A conversation with Brian Ardinger. Director Of Innovation at Nelnet and Best Selling Author.
“That is one of the most difficult things, especially in a corporate environment, I think to get people to have that zone of safety. A lot of times, when we talk to people within our organization like Nelnet, and we ask them to come up with a brand new idea, we try to protect them as much as possible from having to present their idea until they have some evidence around it. And have them think differently about that early stage so that they can explore and go in a different direction than their original idea. So we have a process we call 1, 2, 3, 4. And it’s really an incremental way to take an idea and time box it and move it forward. So the way it works is it’s one minute, two hours, three days and four weeks. And so, those are the arbitrary boxes of time.” – Brian Ardinger
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Ardinger about his work helping entrepreneurs and organizations innovate. He begins with how and why he decided to dedicate his career to innovation. Later, Brian shares a practical approach to organizational innovation called the 1-2-3-4 method. We also discuss the importance of creating a shared understanding of what innovation means for each of his clients. Listen in for tips on how to instigate innovation both inside and outside the organization.
[1:30] How Brian Got His Start Facilitating Dialog.
[12:10] The 1-2-3-4 Innovation Methodology
[21:30] The Value Of Incremental Learning, bets, and Innovation
[29:25] Identifying The Innovation Curious In Your Organization
[34:05] Derisking Your Ideas
Links | Resources
Brian on LinkedIn
Brian on Twitter
About the Guest
Brian Ardinger is Director of Innovation at Nelnet and the founder of InsideOutside.io, creators of the weekly podcast and newsletter by the same name, and The IO Summit—a conference and community for leading and emerging innovators. For over twenty-five years, Brian has helped top brands and explosive startups engage the latest tools, trends, and tactics to accelerate innovation and compete in a world of change and disruption. Brian has published articles for The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other top industry publications and is a highly sought-after public speaker and frequently-quoted industry expert. Connect with him online at InsideOutside.io or on Twitter at @ardinger.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room podcast. A series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose.
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Today, I’m with Brian Ardinger, founder of InsideOutside.io and director of Innovation at Nelnet, where he serves on the corporate VC team and leads the internal innovation efforts. He’s also the author of the new book Accelerated: A Guide to Innovating at The Speed of Change. Welcome to the show, Brian.
Brian: Hey Douglas, thanks for having me.
Douglas: Oh, of course. It’s so good to speak with you. I think it’s funny because when I was first starting Voltage Control and first getting over imposter syndrome, getting out there and whatnot, I think you were one of the first podcasts that I appeared on. And so, it’s pretty awesome to come full circle almost six years later and have you on my podcast, so that’s pretty awesome.
Brian: Yeah, it’s fun. I often joke that I was doing podcasts before podcasts we’re cool. And then, I continue to do them and I always find great insight and always love to see the connections you make because of them.
And when I think about what I get out of my podcast and what, I would imagine, get out of yours, it’s very similar to the experimentation, and learning that comes from the mindset of running a startup.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I started the podcast to tell stories about the portfolio companies that were going through our end motion startup accelerator, and to start making connections for a group of folks that aren’t always connected. And what I found is that it just opened up a whole world of new thinking, new ways of approaching problems and, quite frankly, accelerated the growth of not only my ecosystem, but the ecosystem of the portfolio companies that we were building it for.
Douglas: So before we get too deep into it, I want to roll back a little bit and get into my typical opener, which was how did you get your start in this world of innovation, and startups and helping people just embrace the speed of change?
Brian: Yeah, so I started my main career in the mid ’90s with Gartner. I was based in Hong Kong, but did work all over Asia Pacific and I was one of two consultants building out that practice out there. And so, we were working with some of the major tech companies at the time, IBM, and Microsoft, and HP and that. But effectively it was a startup environment. We were kind of the lone outpost in the middle of Asia trying to understand tech, and help our clients understand tech.
And through that process of being out on the edge at the early stages of the internet and working with technology companies, I learned quite a bit about what does it take to not only introduce tech products and that, but how do people use these things, and what’s important, and how does that play out in different cultures and that? And it always fascinated me and it’s kind of continued throughout my career, this focus on how do you learn quickly, and then how do you share those learnings?
