, Braden starts with defining innovation. “Creating a shared definition for innovation can be a helpful exercise that forms a basis of your overall common language of innovation and some of the other key elements [of] your vision strategy and goals.” This foundation helps people know where to focus, what to focus on, why the organization is pursuing innovation, and how to go about it so it can be leveraged to keep people engaged in creating actionable ideas aligned with the overall business strategy.

“Business strategy goals and metrics are key parts of [the] foundation to build [a] common language of innovation that helps people know how to engage.” In addition to defining what an organization is going to pursue, it can also help to define what won’t be pursued. “I think that it is super helpful because people only have a limited amount of energy and creative energy, so the more you can channel it in the direction that you can actually develop and that are most valuable to you as an organization, the greater return on investment you’re going to get as an organization and also the individuals are gonna get on expending their creative energy.”

Lightbulb idea

This foundation that establishes aligned goals, shared language, and processes for idea intake and processing is what Braden believes to be the innovation silver bullet. “I think if you start well, you finish well, and if you start poorly, you finish poorly. If people really want to be successful in innovation you have to do hard work up front [putting] the right foundation in place so that whatever structure you build on top [will] stand up for a long time rather than come crashing down around your head.”

“I think if you start well, you finish well, and if you start poorly, you finish poorly.”

With a sturdy foundation in place, teams can be empowered to break out of the mindset that people are either innovative or not and open up the process of innovation to allow for greater participation. “Different people tend towards different roles when it comes to innovation, and all the roles are important and needed across the process of innovation.”

Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire

In his first book, Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire, Braden developed nine innovation roles that he has since developed into a set of cards he uses at workshops.

“It can be very interesting to hear the conversations in the room about not only how individuals tend, but also how organizations tend. [You can learn] which roles tend to be widely available in an organization, which ones tend to be scarce, and how that affects the innovation upwards through the company.”

Braden encourages organizations to use this information to take a more conscious approach to forming innovation teams in order to bring the right roles together and experience greater innovation success.

Balancing exploration and exploitation

As ideas begin to flow, Braden observes that organizations must be conscious of the balance between exploration and exploitation — their present and their future. “Within organizations, there’s this constant tension between exploration and exploitation. You have to have most of the organization focused on scalability, profitability, and making things as efficient as possible, but you also need to have part of the organization looking for those new sources of value that are going to reinvigorate the company and keep it healthy.”

The exploration side of the equation involves staying connected to customers to see how they’re changing over time. “What [customers] trust you to do may also change over time. So, you may be allowed to go to new areas that you weren’t allowed to go to a year ago, five years ago because what they’re trusting you to do may change.”

Finding a balance between exploration and exploitation isn’t easy, and Braden has seen some well-intentioned ideas backfire. Google offering employees 10% of their time to work on an innovation of their choosing is one such case. The reality of this perk is that the 10% of time usually comes out of an employee’s personal time rather than within their 40-hour work week. “Percent time programs often backfire because organizations don’t put a plan in place for how to make that time available.” As organizations establish the foundation for their innovation efforts, incorporating these practical considerations can lead to greater success rates.

The whole person approach to staffing

Braden is encouraged to see the way we think about work shifting for the better. “As companies start to value managing this tension between exploration and exploitation and scaling, [when] they value the sources they’ve already created versus finding new ones, then it enables people to start thinking about how they structure their organization.”

Rather than thinking in terms of job description, more companies are considering the whole person and the capabilities that individuals bring to the organization. “Cisco has this internal internship program where you might be working in finance, but you go do an internship in marketing. So you might spend four days a week working on your regular job and then another day working on a marketing project. So, rather than hiring [from] the outside world, organizations within the organization that have project-based work they need to be done can potentially, as a career development move, leverage people inside the company.” Not only does this approach create opportunities for team building and knowledge transfer, it can also help people looking for a shift find their passion without leaving the company.

Braden Kelley, author of ‘Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire’ and ‘Charting Change’

Braden looks to companies like Intuit, 3M, and Amazon as leaders in innovation. “Intuit does a really good job of helping to spread innovative thinking and design thinking knowledge across the organization.” They accomplish this through a core team of catalysts that help to establish the innovation foundation and educate people across the company. Braden applauds 3M for creating and supporting a culture of experimentation — the % of innovation time approach at Google was first attempted at 3M. Continuous experimentation is a strength of Amazon’s as well. “They run lots of different experiments all the time. They test out all kinds of different things, and they’re good at killing off the things that don’t work or that they don’t think they’re gonna learn anything more from.”

A spirit of experimentation paired with a firm foundation of business goals and metrics is the key ingredients for expanding innovation across an organization. By taking the time to establish a clear purpose and embracing contributions from a variety of roles, organizations can gain an edge in turning inventions into valuable and scalable innovations capable of displacing competitors and improving the lives of their customers.


If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.