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Cracking the innovation code

An interview with Robyn Bolton

It's hard to disagree with the idea that innovation-led growth is of paramount importance, but how often do we associate it with taking risks and learning? This podcast interview offers an enlightening conversation with Robyn Bolton, founder and ‘Chief Navigator’ of Milezero, a consultancy specialising in helping organizations think through their innovation challenges. Her core beliefs capture their approach well:

  1. Innovation is something different that creates value

  2. Innovation requires curiosity, courage, and commitment

  3. Any organization can innovate, and any person can be an innovator

  4. People (even your customers and your boss) decide with their hearts and justify with their heads

  5. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Decisions are priceless. Action is perfection.

Drawing on her extensive experience working with amongst others Procter and Gamble, Boston Consulting Group and Clayton Christensen we explore a wide range of topics including the often misunderstood concept of failure in innovation, the role of innovation labs in fostering a controlled environment for experimentation and the significance of shifting our language from failure to learning. We look at the challenges that established organizations face when navigating disruptive shifts and we speculate the future of innovation in a constantly shifting context and stress the importance of cultivating a learning mindset. You can find the podcast version of the interview here

Scroll down for a transcript of the interview

0:00:12 - John

Well, welcome to our podcast on managing innovation, and this week we're delighted to have with us Robyn Bolton. Robyn is somebody whose work I've read for quite a long time. She appears regularly in a wonderful blog which I recommend, Braden Kelly's ‘Human centered change and innovation weekly’. Great title but even better content. And that's where I first came across Robyn’s Stuff and thought it would be wonderful to actually talk to her on the podcast. So, Robyn, welcome. Thank you so much for getting up early from the time difference here in the UK and over in the States, but thank you for joining us. Maybe you could start by, because I know you've had a very rich career around innovation from various perspectives, but maybe you could tell us how you got into the innovation game and how you got to where you are now.

0:01:02 - Robyn

Absolutely, and thank you. It is such an honor to be here and talking with you And it just I'm so excited for this conversation. So how did I get? how did I get caught up in the innovation space? It really is luck, quite honestly.

So you know, studying in university, i was majoring in marketing and having to go to university very close to Cincinnati, where Procter and Gamble is based, and ended up taking a job with them at a time when P&G was investing heavily in innovation and brand creation. And so, truly by luck, i was staffed on the team that was developing two new products And about a year and a half after I joined, the first product was launched and it was Swiffer. And you know, about three years after I started, the second product launched it was Swiffer Watchette. So you know, Swiffer is now a billion dollar brand for P&G. It's an amazing success. And you know, my first job out of school was being part of that innovation team that developed it. And it was just so fun, so difficult, so challenging, but it just it was so exciting that I've been pursuing it ever since.

0:02:25 - John

And that, of course, was at a time when Procter and Gamble was going through big changes itself, moving to connect and develop and opening itself up this 200 year old company. but changing. That must have been quite exciting as well.

0:02:39 - Robyn

It was very exciting And I think the fun thing for me is because it was my first job out of university.

I didn't know any different. So I had colleagues who'd been at P&G for a long time and so they were going through the shock that anybody goes through when something is changing the way P&G was. But because I didn't know any better, i was like, oh no, this is how we do things And so not at the moment. but in hindsight I look back and it was such an interesting time to be a part of the company and the culture and see how different people responded to you know, a very insular company really opening up, a company that was extraordinarily good at incrementally improving products, creating something completely new, like Swiffer, or even stepping into totally different business models, like Tide Dry Cleaners or they experiment with, like a Mr Clean car wash. So it was a very interesting time. and then, of course, underlying all that, there was a CEO change and you know, P&G hit some rough financial times. But again I was, you know, naive and 21 and just thought, oh, this is normal and so is unfazed.

0:03:58 - John

But I guess you've carried on in a variety of roles and where you are now is advising and helping other organisations, particularly Medium to Large, with their innovation journey. I wonder could we kind of distill some of your key lessons about innovation? What seemed to be the important things? I know that's one of those ridiculous questions, but if you could distill down some of those things that keep coming up and seem to be clearly associated with success, could you give us a little bit of Robyn's recipe?

0:04:29 - Robyn

Robyn's recipe. I'm going to use that. So yes, it's. You know I have my own firm, mile Zero, had that for about five years, but I also spent nine years at Clayton Christensen's firm. So you know, almost I can't believe a decade really immersed in both disruptive innovation but then kind of innovation more broadly, and some of the some, i guess, the recipe ingredients that I've learned along the way is, you know, one innovation is not an idea problem, It's a leadership problem, and so many companies and executives come forward and say we want to be more innovative, we need more ideas.