Douglas: It also makes me think about, when you mentioned cultures, it’s like the idea of bridging cultures. And that’s pretty central to the work you’re doing when you’re thinking about the corporate work, and the startup work and how you connect them in different ways ’cause they live and breathe in totally different ways.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. I mean you think about a corporate environment and innovation in an corporate environment and it’s kind of a foreign land. Very much being out in the outpost sometimes, the people that are doing innovation within a corporate environment because their job is different typically than optimizing the existing business engine, and business models that have gotten the company where it is to begin with. And so, maybe that’s why I gravitate to helping people in that particular environment because it is like being on an outpost, and trying to figure out the new, the novel and the uncertainty around it.
Douglas: Yeah, it’s interesting, I was thinking about that term, outpost, when he first said it and the fact that you were there helping Gartner expand into a new market in a way that’s very much living like a startup. And I’m curious how much you see that echoed in the work you’re doing through InsideOutside ’cause I know you have a lot of peers that are working in the innovation space. Do you find that this kind of opening up new offices, or going into other markets, is that a tool people are intentionally using?
Brian: Yeah, I’m not sure. I think each company approaches innovation differently. And I think that’s one reason why this innovation space is so challenging is because I think a lot of times people have different definitions of innovation, and different approaches. And, quite frankly, there’s no one silver bullet that if you just follow this path you’ll be innovative. And so I think it makes it for a very confusing environment. And so, a lot of times when I first talk to companies or even internal teams, I like to set the stage of what does innovation mean to us, and how are we going to define it? Because I think a lot of people over complicate it or they immediately jump to, “I’ve got to come up with the next flying car.” Or, “I’ve got to invent the next light bulb.”
And while that certainly is innovation and there are transformational properties around it, my feeling is that innovation can happen at the lower level as well. It can be something as simple as finding an idea, seeing a problem, and then putting that idea into action to solve that problem and create some value from it. And if you think about it from that perspective, anybody can have access, and the ability to innovate. And I think one of my goals is to help people at any level be able to empower themselves to be innovative, and make change and create positive outcomes.
Douglas: Yeah it makes me think about how the light bulb is always the icon that’s associated with innovation. Whereas perhaps the apes evolving into mankind is more of a better icon, right? Because it’s kind of organizations evolving to the title of your book to match the speed of change, so that they stay relevant, and significant and potentially make people’s lives easier as well.
Brian: I think, if you take a more broad approach, it allows more people to be involved in the process and it also changes the mindset around it because I think a lot of people get scared, or frustrated because they feel like they have to have everything solved. And, by default, innovation is going to be in an area where there’s a lot of exploration, and unknowns and uncertainties. And so, you have to be able to dig through that and be wrong. And if you have a mindset that’s much more explorative or, “Hey, this is a side project I’m trying,” or, “This is something I’m just looking at,” it kind of relieves the pressure of having to have everything figured out.
And I think especially in corporate environments, people expect to have everything figured out because that’s how they execute and build the thing that they’re currently growing. But when you look at something new that’s not the case. You’re constantly trying to figure out assumptions that you thought were true or not. It’s picking up a guitar, you’re not going to be able to play Stairway to Heaven the first time you do it. You got to wander through that.
Douglas: Yeah, it makes me think about goals and incentives. And how goals, incentives that are applied to core focus of a corporate or any organization that are not going to service us well if we’re trying to embark an innovative activities and maybe setting those goals and incentives differently.
And to come back to your Stairway to Heaven analogy, there’s a lot of research that shows that you should give yourself medium size, or these interim goals. Like, “Can I play the first five notes.” And let’s celebrate that. I’ve played the first five notes. And it makes me think too about the outpost. You probably had different goals and incentives and rewards than the folks here in the US that were at Gartner. There were certain things that you were trying to accomplish and-
Brian: It was interesting just seeing even in that particular environment kind of the questions that we’d get. So we’d have a company in the US working with our US partners. And they’d reach out to us and say, “Hey, give us a market analysis on Asia.” And it’s like, “Well first of all, Asia’s not a country.” And then, you then walk them through of what are you actually trying to figure out? And just the context, setting the context I think is so important and especially in areas where a lot of things are unknown and uncertain.
I was gonna say, getting back to your question, or your thoughts on incentives as well. I think a lot of times we incentivize innovation, again, looking through the lens that we know everything. So, again, if you think about a corporate environment, corporations have gotten there because they figured out a business model, they know who their customers are, they know where the products are. They, for the most part, are executing and optimizing things that are fairly well known.
