Takeaways from an interview with Cam Houser, Founder/Chief Innovation Officer of 3 Day Startup
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.
Cam Houser is obsessed with helping people unlock entrepreneurial potential. Working with companies like the LIVESTRONG Foundation, The Onion, and Despair, Inc. quickly indoctrinated Cam into the realm of rapid growth startups and led him to pursue an MBA at the University of Texas. Frustrated by entrepreneurship courses focused on theory, textbooks, and essays, Cam and his cofounders were inspired to create 3 Day Startup (3DS), an organization that runs immersive, cross-disciplinary innovation programs to activate entrepreneurial potential in audiences ranging from MIT students to Dell employees through hands-on experience.
In order to move the needle on innovation, Cam believes organizations have to move away from fixation on ideas as currency in favor of an action-oriented approach.
“As an entrepreneur your ideas are far less important than your ability to execute.”
As an alternative, he suggests that organizations place more focus on the process, culture, and execution of ideas as the true source of innovation.
Focus on execution not judgement
Venture capitalists provide an analogy that exemplifies this concept. VCs are in the business of ideas — for every ten companies they invest in, only one needs to be a huge hit to pay for the other nine. The ratio of investment to success is low because picking good ideas every time is difficult even for people whose livelihood depends on it. This is further complicated by the reality that many good ideas don’t look good when they are first discussed.
When the founder of FedEx presented the idea of next day shipping it was met with disbelief that anyone would ever need a package delivered the next day. The same is true for the well known history of the personal computer — upon its debut, there was disbelief from experts that a larger market for PCs existed. These examples and his personal experience have taught Cam that “getting away from value judgment around ideas [and focusing on] process and execution tends to deliver innovation.”
Shake up your routines
While expertise is usually valued in the market, it isn’t always an asset in the context of innovation. Expertise can bias individuals toward routine thought processes instead of new approaches.
“If you’re recognized as an expert in an industry it probably means you’re an expert on what that industry was ten years ago.”
To shake up routines, Cam likes to work with teams in an atypical environment. “When we run our innovation programs we will do them at the home office, but we always prefer to do them at a coworking space or startup accelerator — some place where the professionals in that organization are getting outside of their standard operating zone so they can see things in a new way.”
Getting outside of the building is about altering human behaviors to be more open to change. The separateness of a new setting gives our brains permission to think outside our normal patterns without the constant reminder that there are emails and to do lists waiting at a desk fifty yards away.
The power of process
“If you’re following a good process something of value will emerge.”
According to Cam the core of any innovation program is all about process. When Cam and his team at 3DS work with corporations their coaching focuses on adapting their processes to be more similar to startups. He contrasts the two approaches: While corporations are often trying to get from point A to point B, then reevaluating, startups are trying to go from point A to something of value asking questions and evaluating progress continually along the way.
Through this approach, startups outperform corporations by realizing as early as possible when they are headed in the wrong direction and can pivot quickly in the direction of greater value.
The nature of innovation is that it’s new and the future is often unclear, so measurement early in the process is something that Cam typically tries to avoid. Working within these natural constraints, Cam evaluates whether value has been created as a signal to keep going or pivot. He’s found that demonstrating value can also help in gaining buy-in for innovation efforts within an organization. “If we can get a win pretty early on [through] projects that show some promise of driving value to the organization, trust gets brought in. Then you have a lot more latitude to truly innovate.”
For organizations at the beginning of their innovation journey, Cam recommends they “try a lot of very cheap experiments that do not require much social or financial capital — [Identify] low hanging fruit then get yourself some wins and figure out what’s working.” He suggests this approach over announcing innovation initiatives with a lot of fanfare for two reasons. The first is that successful outcomes are difficult to define in the beginning of an initiative when the future is less clear. The second is that getting started with experiments right away provides opportunities for the early wins that garner buy-in within the organization. The early results of cheap experiments provide insights on where an organization can invest more and increase value.
In lieu of traditional styles of measurements, Cam advocates regular checkins to evaluate the direction of an initiative and what a team is learning. These checkins also serve the dual purpose of institutional knowledge sharing where teams can learn from prior attempts of a particular initiative.
In the process of knowledge sharing it can be helpful to have such conversations facilitated so ideas that have been tried before have a chance to be explored for learning opportunities rather than shot down simply due to a failed prior attempt.
This point is well illustrated by the success of existing companies. Cam astutely pointed out that Google was not the first search engine (actually the 13th) and Facebook was not the first social network.
“There’s a lot of examples in the world that prove that ‘we’ve done it before’ is not an appropriate rebuttal.”
The examples above also illustrate another of Cam’s insights: Ideas are only as powerful as how well they are communicated. Cam believes that good communication is “the story you tell about that idea” and it’s “the difference between getting stakeholder buy-in and sponsorship” or not. Rather than being a “function of sitting in your desk and thinking harder about how to communicate the idea”, good communication is about sharing “the idea with tons of people and having them give you feedback.” The reaction of an audience is one of the quickest ways to learn. “If they have a deer in headlights look when you explain [an idea] you know it’s too complicated or boring.”
“If they have a deer in headlights look when you explain [an idea] you know it’s too complicated or boring.”
