A conversation with Karen Holst, entrepreneur, LinkedIn Product Innovation instructor, and mentor for TechStars and the SLEI.
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.
In the fast-paced world of technology where sprints are the norm, Karen Holst prefers the marathon. After starting to do triathlons in her twenties, Karen learned that switching focus multiple times in the middle of a lengthy goal wasn’t for her. Instead, she found satisfaction through a focus on one sport for the long haul. “It gave me the opportunity to really tune into new parts of my brain. It makes things turn off and other things turn on.”
“A lot of people that approach innovation are trying to fix a problem versus leaning into learn mode.”
What Karen learned through running marathons also has applications to her work in innovation. “A lot of people that approach innovation are trying to fix a problem versus leaning into learn mode. One of the components that really works for me is the ability to have time to reflect, ruminate, and connect the dots between different things.”
Karen’s career started her junior year of college when she co-founded MyEdu (formerly Pick-a-Prof), a site that compiles information from universities to help students plan college courses and compare credit requirements across different universities. After MyEdu was acquired by Blackboard in 2014, Karen moved on to Fuse Corps where she worked with the California Department of Education to design innovative educational technology programs for students in the California school system.
“That was my moment where I realized I didn’t have to own a company to find fulfillment, purpose, and autonomy.”
“That was my moment where I realized I didn’t have to own a company to find fulfillment, purpose, and autonomy — the things that really drove me. It was more about finding a problem that I care about and trying to solve that in a new and innovative way.” At the end of her year-long fellowship, Karen moved to IDEO where she helped launch their online learning platform for design thinking and creative problem-solving skills. Now Karen spends her time advising companies, teaching a product innovation course on LinkedIn, and mentoring at TechStars and SLEI while also working on a book about problem-solving in the innovation space.
Doers vs innovators
One pattern that Karen has noticed through her research is the concept of thinking of individuals as “doers” versus “innovators.” Rather than viewing people in binary categories — innovative or not innovative — Karen views innovation as a mode of work.
“The word innovation can be exclusive and has a lot of baggage with it.”
“There are modes where you need to be heads-down and get work done. But there are moments when you pop up and have opportunities to innovate — you have a great idea, you have an insight. If you segregate people as innovators and doers, then you’re really missing out on the diversifying of ideas.”
By creating confined categories or designating specific teams as “doing innovation,” ideas are limited to a small subset of individuals. “That is to the disadvantage of innovation and it’s how companies can stall out.” This idea inspired her to start writing her book, which focuses on enabling the doers in an organization to participate in innovation at all levels.
“Doers can launch new things, but are probably early in their career, haven’t done that kind of work, and are looking for purpose. It’s that group that can be left behind…”
To combat this, Karen suggests first acknowledging that everyone possesses the ability to innovate. “It’s not an innate skill that’s only within a select few visionaries [like] Elon Musk and beyond.” Begin by letting go of old mindsets that a job title defines who can be innovative. Then learn the concrete steps to move forward with an idea.
“It’s quite daunting. You hear this over and over from the people who are trying to innovate within large organizations. It feels lonely. It feels like you’re the only person in the world trying to do something this hard.” Opening innovation up to everyone creates opportunities for conversations and problem solving to make an enormous task more manageable.
“You hear this over and over from the people that are trying to innovate within large organizations. It feels lonely. It feels like you’re the only person in the world trying to do something this hard.”
Start where you are
Simple brainstorming exercises can often highlight the other mindset shifts that are needed for innovation to thrive. Karen related her experience introducing a brainstorming activity in one of her previous engagements. The goal was to acquaint participants with the idea of design thinking as a process for bringing innovation into classrooms. “It was a really simple brainstorm session of just coming up with a name of one of the products that they already provide.” No matter what name was suggested, the idea was immediately shot down for various reasons.
The story highlights two strategies Karen believes to be critical to success in innovation:
- Start where you are
- Avoid perfectionism
For a team with limited brainstorming experience, starting where they were led Karen to acknowledge the importance of having a devil’s advocate and multiple perspectives. In contrast, avoiding perfectionism meant challenging the team to evolve and try a different way of doing things — to freethink and gather ideas while postponing the filtering process so as not to slow down idea generation.
The innovation repository
One tool Karen uses to help teams start where they are is to create what she calls an innovation repository: “You have all these pictures of the people that work at the company an d you have places where there’s a process or where there isn’t a process. Capture it in some sort of written form, even if it’s just a four-slide deck of where you’re at today and where you want to be. Getting started is literally just getting as much [initial info] as you can, having a bulleted framework you might follow and continuing to iterate as you go forward.”
Feeling the need to have the perfect process and the perfect answer can cripple an initiative before it even begins. An innovation repository not only establishes a clear purpose to organize around, it also provides a means to measure current value.
“Often the problem with metrics is there isn’t buy-in that the metrics are of value.”
Visionary leaders who pull teams in too many different directions can be another source that slows a team’s momentum. A clear purpose coupled with metrics is a good strategy for focusing innovation efforts. “Often the problem with metrics is there isn’t buy-in that the metrics are of value.” She suggests a balance of qualitative and quantitative metrics so stakeholders focused on behavioral and cultural change are satisfied, as well as those who are focused on the bottom line. The ultimate goal of measurement is to create a long enough runway for teams to do the work that innovation requires. “It’s about extending that runway as long as you can and having belief and support that it’s leading to something.”
A tale of two companies
Southwest Airlines is one company Karen admires for their innovative ideas and start-where-you-are attitude. For example, in an effort to keep the same number of flights using fewer planes, they cut boarding time. The boarding process that resulted was faster and easily understood by passengers. “I think the reason that it stands out to me is a lot of people are focused on big innovation, radical change that’s going to bring in billions of dollars or change this big thing. Those are important, but it’s sometimes small tweaks that can make a big change and create ripples.”
In contrast, confused consumers can tank even the most clever ideas. Karen’s favorite example of this is Febreze Scentstories, a product that looked like a compact disc (CD) player and allowed consumers to experience a variety of scent “tracks” over 30 minutes. The product sought to solve the problem of habituation — our noses get used to certain smells with continual exposure. The problem was that customers didn’t understand it; many thought it was a conventional CD player. “Scentstories is interesting because it is so not human-centered. Kudos for taking a big leap, but to get it all the way to market and have it be such an utter failure is an example of not engaging with the human side of things.”
“To get it all the way to market and have it be such an utter failure is an example of not engaging with the human side of things.”
As a long distance runner, Karen has experienced the runner’s high, the moment when the work shifts from being difficult and painful to an easier state of flow. She sees that existing in innovation as well: “Once you get past ‘I’m trying to do something really difficult’ and get into the thinking high, that’s where there’s a real opportunity for innovation.”
Organizations that can think creatively to establish longer runways for innovation work, diversify the makeup of teams, and agree on balanced metrics are positioned to overcome the difficult nature of innovation allowing it to flow freely and carry them into the future.
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.