As soon as you jump into the innovation, exploration, startup realm, you kind of have to throw a lot of that out the window because you don’t know what you don’t know. And so, if you start applying metrics and incentives the same way, it’s not gonna work. If you start looking at a startup and saying, “What’s your revenue today,” and the startup doesn’t even have an idea who the customer is yet you’re going to measure the impact differently. And so, I think understanding where you are in that, are you in the exploration mode, or are you in the kind of exploitation, or growth mode I think are important. And I think a lot of times we get hung up in whatever mode we’re in, and focusing on that, and not realizing where we are in the path.
Douglas: Yeah. Coming back to lean and I think about some of the original Japanese kind of systems and specifically kata. And while there might be some big prize at the end of this big journey, we can’t let our incentives and targets be associated with that. We had to find these shorter term, nearer term things that these footholds we can get to. And I’m curious, you have any examples of how you’ve seen that play out either in the communities you’ve been part of or even at Nelnet?
Brian: Yeah, so when I’ve worked with startups at a startup accelerator, as we were trying to work through what these companies were building at the earliest stages, a lot of times you’d have to sit down with the founder and have the discussion. And they would be trying to solve problems that were three months, six months, two years down the road that may or may not ever matter if they didn’t get the first problem solved. And usually, the first problem is does anybody care about what you’re building? Is there a pain point big enough that people are going to pay you to solve? And so, I think that’s the first thing you kind of have to look through.
And then, again, trying to understand where are the riskiest things you have to de-risk and/or figure out on that path and trying to prioritize the right things you should be learning the fastest, I think, goes a long way to moving you down that path, knowing full well that you’re not gonna be right all the time.
Douglas: Yeah, that’s something that you’ve kind of alluded to a couple times now, this idea of you’re not gonna be right all the time and being comfortable, which is being wrong. And certainly in a lot of the workshops we do, there’s kind of a love affair with being wrong sometimes. Let’s actually create some moments where we create safety around that. And I’m curious how that’s shown up in your work, or just encouraging people to be okay with that.
Brian: That is one of the most difficult things, especially in a corporate environment, I think to get people to have that zone of safety. A lot of times when we talk to people within our organization like a Nelnet and we ask them to come up with a brand new idea, we try to protect them as much as possible from having to present their idea until they have some evidence around it. And have them think differently about that early stage so that they can explore and go in a different direction than their original idea. So we have a process we call 1, 2, 3, 4. And it’s really an incremental way to take an idea and time box it and move it forward. So the way it works is it’s one minute, two hours, three days and four weeks. And so, those are the arbitrary boxes of time.
And what you do is anybody within the organization should be kind of one minute a day thinking of new ideas, new problems they run into new opportunities. And whenever you run into those things you should kind of jot that down. And what you’ll end up having is a list of your one minute ideas. And these one minute ideas, at some point, you’ll start thinking, “This one minute idea I had a couple weeks ago, I keep saying it.” Or, “It’s still in my head and it keeps circling around so maybe that’s a signal and some evidence that I should spend a little bit more time digging into it.” So you take that idea off your one minute list and you say, “I’m gonna give it two hours and I’m gonna in that two hours kind of map out what do I know about this problem? Or what do I know about this opportunity? Who’s the customer? What’s the problem, how often does it happen? What do I know about the competition? How big is the market?” Those kind of things. And you may or may not have answers to all these questions, but at least you start kind of putting some bones around it.
And then, at that two hour mark, that’s also the time where you should start engaging with that idea with other people. So maybe you bring in a couple of your colleagues and say, “Hey, I thought about this particular idea, it’s not fully fleshed out. I’d love to get your feedback on it. What have you seen in this space? What do you know about this particular issue that we’re talking about?” And then after that two hour block of time, you can make a check and say, “Did I find additional evidence or is there something in there that makes me think that I should spend the next chunk, three days, exploring, or moving this idea forward?”
And if you find evidence maybe that three day mark, maybe that’s when you go out and do some customer discovery, maybe you start working on a prototype. And you, again, try to figure out what do I need to know to move this idea forward so I feel more confident that I have something here?
At the end of the three days, maybe you decide to take a four week bet, you bring in a partner, you build out the prototype. Again, the specifics could be different depending on what idea it is, but the whole process is really designed to incrementally de-risk that idea and get you more comfortable, as well as getting the early stage evidence so that by the time you get to a four week ask, you can go back to somebody and say, “Hey, I’ve done this and this, here’s what I’ve seen, here’s what I’ve learned, and here’s why I think a four week bet is possible.” Or, “Here’s what I need to run the next set of experiments.” So it gives you both permission and it gives you a way to kill the ideas fast, as well as move the ideas forward that are showing some type of traction.
