A conversation with Innovation Leader CEO Scott Kirsner on innovation
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.
Scott Kirsner has his finger on the pulse of the current state of the industry. Scott is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Innovation Leader and also writes a weekly column on innovation and technology for the Boston Globe. Innovation Leader is an independent media and events company that provides subscription-based, in-depth content, reports, templates, and tools that focus on how innovation happens at big organizations. Scott’s work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety.
Recently, I turned the tables on this reporter and interviewed Scott over the phone. Our conversation gave me insight into how innovation is happening (or not) at large companies right now. Read on for some of the top takeaways from our chat.
Technology creatively applied
We started off by talking about what attracts Scott to this space in general: “Technology for its own sake isn’t really interesting to me. I’m more interested in how [technology] gets applied in business to do new stuff and be useful to people in the company or the company’s customers. I’ve always enjoyed writing stories about technology used in really creative ways.”
He shared that one of his first big stories for Wired Magazine was about the technology infrastructure that runs Disney World: “As a kid, I grew up going to Disney World and always heard the myths about the underground level of the theme parks. It was a fun excuse to go hang out for a week and be behind the scenes and see the ancient technology infrastructure at the time that runs all the parades and rides.”
This illustrates his point that it’s not technology for technology’s sake that is compelling. It was the story that the technology told and the way it opened up new experiences that were fascinating and groundbreaking: “It was technology creatively applied to do something that nobody had ever thought to do before — all of these animatronic shows, movies, and immersive experiences.”
More than a trip to Silicon Valley
From his vantage point as a thought leader on innovation inside large corporations, I asked Scott to share what he sees as some of the right and wrong ways to go about inspiring innovation. The first thing he talked about is the mistake of thinking you can build expertise in innovation quickly or shallowly: “Probably the most wrong-headed thing is when companies fill the company plane with senior executives and send it to Silicon Valley. They spend two days visiting accelerators, co-working spaces, venture capital firms, and Google… and by the time they leave, they feel like they really have a handle on innovation.”
“Probably the most wrong-headed thing is when companies fill the company plane with senior executives and send it to Silicon Valley…and by the time they leave, they feel like they really have a handle on innovation.”
Instead, he thinks senior leadership should spend more time articulating why they are embarking on this journey in the first place: “Defining a clear strategy is a key starting point and asking questions like What are we trying to achieve? What is a reasonable time frame for achieving it? Who on staff should be involved, or who should we hire? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all structure or strategy for this.”
“It requires more than one person with ‘innovation’ in his or her title, sitting in an office, and trying to change the way a huge company operates. It also requires more than a year or two.”
Beyond that, companies need to know that: “It requires more than one person with ‘innovation’ in his or her title, sitting in an office, and trying to change the way a huge company operates. It also requires more than a year or two.” This concept of being patient and giving innovation time to take root is something we’ll come back to later.
Leave the Building
In this era when start-up offices offer Kombucha on tap and chef-made meals, I loved what Scott said when I asked him what he sees as the innovation “silver bullet”: “[It’s] getting out of your office or off your campus and participating in the ecosystem around you. So many companies fail at innovation because no one ever leaves the campus. They expect innovation to come to them.”
Today, many big companies incentivize employees to stay in the building. But, to Scott, the activities outside of your company are fundamental to inspiring new thinking and staying relevant.
Here’s his advice to those lured to stay inside with their foosball table and beanbags: “Get outside of the building and either be at meetups that are relevant to you or be out speaking at your alma mater and meeting student talent, or visit Accelerator Demo Days, or even a conference…”
Be Careful Mixing the Flavors of Innovation
Scott pointed to two fundamental types or “flavors” of innovation strategies that he sees inside companies right now. It’s a simple, but helpful way to look at things: one is about culture and the other is about product innovation.
The first he called the “cultural reinvigoration approach,” which he described as when companies focus on activities like crowd-sourcing new ideas from employees, innovation training, and working toward a better, or more modern, work environment
The other approach he referred to as “new product engine,” which is where specialized teams are charged with: “aggressively growing and innovating, whether through working with startups or having your own innovation lab.”
