A Conversation with Innovation Consultant Travis McCutcheon.

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

Travis McCutcheon started his career at a company called Digital Insight building internet banking software and promoting usability testing and user experience at a time when he says “no one at the company knew what I was talking about.” Now Travis is the Founder and Innovation Consultant at Leap for Mankind where he helps entrepreneurs turn ideas into products through a three-pillar approach.

Travis McCutcheon, Founder of Leap for Mankind
Travis McCutcheon, Founder of Leap for Mankind

I talked to Travis about his work as an innovation consultant and he shared with me some of the patterns he’s observed for organizations embracing a culture of innovation.

A few years into his role, an acquisition of Digital Insight by Intuit introduced Travis to the concept of lean manufacturing where his team experimented with adapting the Toyota Production System for the world of software development. “If you could create an experiment, measure the baseline and then make an improvement to cycle time or reduce the work effort then it was automatically bought in by the company.” Learning through experimentation was now a company mandate rather than just a personal cause.

Getting Lean

While Travis was working to push forward a lean-style approach in the design and product domain at Intuit, Eric Ries was promoting the approach at the company level. After hearing Mr. Ries speak at Intuit, Travis was sold on the principles of Lean Startup. “My head was nodding — this is all the stuff I’ve been trying to push through.”

A move to Austin led Travis to grad school and the local startup community. He worked closely with Ash Maurya building Lean Canvas and forming the Austin Lean Startup Circle. Around this time he joined Lean Startup Machine and began traveling around running workshops to help entrepreneurs launch their ideas. Travis pivoted to the enterprise level formalizing existing workshops and training into transformation programs for larger companies like John Deere, Cisco, and ING.

Lean Manufacturing, Design Thinking, Agile Development

For innovation efforts to be fruitful, Travis believes getting clear on what the process of innovation looks like and how it is measured is key. This means adopting an “explore” mentality over the traditional “execute” mindset.

Adopt an “explore” mentality over the traditional “execute” mindset.

In Execute mode, you assume you’re right and execution looks like a straight line to getting things done. In Explore mode, you assume you’re wrong and run experiments to gather evidence until the path forward becomes clear — this is where innovation comes into play.

Explore vs. Execute Mode
Explore vs. Execute Mode

To tackle the mindset shifts required for a successful transformation, Travis leverages the fundamentals of Lean Startup by incorporating aspects of lean manufacturing, design thinking, and agile development principles in his workshops.

Lean manufacturing is often omitted from corporate planning when developing innovation programs. However, it is a critical pillar providing the underlying process and commitment to continuous improvement.

Design thinking boot camps provide a hands-on immersive experience for contributors at all levels of the company to develop a deep understanding of the problem space and build enough empathy with customers to want to solve the problem.

Once there’s a clear signal that the product is headed in the right direction, agile development gives teams a method to implement in a way that’s visible and iterative while incorporating frequent opportunities for feedback on both the product and how well teams are working together.

With each method, he leverages experimentation to take learnings (what people say) and validate what people do by measuring actual behaviors.

Transformation Hurdles

When I spoke to Travis about some of the hurdles that a company might encounter during a transformation, he mentioned communication and allocation as two areas that can require some creative problem-solving.

According to Travis, “You can’t have successful collaboration until there’s solid communication in place, and that communication is going to look different for every organization.”

“You really can’t have successful collaboration until there’s solid communication in place” -Travis McCutcheon

In 2014 when Travis worked with Nike, improving communication meant making information available to the entire team through a wiki so anyone had access when they needed it rather than having information languish unused in disparate systems.

Improving communication improves collaboration.
Improving communication improves collaboration.

Allocation is another puzzle for companies adopting the Lean Innovation approach. Running an innovation initiative as a startup requires a fully dedicated team. “They have to be sequestered from traditional delivery. You are a team that is only responsible for vetting this idea.” This can be a tricky sell from an accounting standpoint when salaries and existing workload are considered.

But Travis believes that viewing the exploratory aspect of innovation as value-adding activities in their own right and having the patience to see them through is critical to realizing the benefits. This means dedicating your internal team to innovation initiatives even when the easier option might be to bring in outside contractors. Doing so allows organizations to show employees they value innovation enough to dedicate time and people to it. In return, organizations retain the valuable knowledge acquired and experience greater dedication to the vision behind the initiative.

Nail It — Then Scale It

Travis’ green thumb sneaks into his metaphors as he points out that scaling the Lean Innovation approach requires organizations to cultivate the soil where experiments and learning seeds are allowed to grow and seen as valuable investments.

Nail your initiative, then scale it!
Nail your initiative, then scale it!

Organizations that have the most success with transformation have a strategic initiative that supports innovation from the top with a clear vision of the problem to solve and who to bring in from outside to help provide perspective and expertise at the outset.

“Scaling it before nailing it is one of the problems that I’ve really kind of zoomed in on and tried to prevent” -Travis McCutcheon

And while scaling is the ideal, “scaling it before nailing it is one of the problems that I’ve really kind of zoomed in on and tried to prevent.” For Travis, this applies at the product level, too, where his philosophy is that having a couple of people that love your product is better than a ton who just like it.

Innovation & Leadership

Wading into the new waters of innovation where the path ahead is less clear often means moving away from the traditional management metrics of ROI and roadmaps. As Travis has observed, this may leave managers unclear on how to make valuable contributions. He advises additional support be provided as they shift from managing work product to addressing team dynamics issues and promoting a healthy culture where teams are motivated toward high performance.

Find untraditional ways to quantify how meaningful and valuable innovation is to the organization.

To succeed in the way that Toyota has, Travis stresses the importance of finding untraditional ways to quantify how meaningful and valuable innovation is to the organization. Getting clear on the goals an innovation initiative is trying to accomplish and how to evaluate outcomes is key to starting down the right path.

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