Douglas: There’s a few things that I love there. One being that it reminds me of the classic stage gate kind of innovation approach, but condensed down to where it can be run individually and outside of any sort of orchestrated company policy. It really pushes things to the edges, so people can have the autonomy just to try things and move without getting approved for some stage or whatever.
Brian: Exactly. And so, when you get to that four week stage, maybe then it goes into more of your traditional stage gate where you have a growth board or something like that. But by then, again, you have some incremental markers and incremental evidence that you can present to say, “This is why I think this should get a little bit more resources, time, money, effort around it.”
Douglas: Yeah, I really like that too because I imagine that it probably reduces the amount of noise that the growth board has to see.
Douglas: ‘Cause people already start to practice some of these things and get better clarity on what they’re presenting.
Brian: Yeah. And what we find is a lot of the ideas die pretty quickly. And/or they get to a two hour mark and they find out there’s a ton more that has to be explored. And then, it can go back to that person and they can determine, “Do I really want to spend additional time researching these five things that came out of that two hour discussion?” And so it self fulfills which particular ideas should be pushed forward. If you have an idea and it’s really passionate, and you’ve seeing evidence around it, you’ve got other people engaged and talking about it, those are the ones you want to double down on and say, “Okay, what’s the next thing we’ve got to learn? What’s the next time box around that to learn that? And then after that, let’s stop and reevaluate and see where we’re at.”
‘Cause I think a lot of times you get to a stage gate and it’s like, “1, 2, 3, okay, here’s a million dollars in a year, come back and tell me if it worked.” It’s much more about let’s figure out what that next stage of learning is, what’s the next amount of resources we need in that learning stage? And then, don’t forget to stop at that end of that timeframe to reevaluate and see if we’re still on the same track.
Douglas: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. It also makes me think that even the psychology of this idea that I’m gonna have to do some work will make me evaluate my idea more thoroughly. And so, it reminds me of, my friend recently asked me for advice on buying a PC because their son wanted to play games, and maybe learn coding. And they were Mac House and I was like, “Well, here’s some stuff to think about, but maybe you should have him do some research, and find out what he needs, and pitch you on why that’s the right machine to get.” And so she’s like, “That’s a brilliant idea.” So the next morning she tells him, “Give me a presentation by Friday.” And he said, “Can we just get an Xbox?” So it was like the sheer idea of doing work helped constrain the idea in a new way. And so, I think there’s some power to that as well.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. And, again, we encourage the early engagement of those ideas outside of you thinking in your head, all of it yourself, because I think as soon as you start engaging other folks, you immediately start opening up other questions you hadn’t thought about, other resources, other networks that you hadn’t started to explore. And it could, quite frankly, accelerate that idea if you just talked to one or two people and say, “Hey, Joe in our company, he’s already been exploring that particular area. Why don’t you talk to Joe?” And that would’ve never happened if you just sat in your own garage thinking through the things until you had the perfect plan to then talk to people about.
Douglas: And the longer we sit with something, the more we fall in love with it. And then it becomes, to your point, we had to figure out which ideas we’re going to kill. And the more we’re in love with stuff, the harder it is to kill them.
Brian: Yeah. And we encourage that one minute time, again, just to get in the habit of exploring, looking for oddities, looking for opportunities, looking for problems. And, again, put it on your list. Some of those you’ll never go back to again, but others will naturally kind of percolate to the top when you start seeing it over and over again, or when it starts getting you excited about moving that idea forward, or solving that problem.
Douglas: Yeah, I had a mentor who was probably one of the most innovative thinkers I’ve ever met, and he carried around these little rodeo notebooks. Those little tiny ones that would fit in this shirt pocket. And he would fill those things up, within a week he’d have it filled. And it would be just idea after idea. And they were all valid businesses. And it was like, “Man, I don’t know how you come up with it.” It’s like a muscle, just like anything else, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.
Brian: Well, and my bet is he probably didn’t start out with full fledged business ideas by the time you saw the notebooks. But he probably started out with, “Hey, that’s an interesting problem I see every day.” Or asking questions of why does that happen? Those are the things you can put in the notebook to start building that muscle. And at some point, like you said, maybe you get to the point where the ideas that start to resonate are full fledged business ideas that you want to explore.
