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What Drives Your Organization?

As strategy and innovation consultants, we get called in to organizations when they are exhausted from trying to grow significantly and not meeting their goals. In most cases, the organization is trying to do too many things without a way to tie them into a coherent meaning.


Most of them need to either discover or rediscover and articulate what we call their Golden Thread, their driving aspiration. This thread can serve as the lead rope that ties all of the company’s initiatives into a single fabric, weaving the vision, purposes, strategy and also the more pragmatic elements such as resources, competencies, operating systems, and management structure into a unified whole. Think of the driving aspiration as the organizing principle of the company.


This driving aspiration will rebirth the company into its rightful position as leader in the category that it may have created, the same category that has become commoditized by private label and edged by many types of other new, unforeseen competitive threats.


Without the rudder of a driving aspiration that will company will attempt to growth for merely the sake of growth—the theory of cancer—and not reach the type of growth that pays off a coherent strategy and compounds the value of the company in the market, increasing both share and market value exponentially.


In other words, the Growth Plan needs a disciplined, strategic rudder and a map to navigate its growth in a dynamic market. For such a growth journey, we first need to proclaim what are doing and where we are going, the essence of a driving aspiration.


To change the culture in a way that will position us for sustained market leadership, we will need to ensure the following steps are performed:

  1. Vet a number of Driving Aspiration models with leadership and management.
  2. Solve the right problems and answer the right questions with the chosen Driving Aspiration.
  3. Ensure the Driving Aspiration is a triple win for consumers, customers, and the company.
  4. Align all resources, operating systems, management structures, and company processes to the Driving Aspiration.
  5. Resolve to sell off, kill, or drop all projects and corporate programs that do not ladder up to the Driving Aspiration.
  6. Road test the Driving Aspiration by running the strategic premise through a model of where to play and how to win—and to learn what we really need to know
  7. Create an execution playbook based on this strategic tuning fork once the team signs off on a Driving Aspiration.
  8. Agree to filter all new opportunities for growth (organic and acquisitive) through both the Driving Aspiration and the set priorities in place to make the aspiration a fruitful reality, without exception.
  9. Say “no” to anything that does not fit the driving aspiration.

The adage is profoundly true: strategy is choice. A driving aspiration helps an organization make more informed and refined choices. Everything for new hires to new product development, to killing product lines that may be hurting the brand, to how customer service should be approached, to how resources are deployed should be fine-tuned by the driving aspiration.


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.





Gray Hair: White Space

Geritol. AARP. RVs.


These symbols of retirement are losing their relevance, empty shells of another’s generation concept of how to spend the remainder of your life once you have worked your last day.


In the past week I talked to several people across the country who all turned 50. The same story surfaced organically. Thanks for the miracle of direct marketing and census data each of them received their invitation to the AARP. The envelope sat on their desk for a week, taunting them, a reminder that they are ready to be “put out to pasture,” according to one. As a declaration of existence, each friend said “no, no,” crumbled the invitation into a crisp sphere and tossed it into trash.


This empowering action demonstrates a growing trend. At 50, many Americans are not ready for age-based membership discounts, retirement, and the thought that their best years, their prime, has passed. In fact, they felt threatened by the invitation.


What used to be a right of passage has turned into a rejection of the model for Americans Gray Years. Because we are living longer, healthier lives, the organization no longer holds the mindshare of its potential audience.


Every 10 seconds an American turns 50. We are living longer than ever. The graying of the nation is occurring quickly, and yet people over 50 yearn for more engaged, enriching lives.


According to the Administration on Aging, “The older population—persons 65 years or older—numbered 46.2 million in 2014 (the latest year for which data is available). They represented 14.5% of the U.S. population, about one in every seven Americans. By 2060, there will be about 98 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2014.” By 2040, more than 20% of the population will be 65+.


This type of longevity for a massive slice of the population represents a major shift for our species and our culture. As we say in the realm of market strategy, this trend is a vast, growing white space. There is no trusted brand guiding this social movement. In fact, the AARP, while still a billion-dollar behemoth, has been characterized as “out-of-touch” and is losing market share at an alarming rate.


When discussing market strategy know that I do not mean to indicate that this is a cutthroat opportunity to sell people things they do not need. Rather, we, as a culture, are pioneering this late phase together. Needs will be uncovered that we cannot know by taking a historical perspective. This is a new era and we have no map. The white space is an opportunity to provide new value for emerging needs, a win-win that is need based, and form the basis of the new American Dream: Active Aging.


Active aging is the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.


Active aging allows people to realize their potential for physical, social, and mental well-being throughout the life course and to participate in society, while providing them with adequate protection, security, and care needed.



Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.


Real Magic: The Power of Words

Part Two of Two



In Part One we explored how language and our relationship with words has limited the growth and development of organizations and human capacity. Now, we discover why expanding these things make a positive impact.


An organization can only reach its potential when it both embraces new words and concepts and also actively adds new phrases to its shared lexicon. Said another way: a new word is a new world, pregnant with potential.


Something in humanity longs for vision and a challenge. As taught in D.School (Innovation training), this adage bespeaks of how you want to tap the desire of teams to best motivate them: “If you want to build a ship, don’t assign people tasks and work, but teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”


Given that people in groups speak the tongue of a place, they share a mindset, created with language. This mindset and its expressions convey the organization’s ethos, the propensity for taking and rewarding risk, and how adaptive a place really is.


As Stanford professor and professor Carol Dweck says, “I divide the world into learners and nonlearners,” in her landmark book Mindset. Learners openly embrace new concepts, new ideas, and new words. This axiom is true for individuals and groups.


The reason for welcoming new words into a place of business is so that its shared brain health remains vibrant. The concept of Neuroplasticity confirms that as you learn new words the neurons housed in the area of your brain that’s storing language would send electrical messengers down the axons to the cell’s center (soma) where it is then routed to a particular group of connected dendrites which would then release a chemical messenger to the new targeted group of neurons that are located next to it. New neural pathways begin to be formed to acquire and store the new language.


According to Dr. Lisa Christiansen, “when you are exposed to a new word, you have to make new connections among certain neurons in your brain to deal with it: some neurons in your visual cortex to recognize the spelling, others in your auditory cortex to hear the pronunciation, and still others in the associative regions of the cortex to relate the word to your existing knowledge.”


So much is going on in the mind, more than science understands, but we know for certain that words have real power. We also know that as humans our brains crave newness and novelty, adventure, as well as, paradoxically, security.


In the world of business, a place can be known by its relationship to language. Is it a learning organization or a rigid one? Is it a place open to real possibility or just one offering a controlled lip service? Is it on auto-pilot or conscious?


You can tell so much about an organization by its relationship to language. Be aware and insist on awareness, as ultimately, you become the words of a place by associative use.


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.





Real Magic: The Power of Words

Part one of two


The life of an organization is defined and redefined by the language it chooses to use. More than any other factor, compliance around words conveys the values of a place where people work. Indeed, words are magic, carrying so much weight that they demand careful, conscious attention.


You know the power of language. Scholars have been following the dynamic field since humans first uttered syllables, painted symbols on cave walls, and wrote words on papyrus. There are many classes in workplace linguistics, too.


Words convey our worldviews, prejudices, pre-set notions, and the shared mores of a culture. Nothing will have an HR department crack down on a person as fast as an inappropriate written or verbal expression.


Without realizing it, we inherent so much language from the field of management science. Words and phrases such as scope, timesheet, clock in and clock out, report, rank, and review—as well as acronyms that only mean something inside of one culture—come from this world.


Such words, as they fuse together to form a system of shared meaning, the work world becomes a mechanistic reality. Here, in this world, crafted with the careful language of metrics and planning, most connotations infer binary sets of meaning: loss or gain; hired or fired, promoted or demoted, safe or endangered.


With such either/or choices artificially constructed by the language we inherit, fear creeps in, as in “we are either growing or dying.” Given these constraints, these shackles of perception forged with words, it is little wonder that creativity and strategy are more often than not outsourced. You see, given the time-obsessed, right or wrong paradigm, we have edited the better parts of our humanity out of the workplace.


What gets lost? Time for critical and nuanced thinking not immediately goal focused get shoved aside, even if it would be more valuable to the organization once uncovered. Creative explorations are traded in for the false and illusory security of a plan. In these cultures, different ways of hearing the world are suspect, including hearing through the ears of customers or consumers; language is different, often too idiomatic for analytical understanding—and this world is biased toward the “rational and analytical.”


Worst of all in this era of efficiency, the inspirational language of vision gets lost. At one level, it gets abused as hypocritical lip service by middle management and then lampooned as in the series of satirical motivational posters that professional people love. Hey, they can empathize, as it is built into their world by the words that create their version of reality.


At a deeper level, vision is created when new ideas get expressed in new ways. If your organization has a stranglehold on new language — or is in love with its historic vernacular — you lose the potential of real vision existing in your culture.


Look for Part Two next week.



Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of going Electric. Visit to learn more.


