Interview: Jonathan Littman (Part 1)

This week, Imaginatik talks to Jonathan Littman about how leadership and social media each play their parts in innovation. Jonathan practices storytelling and branding at Snowball Narrative for entrepreneurs and corporations, and in partnership with the branding studio, Thinktopia. His two innovation books with Tom Kelley of IDEO, “The Ten Faces of Innovation” and “The Art of Innovation,” have sold half a million copies and are taught at business schools around the world.

In part one of our interview, we discuss individuals’ roles in effecting the kinds of change that lead to large-scale innovation. Tomorrow, we will discuss technology’s role in shaping innovation.

1. How do you see upper management/corporate leadership fitting in to a company’s overall innovation effort? If you were to impose requirements of them, what would those requirements entail?

We’ve all seen how a few masterful CEOs seem to single-handedly orchestrate company-wide innovation – among them Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Tony Hsieh. But the reality is that they are the exceptions. All too often, CEOs and upper management become obstacles to the overall innovation effort.

Innovation is about creating pockets within an organization where it’s safe to challenge the status quo, and prototype new business models. This can pose a threat to management since it may mean asking troubling questions, such as: “Do we need to revamp our product line?” or “target an entirely new group of customers?” or “get into a new business?”

Executives often insist on playing a central role in the early building of innovation capabilities. But at key junctures they may inadvertently put a damper on motivation and initiative. Sometimes all it takes is the presence of an executive or manager sitting in on key creative sessions. Subtle mentions of corporation tradition, hints that new directions won’t be accepted by upper management, or explicit limits on the budding program, can present roadblocks. Innovation initiatives require faith and leeway. You aren’t just trying to speed up product shipping. You’re trying to re-invent how you ship. Excessive management can narrow your opportunities.

Upper management needs to be involved. It’s just that true innovation is a bit like a sports team seeking that illusive mix of talent, teamwork, desire, and individual excellence. Sure, the coach can try ordering players to perform with finesse and heart. But the latest research shows that athletes and working professionals don’t respond well to over-coaching. The same applies to innovation. CEOs can certainly help frame and direct major innovation efforts, but in most cases the light hand generates the best results.

2. In “The Art of Innovation” you talk about innovation uncovering what comes naturally to people, and once that’s uncovered, finding the strength to change the rules. At companies that have been around a while (50, 100 years), “changing the rules” is a monumental task. Where does one begin? How do you suggest merging innovation and new ways of thinking into the status quo?

The word “innovation” is often slung around today without a deeper understanding of its meaning. True innovation is tough – and rare.

Recently I saw some of the great works of the Impressionist masters at San Francisco’s De Young museum. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries the Paris Salon enjoyed a near monopoly. The greatest artists in the world could not expect success unless the Salon chose and exhibited their work each summer.

But just like a corporation that has dominated for decades, by the mid-19th century, the Salon had become set in its ways. Increasingly conservative and academic, Salon juries were openly hostile to the innovative impressionists. To their way of thinking, the artists did not follow the accepted form. They painted real and everyday men and women, instead of idealized representations. They reflected authentic scenes, not mythological ones. They brashly experimented with technology (paint), and method (brush strokes and “plein air” painting).

Impressionists fought back by holding their own exhibitions in the late 1870s. Napoleon III created the Salon des Refuses one year, exhibiting a selection of many of the works rejected that season. The lesson is that Salons and companies need fresh blood, and internal resistance is to be expected.

P&G’s legendary former president and CEO, A.G. Lafley, knew that fueling systemic innovation would be a major undertaking. He promoted the talented Claudia Kotchka to VP of Design Innovation and Strategy, and gave her great freedom to build partnerships and initiatives. Nor was Lafley shy about getting a leg up from the design firm IDEO, in driving both company-wide and product specific innovation initiatives.

The first step is often bringing in outside expertise on something tangible like product development. When employees see the success possible through new ways of quick prototyping and thinking, they begin to anticipate where they might contribute. That groundwork gives broader, company-wide innovation a better chance of taking off.

In The Ten Faces of Innovation Tom Kelley and I wrote about some of these positive roles you can play, such as The Experimenter, the individual who uses fast prototyping to quickly find solutions. One of the exciting things that can happen is that just like a person’s attitude, a company can undergo what I call a subtle Innovation Shift, where individuals and teams gradually realize they have more internal capabilities than they imagined.

3. What types of roles contribute to the best possible collaborative environment? And in that environment, does size matter?

“The Ten Faces of Innovation” is about how each of us can find creative roles that we embrace. A few are key to collaboration.

The Set Designer creates the stage for teamwork, whether that is the physical design of the office or simply where people sit in a brainstorm. The Cross-Pollinator excels at bringing in ideas and inspirations from unexpected worlds. The Anthropologist has the patience and “child’s eye” to see customers and customer experiences as they really are. As I mentioned above, the engine is The Experimenter, the individual with the energy and quick prototyping ability to help a team quickly visualize or test a multitude of iterations to arrive at a winning solution. And finally, the glue that holds it all together is The Collaborator, the person with a knack for linking contributions and team members, especially during the pressure of a crazy deadline.

Many core innovation teams could be smaller. Research and my work with IDEO suggests that the most effective teams are often just three to five people. That doesn’t mean you might not be in regular contact with other individuals but there’s a certain magic to this number. More than a few giant high-tech firms have demonstrated that tossing bodies at projects is rarely the secret to innovation.

When you find your perfect four or five members you’ll likely discover that each responds to taking on a couple of these key roles. Depending on the project, some will be more important than others. And as you become more aware of the roles that seem to naturally suit your abilities, you’ll find that you can stretch your legs.

For instance, my key roles are The Storyteller and The Experimenter, but I’ve been working steadily on my Anthropologist and Cross-Pollinator skills.

You don’t have to be fluent in all of the roles. But it’s a little like foreign languages: Once you learn Italian, Spanish becomes a lot easier.

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