Douglas: Yeah. It’s similar to a network. You’ve got these little nodes of observations and ideas. And then once your brain starts making connections between them, then as you start to see new opportunities, now it’s part of this web that you’ve created. And you instantly making these connections. You’re almost kind of coming up with solutions quickly, which is something we had to be watchful of. And I think why you’re 1, 2, 3, 4 approach is good because it also includes the customer curiosity, the research. Because we can’t just let our internal web of concepts and ideas guide us ’cause that can lead us astray.
Brian: Yeah also, you reminded me some of the things that we run into a lot of times when we’re teaching folks through this particular process is they’ll come up with a problem. And they’ll pitch me a problem and they’ll say, “This is a problem for Nelnet, so we need to solve this.” But the real question is, what’s the pain point for the customer? This is great for our business, if you can solve this, we’ll get more revenue or whatever. But does the actual end customer care about it? And so, really understanding who has the problem and then how big a pain point is and nuancing that out, I think a lot of times in corporate environments we try to solve problems for our company, which may or may not be problems for the market.
Douglas: Yeah and what’s the actual economic impact of making the change? ‘Cause even if it doesn’t impact the customer, there could be economic impact because, let’s face it, there’s lots of issues with culture these days and people feeling like they are burned out or whatever issues. There’s a litany of things that people are feeling. And leaning into fixing some of those problems might improve quality of work, and attitude and connectedness in that allows people to do better work for the customers. So, I think it can go both ways, but we still have to… Ideally, we’re quantifying it in some way so we know that we’re placing our bets strategically.
Brian: Well and, again, looking at you can solve multiple problems sometimes by going down a particular path and knowing who you’re solving the problem for and what are the things that you have to solve to make that ecosystem work.
Douglas: I’m curious if you have any non-obvious stories, an innovation story where someone was doing something and creating something in the world and was like, “That seems a little odd.” And then it turned out to just have disproportionate value.
Brian: I can talk through a couple of different instances where things have serendipitously kind of bubbled to the surface. One of the things that we’ve been implementing at Nelnet, we’ve been moving into the solar space. And so, we got connected into solar space ’cause we were doing some financing in around solar projects. So we would do it strictly on the fact that we could finance these particular build projects and we could get some tax credits for it.
And as we just did those financial transactions, we learned more and more about that particular business. We learned the players. And then, we started saying, well there’s other things we can do in this particular market with other business units that we have that could add value and create new opportunities. So we started with one little nugget, solving a little problem in the space. And then realized, well, there’s these tangential things that we could build on.
So now we’ve spun up a community solar division where we’re not only financing these projects, but we’re the company that can go in and help market these solutions into communities, and provide the call centers, and things along those lines and service those solar communities as well. And so, would’ve never found that out unless we had taken a little bit and then being curious around that particular space to say, “Where else can we add value and what other pain points are we seeing in the marketplace that we could actually solve for that?” So those are, again, this idea of incremental betting and incremental innovations leading to bigger innovations as you work through it.
Douglas: That’s a really solid point and I think it is really important to underscore because so many folks look at the hard ROI. Or they’re thinking, “Hey, how do I account for this?” Or we were just talking about quantifying a moment ago and sometimes it’s about the learning. If we go do this thing, we’re going to get some insights about a new space, or about a new customer. And the learning has value in and of itself, not outside of any revenue. There’s future revenues that could come from those insights we gather.
Douglas: There’s a reason why people hire research teams and there’s other ways to research and get insights than just to run a survey, or do market research. You can stand things up, you can create prototypes and see how the world responds.
Brian: We’ve had examples of a number of different ideas that have come through the 1 2 34 process that aren’t really Nelnet issues, but an associate says, “Hey, there’s this one area that they were looking at vertical farming, this is a pretty interesting space.” So they brought it to the team to engage with it for a two hour kind of discussion around vertical farming. Is this something that Nelnet will get into?
And it’s like, “Okay, why might we get into it?” Well, we have real estate, so we have unused real estate. Is there some opportunities around that? We’re really good at financing. Okay, can we do that? And we ended up saying it’s really not in our core in that, but it opened up the conversation of how could we get into this particular space? Or why should we, or why should we not get into the particular space? And just having those conversations. I think it just good to flex those muscles. And then, that individual associate who brought that idea both feels validated, as well as they know that they can bring the next idea to the table, and have success with it. So it’s about building this muscle of success from failing, from going through the process and realizing, well that didn’t work, but now I have a better idea of what questions to ask. And things I should be looking at for the next idea that I decide to put through the process.