For anyone who ascribes to the epistemological perspective that there’s nothing new under the sun, the importance of communication or expression of an idea is all the more clear. Cam shared that human beings are full of biases and unique perspectives that cause them to see things through a distorted lens. This distortion is the context in which innovation works and often means good ideas are not always immediately recognized. “In order to win over our teams on ideas, the communication piece matters so much.”
“In order to win over our teams on ideas, the communication piece matters so much.”
Action not just ideas
Consistent with his preference for action over ideas, Cam finds approaches that place too much emphasis on idea banks or platforms — repositories where people submit ideas for future consideration — incentivize the wrong behaviors.
“Submitting an idea to a platform does not sound like a triumphant moment. That does not sound like an aha ‘Eureka’ insight into the nature of how the world works or how you’re going to apply it to be better at what you do and increase your impact on the world. That’s why we want a participatory action- based approach to innovation. Submitting a form to an idea platform and waiting is the least innovative thing I’ve heard.”
Practices like idea banks can also inhibit innovation by creating the notion that there’s a specific team or department responsible for innovation within an organization. Cam has observed this phenomenon in corporate structures where importance is placed on defining titles and departments. Cam cautions against creating unnecessary silos and instead focusing on creating evangelists and diplomats who help “permeate a literacy of innovation” throughout the organization.
A culture of entrepreneurship
By establishing a culture of entrepreneurship and emphasizing that anyone can be part of an innovation initiative, companies benefit from the knowledge employees gain through direct customer contact. Oftentimes these employees that work on the front lines “have the best insights on how the company needs to innovate going forward.
Involving people at all levels of the organization has demonstrated to Cam that, rather than requiring a certain skillset, innovation is often just about giving people permission.
“A lot of people just need to know that if they have an idea something can happen out of it, and all of that goes to how you manage the communication.”
Instead of submitting an idea to a platform and waiting, Cam encourages organizations to give employees the flexibility to suggest an idea and see it through execution.
“We don’t really like handing [an idea] off and losing the nuance of the perspective of the person who came up with the idea. It’s a tricky thing to do because, again, there are structure to maintain. But a lot of times it just tends to generate better outcomes.”
The Microsoft example
Steve Balmer of Microsoft is someone who Cam believes had an interesting, while maybe not the most cost effective, approach to innovation. In the 2000s when Microsoft was awash with success from decades of Windows licensing, Steve Balmer would task two or three teams with building a product for a new domain he wanted to explore. Each team would work on the same problem and then pitch the result to Balmer who cherry picked the things that worked best from each.
While it was incredibly inefficient having three teams building three different versions of the same product, the process drove some interesting innovations at Microsoft. “What I like about it is how it’s execution focused which is very startup-like. What I can’t relate to is it’s a very expensive way of doing it which is not very startup-like.”
One tool Cam uses when coaching organizations to develop startup-like habits is quick pitching, a process whereby up to 50 people have one minute to pitch an idea followed by instant, time boxed feedback from the pitch group that serves to evolve and develop the idea. “What’s really powerful is when peers, the people in the company who know the domain, give rapid feedback about why this would or wouldn’t work.” Cam is a proponent of including sponsors and leadership into the quick pitch process as a way to generate excitement and gain buy-in.
“Trying to impress stakeholders and sponsors needs to happen for them to get to know you [and] fund these things. So, again, there’s value in generating good ideas, but it’s also communicating the innovation narratives to the rest of the organization in a really powerful way.”
Ideas that have already been attempted can benefit from the quick pitch process as well. Through the process of feedback, for example, people may realize that there’s a kernel of an idea someone else caught that they missed. Discussion can cause ideas to be reframed or expressed in a new way that reveals hidden potential. To demonstrate this point, Cam shared the story of the Post-it by 3M. “That product was kicked around for so long before it made it out they almost put the guy who submitted it in a closet. That was an idea that took a while to weave its way through the company and different ways of expressing it until it finally happened.”
Just as it’s important to have planned idea pitching and discussion sessions, it’s also advantageous to allow slack time for more informal discussions. When Cam takes teams through the quick pitch process he includes a ten minute beak in the middle. “Getting a break means that people can go talk more about these ideas informally. We’re creating an environment where collisions can happen, where chemical reactions can happen, and giving a break in the middle allows that to happen.”
Throughout the quick pitch process Cam advocates having someone serve as facilitator to keep the process moving. When questions move away from the concept toward more superficial discussions (ex. what a product should be named), a facilitator can help redirect the conversation and keep the activity focused on creating value.
As someone who knows innovation is about changing mindsets and unlocking entrepreneurial potential, Cam is intensely interested in human behavior. While this area of study can be frustrating in its lack of certainty, Cam finds comfort in the concept of quantum entanglement. “As a kid I always thought the world was this discrete place and that if I didn’t understand something it just meant I needed to research it more, ask more people about it, and get an answer.
Quantum entanglement embodies the idea that reality is not definite and that the world is a weirder, wilder place than we ever can imagine. When I get annoyed about something being uncertain, quantum entanglement reminds me that theoretical physicists are the smartest people in the world, and it doesn’t even make sense to them.”
Beyond helping him make sense of the world, Cam believes exploring other fields has a huge influence on getting innovation right.
“The language and marketing around innovation doesn’t feel much different than weight loss pills. The people who get innovation right learn from outsiders, from other domains. The more folks you talk to who are operating in spaces that are not your own, the more you can learn about what’s going to make you as an individual more innovative and what’s going to make your organization more innovative.”
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.