A Conversation on Innovation with Greg Satell
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the end of the article for links to others in the series.
Greg Satell believes in the “hair on fire” test. According to this bestselling author, speaker, and innovation adviser, if your customers have their “hair on fire” for your product, there’s a good chance you’ve got something great. If you’re at all like me, this is such a vibrant visual that it’s hard to get out of your mind. My brain starts turning, trying to think of companies and examples that fit this model. (Share your thoughts in the comments!)
Greg has many memorable things to say about the innovation and business space, so I was happy to interview him over the phone recently; below I’ve pulled out some of the highlights from our conversation.
A little about Greg first: he spent most of his adult life building and managing media businesses in Eastern Europe and spent 15 years living and working in Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey. He returned to the United States in 2011 and served as SVP — Strategy & Innovation at Moxie Interactive, a division of Publicis Groupe.
Today, through his advising work, he helps leading businesses overcome disruption through impactful programs and powerful tools that he developed through researching the world’s best innovators. He is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Inc., and other publications and recently published his first book, Mapping Innovation. I also recommend checking out the blog he started in 2009, initially to share his experiences in Eastern Europe, where he writes insightful articles with excellent titles like, Here’s Why No One Cares About Your Ideas and The Silicon Valley Myth.
No One Strategy To Innovation
While Greg is happy to define innovation at a high level (“A novel solution to an important problem.”), he feels that one of the biggest pitfalls is trying to put innovation in a box. He shared: “One of the biggest traps I see people falling into is that they treat innovation as a monolith and lock themselves into one particular strategy. Innovation is about solving problems and there are as many ways to innovate as there are problems to solve.”
“Innovation is about solving problems and there are as many ways to innovate as there are problems to solve.” -Greg Satell
In other words, there is no cookie-cutter answer to what is the right method or approach to innovation. “All too often, people pick one strategy and say, ‘This is the way you innovate!’ because that’s where they’ve had success before or that’s how they saw others have success. It works for a while, but eventually they come up against a problem that doesn’t fit and they get stuck. Usually, they end up doubling down on the initial approach and things just get worse.”
According to Greg, the answer for this is employing a variety of approaches to innovation: “most really good innovators do.” He went on: “I don’t think you can choose just one innovation strategy, whether it’s open innovation or lean startup or whatever it is, and say this is the way you innovate.”
“I don’t think you can choose just one innovation strategy, whether it’s open innovation or lean startup…and say this is the way you innovate.” — Greg Satell
When asked to share some of the companies that fit that mold, he said: “You can name the usual suspects: Google, Tesla, etc. But the company that impresses me most is IBM, because it’s been consistently innovating for a century. Even today, when the cloud has just decimated its core business, it is on the forefront of next wave technologies like AI and new computing architectures.”
Don’t Only Design Think
Continuing with the theme of taking multiple avenues to innovation, Greg also talked about design thinking, certainly one of the darlings of the moment. While he believes in it, he doesn’t see it as a foolproof silver bullet: “Design thinking is a great approach that people are really passionate about. It’s had tremendous success and when you look at it, it makes a ton of sense. Start by understanding the needs of the end user and then iterate towards a solution. But then you read Clayton Christensen’s work about disruptive innovation and he shows that’s how good businesses fail. They focus too much on their customers’ needs and fail to see a change in the basis of competition.”
“Design thinking doesn’t hit every problem right.”-Greg Satell
In other words Greg said: “Design thinking doesn’t hit every problem right.” As a design thinker myself, I think it’s an essential thing to remember. We can’t get too attached to one mode of working as the “correct” way of working or getting to novel solutions. There are many ways to get there.
Exploration Not Optimization
I asked Greg to talk about well-intentioned things he’s seen backfire in this space and he talked about the traps of optimization, such as “…trying to standardize innovation practices.” This extends his idea that we can’t just practice one design methodology — things become too rigid.
According to Greg: “One thing that’s absolutely crucial, but that most organizations neglect, is exploration. Far too many firms focus too much on optimization and neglect to explore. GE is a great example right now. They’ve run their business super well, but haven’t really invented anything since the 1970s.”
I love Greg’s straightforward but extremely powerful directive: businesses need to foster exploration. “It’s a very simple equation,” he said, “If you don’t explore you won’t discover and if you don’t discover you won’t invent. And if you don’t invent, you will be disrupted eventually. It’s just a matter of time. Probably the biggest mistake that most companies make in terms of innovation is they do too much “D” and not enough “R.” They they fail to explore.”
“Every single organization I saw that invested in exploration found that it paid off eventually and it paid off big.” -Greg Satell
And since we know that most businesses won’t do anything unless they know that it’s ultimately good for their bottom line, Greg has definitely seen financial reward in this approach: “Every single organization I saw that invested in exploration found that it paid off eventually and it paid off big. The ROI was very attractive even given all the blind alleys and wrong turns.”
Ideas from Left Field
Another learning from our conversation that is related to exploration is the concept that great ideas often come from unexpected places: “There is some very good research that came out from Brian Uzzi from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. In one paper he analyzed over 17 million scientific papers and what he found was that the most highly cited work almost always came from a team of highly dedicated specialists in a particular field working with somebody in some completely random place — like a bunch of psychologists bringing in a physicist. Usually it’s some random insight that cracks open a good problem.”
“Usually it’s some random insight that cracks open a good problem.” -Greg Satell
Another example of great ideas coming out of “left field” is the story Greg shared about the creation of Innocentive, the company that crowd-sources solutions to major problems. It was started by Alph Bingham and Aaron Schachtout of Eli Lilly who figured out that they had a lot of problems they couldn’t solve: “problems weren’t getting solved by people within the field in which they arose.” Innocentive eventually spun out into its own company and, according to Greg, they’ve found that: “about a third of the problems get solved, usually from people in some adjacent field.”
The “Hair on Fire” Test
Back to the idea I talked about at the start. To Greg,“…to truly change the world, you need to build for the few, not the many. Find a customer that wants or needs your product so badly they almost literally have their hair on fire.”
What’s an example of this? Greg talked about Tesla and how they approached the market with a luxury vehicle instead of a mass-market one: “The Silicon Valley set were customers with their hair on fire. They wanted to be seen as stylish and eco-friendly, so were willing to put up with the inevitable limitations of electric cars. They didn’t have to depend on them for their commute or to pick the kids up at soccer practice. As long as the car was cool enough, they would buy it.”
He went on to explain more about what he means by this evocative concept: “Somebody who wants or needs something so bad that either they already have a budget for it or they’ve scotch taped together or some kind of stopgap solution that doesn’t really work. My rubric’s always been: ‘Do they have the problem, know they have it and are they are actively seeking a solution?” These are three simple questions that we should all put in our back pocket when we are looking at problem areas and solutions.
A Framework for Innovation
In conclusion, if you’re in a spot where you need to innovate in your workplace, I recommend checking our Greg’s book Mapping Innovation,which he wrote to give managers a “strategic playbook for navigating a disruptive age.” It includes a framework or “matrix” for innovation that he describes as “forward looking”: “One of the problems I think with a lot of the innovation frameworks is is they’re descriptive rather than prescriptive. They look at what happened in the past and they try and categorize it, which is often interesting in its own right. But it’s not always very helpful.”
Instead, his framework (seen above and in the book) “… helps you innovate, not rate other innovators. The Matrix is to help you find a strategy to solve your problem not to tell you if you’re better or worse than anybody else.”
Thanks for reading about my conversation with Greg. I hope you enjoyed it and stay tuned for more articles with innovation though leaders.