Douglas: Yeah, that’s really cool. It reminds me of some of the core foundational rules of brainstorming. And we don’t have to limit those to the confines of a moment where we’re doing a workshop. We can bring those into how we explore options in general. And certainly, I mean, I’ve heard crazy stories of banks in South America opening up health centers. It’s like, why is a financial institution getting into health? And it’s because they had real estate, and they had customers that had a need, and they could finance it and make it happen. And sure they had to hire experts to stand stuff up, but it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t make it happen. And they did.
And I mean you look, Amazon’s a classic story of this. You go back, I don’t know, 25 years and say, “Amazon’s gonna be getting into renting servers.” People would look at you like you were crazy. That seems like a totally unrelated field. But they took a capability that they had that they knew they could scale to market.
So I’m curious about adoption and how you’ve seen the most successful folks behave. And how they encourage and celebrate adoption. Or what are they doing to make sure that people actually do the stuff? ‘Cause there’s a difference between the knowing and doing, that’s the classic consulting phrasing.
Brian: Well, and it’s a classic struggle that you’re always going to have competing against the things that you should be doing and things you know you’re being incentivized to do already versus the new and unknown that may or may not provide value immediately.
And so, we’re constantly wrestling with that. And I don’t think we have any, again, silver bullets around it. But, again, the more we can educate our employees about this incremental approach and the more we can, again, provide an environment of what’s the mindset around this? So it’s not necessarily, again, you’ve got to come up with the light bulb. But having the mindset that anybody can be an innovator within the organization, and everybody has a role, and a responsibility to innovate, to find problems, to see opportunities to, and then to bring forth those. You don’t have to be a founder in the organization. You can still add value without having to build a business around it. And so, I think that’s part of it is, again, setting the stage around that. And then, giving both permission and resources to those ideas that are showing progress. Those are the biggest things that I think adopting this kind of side project mindset to a large extent where people are allowed to try and test things starts this overflow to other areas of the business as they start learning and building up this muscle of innovation.
Douglas: The thing that comes to my mind are the internal case studies that can be so powerful. When someone is successful, how are we celebrating and amplifying that? So I’m kind of curious what you found to be successful to get the story out?
Brian: That’s a great point. And it’s, quite frankly, one of the ways we started to try to identify some of what we call the curious and the restless within the organization. The ones that are more inclined to take the first bet, and do more innovative things. So we developed a program and we leveraged this off the stuff that we learned in the startup ecosystem. We leveraged a program called 1 Million Cups. So if you’re familiar with this, this is a program that came out of the Kauffman Foundation about eight or nine years ago where I think over 100 cities now, an entrepreneur gets on stage every Wednesday morning in their community and talks about what they’re building. And the community can ask questions and give guidance and help.
So we said, “What if we took that particular concept and applied it internally to our own company?” ‘Cause we have multiple divisions, 9,000 employees and a lot of things that just people don’t know are going on within the organization. So we said, “We’re gonna to do this once a month, we’re gonna call it Spark. And we’re gonna give the stage to somebody in the organization that’s building something new or creating something that we think is unique that we could kind of highlight.” And so, we started this off, now it’s been going on for four years. And every month we get a new person on stage. And what we found is one, it helped us identify those curious and restless folks because if they kept coming back to these kind of non-required conversations about things that are outside their own business unit, those are the types of people that are curious, and more likely to want to find those collaborations.
And then secondly, just by having that, it allowed a framework and a platform for more conversations to take place across the different business units because it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s kind of interesting. We’re doing something similar over here. I would’ve never seen it because I was siloed in my business unit.” But just being exposed to new things within the organization allowed those collaborations and that to happen. So we thought that was a great way to both identify some of the innovative people within your organization. And then, again, give a platform to tell those case studies.
And we’ve had Spark events where it’s been, here’s a failure story. So and so tried this, it didn’t work, but here’s what they learned from it. And so, again, seeding different stories with it doesn’t have to be a success to get on stage. It’s just here’s what we’re learning, here’s the new things that we’re doing and building the muscle from that.