Scott’s cautioned against trying to do both approaches at the same time — i.e. having designers innovate around new products and training employees in new methods. “It gets muddy when you ask a killer product group that’s full of entrepreneurs and designers and people who come from outside the company to be the culture change group.”
“It gets muddy when you ask a killer product group…to be the culture change group.”
Patience is a virtue
In addition to Disney, another of Scott’s favorite examples of admirable, innovative companies is Fidelity Investments. To him, they’ve been very consistent in how they explore technology to evolve their business, hiring smart people, building and testing prototypes, and “beating the competition when it comes to doing the important things first.”
He talked about one of the qualities he thinks makes Fidelity successful: “They’re really patient. They’re a private company and it’s run by the third generation of the family that founded it. You have a culture that is willing to be patient and invest over time; it generally yields better results.“ As well as patience, their flexibility is also important. He’s seen that, despite being a large organization, Fidelity isn’t afraid to do new, “more start-up like things.” This blend of patience and flexibility is a winning combo.
“You have a culture that is willing to be patient and invest over time; it generally yields better results.“
On the other end of the spectrum, Scott pointed to the retail sector when I asked him about failures he sees today. “I think there are a lot of epic failures in retail these days. It’s a really tough sector. Whether you are talking about Toys R Us or Target or Macy’s, I don’t see anyone innovating intelligently, or investing in innovation in a consistent and patient way.”
He’s seen companies try interesting experiments, but then shut them down after a bad sales quarter. “No one gives up their startup after two years,” he says. But big companies do it all the time: “We haven’t seen ROI, we haven’t seen concrete results after two years, so we’re done.”
“Big companies often say, ‘If we don’t understand how this is going to become a billion dollar business, we’ll kill it.’”
In this instance, there is a lot that larger companies, retail or otherwise, can learn from entrepreneurs. “Most entrepreneurs would tell you, ‘It might be three or four years before you have real product-market fit, and it’s still a really small business and getting to a million dollars of revenue might take you a while.’ And the entrepreneur’s happy to keep putting in the time just as long as they see something growing.” On the other hand: “Big companies often say, ‘If we don’t understand how this is going to become a billion dollar business, we’ll kill it.’”
Spectrum of urgency
Yet, Scott went on to say that there is likely a “spectrum of urgency” that the two industries we just discussed — retail and financial services — face. And this might be why they are approaching how they respond to the rapidly changing business world differently.
“I do think different industries are threatened in different ways or maybe they feel a different degree of innovation urgency.” In retail, for example, people’s buying habits are changing rapidly: “Amazon, Wayfair and Casper and all these companies are coming in to chew away at different retail chains. They’re at a pretty high end of innovation urgency. Maybe it’s so high that they just don’t even know what to do…and they don’t have the time or money to invest and be patient.”
In contrast, companies like Fidelity might not be as under the gun: “At a different end of urgency, I think you have financial services companies.There are some startups in that space, but we are not gonna put our retirement savings into this new retirement app that just launched on the Android store that has no ratings and no reviews, right?”
He went on: “In financial services, there’s the regulations, there’s the trust issues, and so I think you see a little bit less urgency and disruption happening there.” This has ramifications for the time frame that companies like Fidelity have to keep up: “That means that companies are willing to invest and have a little bit more time to figure out what their strategy is going to be. They’re not running around with their hair on fire.”
Innovation in media
One of the last things we talked about was what Scott is most excited about right now, and that’s innovation in media: “How do you get people’s attention when we spend all day in front of screens, and there’s just so much content?”
Scott has had front seat tickets to watching as big shifts have taken place in media — i.e. people leaving print for digital and people leaving subscription-based media (magazines, newspapers or paid TV) for those that are free or ad-supported. This moment has also opened up an opportunity for deeper, richer content. Which is why his Innovation Leader content is available through a subscription fee model.
“It makes us very focused on only writing about stuff that no one else is covering and that is unique to us.”
In this age of widely available, quick-to-consume content, there is real value in the type of high-quality content that Innovation Leader produces. Subscribers get content that they can’t get anywhere else and, for them, it’s worth it: “It makes us very focused on only writing about stuff that no one else is covering and that is unique to us.”
It was great to add a leader reporter on the innovation “beat” to my list of interviewees. I hope you enjoyed reading highlights from our conversation!
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.