There is no lack of ideas in a company. People are full of ideas. They've just learned over time to keep them to themselves for a whole host of reasons, and so the challenge is not your company doesn't have enough ideas. The challenge is that leadership often with the best intentions, sometimes not, but often with the best intentions behaves in a way that is counter to fostering innovation. You know they hear an idea and they say, oh, go, share it with this person, which you kind of feel like you're being shuffled off. Or you know they invest in innovation, they set up a team, but then you know, kind of getting to actually the second thing, it's not producing results fast enough, and so funding gets cut, and you know that's.

The second thing is that innovation is really a resource allocation challenge Because with leadership and I have deep empathy to this as a leader you're looking at your portfolio of the business and you have finite resources. You only have a certain amount of money and a certain amount of people And you know with your operating business, if I spend a dollar or a euro or a pound here, i will get this ROI. But if you do that with innovation, you don't know, you may get no ROI, it may be negative, and in a world where we're so short-term focused delivering this quarter, delivering this year any reasonable person will be like I have to take this short-term, yeah, yeah, yeah.

0:06:51 - John

Yeah, that's really interesting. I remember back to Procter and Gamble. A good friend spent many years as what P&G called a ‘Research fellow’ And he was involved with many patents and things. But he was saying one of their problems was ‘the ones that got away’ And what he meant was things which were great ideas but weren't perceived to be big enough, and later on someone that did become pretty big.

You mentioned Swiffer's, a billion dollar brand, and I know that's the aspiration. But growing those things takes time sometimes And it takes me right back to the 1970s. That's a long time back, I wasn't doing too much innovation research then. But the Project Sappho studies one of the key things that came out about success and failure was ‘patient money’. In other words, don't try and rush it. Innovation takes a while. But, yeah, very interesting. Those are sort of very linked to success factors.

Something that intrigued me in your recent blog had a wonderful title How to Fail Your Way to Success. But it's a great title. But I wonder if you could comment a bit about this challenge of failure, because that's also caught up, i think in the way we think about innovation. We're slightly scared of taking the risks, especially in not-for-profit organizations and the public sector. You don't take risks. It's not career enhancing, but if you do, you do risk failing. But maybe you could comment a little about failure and perhaps explain a little bit on your blog ideas.

0:08:24 - Robyn

Oh, i have such mixed feelings about failure because I think, like any, as I say, insecure, overachiever, the idea of failing is just the worst thing that could happen. But you have this mantra, especially in Silicon Valley, of fail fast, and I'm like I don't wanna fail at any speed, i don't wanna fail fast, i don't wanna fail. But failure is part of innovating, of creating something new, and so I've just been thinking and talking to a lot of people around okay, well, what actually is failure? Because if you do something and it doesn't turn out the way you expected, but you learned something from it that you can then apply to move forward, i don't think that's a failure, i think that's learning. So, what actually is failure? And are the things that's kind of in the innovation space we point to and say, oh, that's a failure? is that actually a learning, which is a necessary part of the process? And so it's this interesting, the conversations I've had, it's this interesting tension of what are the necessary failures, where you learn and you move forward and it helps you ultimately get to the right endpoint And you needed to do those things that failed to get that learning.

Like you couldn't analyze your way to that insight, you couldn't model your way, like you had to actually get out there and do it. And then what are things that are just like you didn't learn anything. You should have known better, and I think things like that true failures are very, very rare, because we are smart, like we do, wanna be good stewards of capital and of people's time and their value, so we don't do stupid things. So it's kind of like we need to shift the language we used to be away from, like that's a failure, to oh, that was a learning. Here's what we're going to do as a result. But it's a challenge. Changing language and changing mindset is a challenge, especially what you know. Failure is so emotional for so many folks, myself included.

0:10:42 - John

But I think it's really powerful. I don't know if you come across it, but there's a wonderful physically in Sweden, but it's also online a wonderful museum of failure, and it's great because, first of all, it's got a lot of really big name companies there, but interestingly, they didn't fail and fall flat on their face because it was a stupid failure. They learned and very often. I mean I guess one of the classics would be the lessons Apple learned through the Newton, the famous handheld device. That didn't really work very well But, my goodness me, there was a lot of learning which has come through to the i-phone and everything.

So I think, this notion of what one of my students once called ‘intelligent failure’ is really quite important. But I wonder one of the challenges, particularly in the public sector and the not for profit sector, you can't necessarily do those experiments on a live market. It's not ethical, it's dangerous, it's problematic. So they were into the territory of innovation labs And for me as an ex engineer, a lab is a place where you can blow things up safely, you can take risks and it does matter, but you learn in a safe, controlled environment. And we're hearing a lot about innovation labs. Maybe would you comment a little on the role of that kind of controlled experimental space.