Douglas: I think that failure story is really key because if you’re trying to incentivize people to behave in those ways, and all they’re seeing are people being successful that could be pretty scary. “Am I gonna fail? Can I live up to Susan? She seems pretty awesome,” or whatever.
Brian: Well, and those are the hardest stories to find and get people comfortable with getting on stage to tell because again, I mean every organization, we’re a metric-driven, results-driven organization. And you almost have to change the framework of what’s the result? The result was yes, this particular idea didn’t go the way we initially expected it, but here’s what we learned along the way. And here’s the value in that particular process, even though that particular business idea or that particular project “failed.”
Douglas: Again, I think it comes back to incentives and KPIs, what we’re tracking because even back to the guitar example, it’s like if we set some interim goals and we accomplish those goals, but then it turns out this project, it doesn’t have legs, we can still point back to those interim goals, and what we learned along the way. But if we’re not setting them or tracking them, then it’s really hard to identify it in arrears. Looking back going, “Hey, what did we learn?”
Brian: Well, and I think the other thing that people oftentimes don’t realize, especially if you haven’t been in the venture world or in the startup world, it’s you need a ton of ideas. You can’t pick the winners at the very beginning. So you need to have a lot of ideas coming through the funnel and moving them through that. If you expect to say, “Okay, we’re gonna pick five winning ideas at the onset, and that’s the only thing we’re gonna fund, and that’s the only thing we’re gonna work on. Well, good luck. Some of ’em may get to the point where they move the needle. But, for the most part, early stage ideas that are gonna be groundbreaking are gonna fail. And so, you have to have a lot of ideas that you have to pull off the table and work through the process.
Douglas: Yeah, taking the adventure analogy a little bit further, there’s a couple of elements that I think a lot of people miss, which is that startup that seemed like an overnight success they were doing it for 10 years before you even heard about them.
Brian: Yeah, exactly.
Douglas: And then the other thing is VCs have a giant portfolio. And they assume that maybe only 10%, if that succeed, and that’s why they’re looking for 10X returns and stuff. And then you take another layer further, the startups, each of those startups in their portfolio has tons of ideas that they’re trying out and testing. And so, if you’re really thinking about a portfolio approach, you got to replace a number of startups as well as all the ideas that each of those startups are having. So that’s what the corporate’s competing against.
Brian: And, of course, you can de-risk these ideas. Again, not everybody’s trying to build the next flying car. The ideas that are coming out of your organization that are closer to your core, more directly related to the things that you’re doing with your existing customers et cetera are going to be, by default, more known. And so, you can typically move those ideas faster through the process because there’s more known and there’s less you have to kind of research, or dig into versus the ones that are more kind of transformational, or outside of your core business. But the process itself works well for either, or.
Douglas: Yeah. And the other thing I’ll say there is the company that launches the flying car is not the only company that’s gonna benefit from the flying car industry. So a part of innovation is being aware of what’s happening, what’s coming in the future, and thinking about what’s our place in that world? And how do we have a seat at the table? And how do we even prepare for it? ‘Cause there could be adjacent things we’re doing today to research, the products we’re launching to kind of hedge in that direction. To me, when I hear innovating at the speed of change, those are the types of things I think about, how do we evolve and stay relevant?
Brian: Well, and I mean wrote the book Accelerated for that purpose. And I start out the book talking about these change accelerants because I think 15, 20 years ago, you could build a business, and you could milk that business for 20 years and not really be disrupted. And disruption, to me, is not just your business is gonna go out of business like Blockbuster. Disruption is, hey, we just had a pandemic, everything we thought about the way we work with our employees and how we deliver business has changed. And so it’s not just, again, these disruptions where you’re gonna go out of business, or that the existing business model’s going to go away. It’s all these things that are changing the way you have to adapt to the marketplace.
And so, we’ve got to get better at that. Regardless of the industry you’re in, regardless of who you are in the organization, you have to start becoming more willing and able to live in this world of uncertainty. And all these change accelerants, well, that’s technology, or access to capital, or access to markets, business models, et cetera are going to accelerate that particular process. So, what are the things that you can do both individually, or as a team, or as an organization to become more adaptable, resilient, resourceful in the face of accelerating change?
Douglas: So let’s think about that for a moment and for our listeners, if there’s one key takeaway from the book, one key lesson, or tool, or thing for them to keep in mind, what is it and what should they be… If they’re gonna pick up the book today, what should they be looking out for? What’s that key insight?
Brian: Yeah. Well, again, I think the pace of change is accelerating, you need to start preparing for it if you aren’t already. And there are things that you can do that, again, you don’t have to come up with the next flying car, but you have to build some of these tool sets and skill sets around it. So being more curious, being optimistic, being resourceful, being resilient, being customer oriented. You’ve got to actually take action on your ideas.
And then, I think, one of the ones that’s often overlooked also is this is a collaborative process. No one can do it alone. No money can build a brand new product, or take an idea to its fullest extent without help from others. And so, building in that collaboration and network around you is so vitally important. So what I wanted from the book and the work that I do every day, whether it’s the podcast, or newsletter is to get people better prepared for this and realize that anybody in the organization has the ability to be an innovator.
Douglas: Yeah, it’s interesting the point you made around it being collaborative. And I think that’s also a nature of the fact that with this acceleration, we’re operating in a much more complex environment. And so, simple solutions don’t really work anymore. And so, we had to create something that is impossible to create alone.
So I’m curious, I think the 1, 2, 3, 4 is an idea of how you lean into the personal capabilities and work. But also, spells out some collaborative steps. I’m curious if there’s other tips you have for folks of how to improve collaboration, or how to utilize it in a meaningful way? ‘Cause I think it’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, but how do people really do it?
Brian: Yeah so if you think about what I call the three engines of innovation one is exploration and getting better at surfacing ideas and seeking and gathering new information. The second engine is engagement, and that really is around how do you start taking that idea and molding it? And usually, that revolves around talking to people. And that’s first of all, mapping your network. Who’s in your network that may have insights that you could use to further this idea? Then, if you don’t have folks in your network, well, how can you grow that network? Who are the areas that you should reach out to? I think a lot of people underestimate adjacent, or networks that are not in their core.
So I think a lot of people, especially in corporate environments, focus on the industry that they’re in. And the competitors that they work with on a daily basis and the customers they know versus looking at adjacent industries, or other industries and saying, “What can we learn from banking?” Or, “What can we learn from whatever other industry that you’re in?” And then, map those networks. Try to figure out, am I deficient in particular ways? Are there ways that I could expand my network and expand my learning quickly by tapping into a new group that I haven’t been a part of before?
And then, I think one of the biggest collaboration efforts that I think is overlooked or not utilized to the fullest extent is your customers. Because, quite frankly, the more we engage with our customers, the more we know them not for just what we do with them on a daily basis, but how they live and other problems that they have, the more likely we are going to be able to find those problems and then, hopefully, solve those problems for the customers.
Douglas: I love that.
When I was a very young man, went to a workshop training seminar. And I remember walking away with this one little tidbit of information, or advice, which was once a year, pick a conference that’s completely outside of your domain and go to it. And I think there’s so much to be learned by these adjacencies. And, in fact, it’s my favorite form of innovation, which is acceptation. When we go and we find something that someone else invented and they’re using somewhere else, and we bring it into our industry, I mean, we didn’t even have to create it. And we just reuse it in some way.
Brian: And you look like the hero ’cause you “came up with this brand new idea that no one had seen before.”
Douglas: That’s right. How are people using blockchain in agriculture? I don’t know. It’s like, what are these intersections that aren’t being explored? It’s super powerful. And you can even do that without going to conferences. Just make a matrix. Just on one column, think of one set of things. And on your rows, think about another set of things. And start looking at those intersections and go, “What seems odd? Or might there be opportunity here?”
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, listen to different types of podcasts, things like that.
Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. There’s such a wealth of information available. It’s how do we pick and choose? Amazing.
Well, Brian, it’s been such a pleasure chatting today. And I want to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought.
Brian: Yeah well, thank you for having me on the show. I love coming on these because I love meeting new people and having conversations around this. It’s something that gets me excited every day, something I’ve been doing for a long time, and excited to share what I’ve learned and learned from others. So I encourage people to keep the conversation going. Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn, or Twitter if that still exists by the time actually this airs. And yeah, I’d love if people pick up the book and share their thoughts on that as well.
Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. Highly encourage everyone to grab the book. It’s really great. And also check out the conference. Brian, you do a great job there in Lincoln. And Nelnet is lucky to have that as part of their innovation story. Can’t say enough good things about it. And it’s been a pleasure chatting today.
Brian: Yeah, thanks Douglas. We’ll see you again soon.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health and working better, voltagecontrol.com.