0:12:04 - Robyn

Yeah, it's so necessary a controlled experimental space, and it absolutely can be. What I hear a lot of companies are about is that dedicated lab and that, that space where you are intentionally doing experiments. You know, and I love it. It's applying the scientific method to innovation and saying I have an assumption or I have an, i have hypothesis. I'm going to test this hypothesis, i'm going to go forward And I would say that you can create, you can create little labs, and what I mean by that is kind of places you know, safe places for little experiments.

Like years ago is working with the company where and this is a long time ago they were working on a connected blood pressure cup And one of the hypotheses we had is oh well, people know how to use a blood pressure cup. I mean, we've all gone to the doctor and had our blood pressure taken and we know how it works. But in the office they had a nurse and so we're like let's just set this up in the nurses station and tell people to go, go take their blood pressure. And so that was a little lab in a nurses station that was there for day and we actually found out we were horribly wrong. People were putting the blood pressure cup on their wrist, on their leg, on their neck, really What? But that was a little, very temporary, very controlled lab to test that hypothesis. So you can have the formal lab, but you can also create these tiny little temporary ones as well.

0:13:40 - John

Yeah, and I think that's a really important development. Particularly, we're doing a lot of work with living labs at the moment, trying to get the user perspective into the idea of a smart home. We have an aging population. People want to live dignified lives at their home. Technology can help them. But it isn't just a case of, oh, we know the answer to your problem. It needs that experiment, that shared experimentation around it.

0:14:07 - Robyn

Yeah, yeah, to see how people interact with the technology and what do they use and what makes a difference. You could. that's all learning, And even if you get unexpected results, it's not a failure. There's no way you could learn that without doing that living lab.

0:14:24 - John

Talking of experiments and things you mentioned. You worked a long time with Clayton Christensen's company And I have to say he was one of the people who quite literally changed my life. When I first read his book back in 97, i thought, wow, this is insightful. And that whole disruptive, discontinuous shift has been very much a storyline ever since. But I guess one of the challenges it poses for established organisations is how? Do I even if I know I ought to? How do I actually get a handle on an alternative approach whilst I'm simultaneously doing what we're good at? And you can have the corporate venture group or whatever - you must have seen them all. Any comments on that conundrum which I know a lot of large organisations face?

0:15:12 - Robyn

Yeah, conundrum is a very nice word to use for it. Yes, when I was at Clay's firm, we would always have executives calling and saying we want to disrupt ourselves. And I would explain to them OK, this is what that sentence means. And by the time it's done they'd be like, oh no, we don't want to do that. I'm like, i know, i know. So what do you want to do?

And I think that speaks to that conundrum of a company has gotten big because it does the same thing over and over and over better, faster, cheaper, and it grows because it's able to make those incremental innovations. But when you have something disruptive come out, it's usually a different business model, which is very scary. It usually changes the basis of competition. So, classic example Kodak, professional photographers, beautiful film photography, digital cameras. And they came out. They were terrible, but they were accessible.

So it is this complete challenge and tension, and I'm increasingly coming to the belief that big incumbent companies, they can't disrupt themselves internally. Incremental innovation yes, it's adjacent, kind of moving into adjacent markets, new customers or a new business model Yes, but complete disruption starts outside and then the big company can acquire it And that comes with all of its own dangers around the M&A and things like that, but it's like asking somebody to change their identity, to change who they are at their core, and that's really hard for most of us. And so asking a company to do the same thing, i think it's just, it's not fair. It doesn't respect who the company is and what it's good at. So M&A is probably the best way for a big company to disrupt itself while doing the incremental and the adjacent innovation that it needs to do to stay ahead of competition and to continue growing.

0:17:31 - John

Yeah, yeah, it's a fascinating one And I think it does speak to perhaps the need for companies to keep a regular throughput of people. Maybe that was a byproduct of the Procter Gamble change, that it actually by definition, if you're going to source a lot of innovation from outside, you'll get a lot of new minds and new ideas coming in, but maybe a sort of mini blood transfusion. That's probably not the right, wrong metaphor, but you know what I'm going to say I know what you're saying, yeah.

I wonder if I could ask another question, which is we talked a lot about experiments and uncertainty and so on, And yet one of the big stories this year is very much the emergence of the international standard for innovation, ISO 56002. And it's been discussed, I know, right around the world with some very heavy input from companies and academics and others. we have a standard now. we even have a job description for an innovation manager. Any thoughts about that? Can we standardize this? Can we professionalize it? Any thoughts around this trend?

0:18:38 - Robyn

Yeah, i actually love the trend and I think we can professionalize it. I think, actually, innovation needs to be seen as a discipline, as a function, as a profession, and we also need to stay flexible. So I always think of it as like guardrails are really good, like a rail system not good for innovation, because there is too much change, there is too much learning and there is too much experimentation. But I think there's been this myth for years around. Oh, you know, innovation is just the brilliant guy off in the room. You know the inspiration from above, you know, and it's this thing that just happens And it's not. I mean, you and I both know like there is a process to innovating. There are steps, there are ways to increase your chances of success, to decrease risk, to try to speed things along. So guardrails great. Yes, let's do that And let's have room for companies to adjust within those guardrails to find what works best for them.

0:19:52 - John

Yeah, i must admit, when I first heard I thought I'm not sure about this but, actually reading the standard. It is essentially arguing for a systematic approach. That's not a bad thing, and a systemic one. It's a system. It's not doing one or two things well, it's thinking about it as a system.

0:20:10 - Robyn

So, yeah, yes yeah, i had the same reaction either. When I first heard about it, i'm like you can't dictate innovation. But same as you, as I read more about it, i'm like, no, this is good, this makes, it moves it from magic to more of a science, which it is.

0:20:28 - John

Absolutely yeah. I wonder then, could we just briefly speculate about the future, because all sorts of things are happening. For me, the way I talk about it very often is the problem never changes. It's always about how we create value from our ideas commercial or social value. That's the same problem, always has been, but the context is constantly shifting. I can remember pre-Internet days. We had to innovate with our bare hands, kind of thing, or our bare brains. Now, of course, the Internet is a hugely powerful set of tools to help us, but that future is continuously evolving. Not least, there's this very, very scary creature in the corner called AI machine lens, or there's something going on. I wonder if you could comment or speculate about where you see the future of innovation, and particularly the future of innovation management.

0:21:21 - Robyn

Yeah, it's a great question. And AI, i love AI. I think it's a phenomenal tool. I am constantly following it, seeing what's out there, experimenting with stuff so much out of curiosity because I think a lot like the Internet. I remember when the Internet kind of first came out and everybody was freaking out about it And so many of the arguments we hear now like students aren't gonna write papers, they're just gonna go to the Internet and copy and paste, and people won't learn how to do research anymore, like you won't know how to go to a card catalog and do research, and so we're in that kind of beer change mode with AI And I think, like the Internet, it will come to be seen as a tool and a very powerful tool.

But I think, especially with innovation, there's something so human about it. Like you need creativity, you need to be able to dream, you need to be able to explore And you care, ai doesn't do that, and so that's why I think, like there will always be humans, innovation will always be a human endeavor, but we'll able to do more and maybe faster and smart more smartly, if that's a word or phrase because we have a better tool. And so I'm excited to get to the point where AI is seen as a powerful tool to enable us to do more and to do better.

0:22:55 - John

Yes, like yourself, i'm an optimist and I still see people who are humans at the centre. My experience so far is it's rather like having a fairly. It's like a sort of a puppy, almost ever so enthusiastic tail wagging, will do anything I ask it to do, but it does need an awful lot of guiding. Now I suspect that will change. But yeah, i'd like to think at least that we have a valuable assistant rather than a replacement. Robyn, this is some fascinating stuff. I'm conscious we probably ought to gradually draw this, at least temporarily, to a close, but maybe we can come back.

But maybe one last question. A lot of people who listen to this and who read the blog are interested in our students, interested in what they might do next, which might well involve innovation, whether they're going to be change agents in a company or innovation managers formally. So I wonder, given you've had, from various perspectives, a lot of experience around innovation, if you could pass on any words of advice. Think you're Auntie Robyn for a moment and you're giving a little bit of advice to an up and coming innovation manager. What words of wisdom might you pass on?

0:24:15 - Robyn

I'd say do you things that make you a little nervous, And that's not saying be reckless, That's saying like again, if you're smart, like, think through it And if it makes sense to you, but you still have a little knot in your stomach, do it, Because you will learn. You will experience things. It is an amazing experience. Whatever you have, If you always do what's safe, I don't think you're ever going to grow to your full potential. So you know, I can say stretch, don't splatter yourself. And the other thing I would say is always, always learn. If you hit a point in a job, in a career, in a company where you stop learning, that is a signal to change And don't feel guilty about it. Just always keep learning.

0:25:13 - John

Lovely. I'm going to hold on to ‘stretch, not splatter’ - I like that one. But I absolutely agree, and I guess that's the essence of what we're trying to do with the podcast is just nudge people towards that, continuing to learn. But it's been really helpful having your insights. Thank you so much for your time, Robyn, and I would like to carry this on another time, so we'll press the pause button for now, but carry on in the future, Robyn, thank you so much Thank you.

0:25:39 - Robyn

Oh, this was lovely, thank you.

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