Sign this Pledge, Innovator

Congratulations, you’ve been hired as an Innovator. This is the apex of applied creativity, the rock’n’roll of industry; you are hired to rock the boat. Steady your Warby Parker’s. Hit pause on your Audible copy of Abundance. Check your heart monitor data and caffeine levels. Fill your closets with Robert Graham and PrAna, and get some crazy socks; it’s time to work.


You’ll be outfitted with Apple everything, as long as you mention Apple as the shining avatar of innovation and try to suggest an App accompany every innovation, even non-digital solutions.


Open office. Unlimited organic coffee. Bean bags. Whiteboards. Robot pets. Really nice chairs. 3-D printer. Smart, beautiful colleagues who value each other’s eccentricities. Enough Trend data to clog a server. Organic snacks.


While this stereotype bespeaks the many perks of an innovation career, make no mistake. Innovation is fundamentally a sales job. The most vexing point: you will be selling change, a next-generation mindset. Keep these points in mind as you gear up for the inevitable politics of a place.


Many people will feel threatened, question your motives, and protect their short-term bonuses with the wily and cunning nature of an arch villain in a spy novel.


Your more reasoned cases will be questioned with more scrutiny than an Annual Report. Your business model adaption suggestions will gain an audience, but for the wrong reasons. Like a Roman gladiatorial showcase, the spectators line up to see you being fed to the lions.


Any recommendations transformative of the core business will be dismissed emotionally, even if they are the right recommendations for the organization.


All you can do is quote the insights, point to the size of the opportunity and declining market share, and try and make as many allies as possible.


Everyone longs for change, but the reality of having to change strikes an irrational fear in even open-minded people. Therefore, you must master the powers of persuasion. Why is change positive in this case? What are the steps, the milestones, on the journey, who benefits? What happens if change doesn’t happen?


It is your job to tell great stories that read their audience ahead of meetings and pre-guess similar questions. With your gifts of storytelling, you can help those closed down to change to open up, see a vision rich in possibilities, all while honestly noting the risks at hand.


Selling a plausible path forward in a language that resonates with internal stakeholders is much harder than generating breakthrough concepts and extracting driving insights from consumers. Diplomacy is the real skill set necessary for innovation professionals.


If you are considering a job with Innovation in the title, I would ask you to sign this pledge.


            I, _______________________________, vow to not get dismayed by resistance to new thinking. It is my job to present ideas in ways that resonate with the audience. Even if some people feel threatened by these new models of value creation, it is my calling to be patient, respectful, and kind.  


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of Going Electric. Visit to learn more.

Do the Right Things.

So many people focus on the tiny details of their jobs. They are rewarded to sweat the details. In some fields the details are critical, such as medical care, clinical research, nuclear energy; in many fields, however, this focus on details impedes authentic growth.


As a result, people are doing their jobs, but a lack of leadership vision and managerial muscle craft a wheel of production where talent is wasted on needless processes and protocols, rather than invested in creating value for the organization.


In essence, professionals are rewarded for doing what they are told, even if what they are told is nonessential, wasteful, or just busy work. What a waste of human capital from a company perspective. Even worse, when people sit idle doing purposeless tasks they do not live up to their human potential. What a shame for every individual where this process bloat occurs.


You could claim, therefore, that poor management is an inhibitor of humanity, a curse of control the mediocre and inept enact on others.


Such cultures self-elect who stays and who goes, so the social reinforcements reward diminished work and punish those who are intrinsically entrepreneurial.


Those who are both talented and driven leave as soon as they feel stifled by minutia. You are left with well-intentioned people who value having a job over making their mark in the field or the world. As a result, you greatly decrease your company’s ability to discover new high-margin growth, retain top talent, or craft the kind of culture that embraces new opportunity.


In Good to Great Jim Collins spoke of an important exercise for leaders. The essence of his prescription was that every effective leader needed not a To-Do list, but rather a Do-Not-Do list. While this behavioral tool helps leaders navigate their next moves, a Do-Not-Do list would benefit the managerial ranks and the professionals that work under them more.


Imagine if every director and manager spent several quiet days reflecting on what efforts were wasteful, useless, unnecessary, and which processes were redundant, over-engineered, or not worth doing anymore. Then, each one had the authority to create a Do-Not-Do list for themselves and their team. Productivity levels would rise to unprecedented heights. Collaboration would compound. Departments would be trying to out optimize one another, but also willing to share tips and insights.


What kind of workplace do you want to create? If it is one where positive change and growth are encouraged and embodied, don’t encumber the culture with menial tasks that are rigidly managed.


Only empowered people can transform into peak performers, people who do the right things and question the practices that aren’t quite right. These same people—emerging leaders, many of whom are creating and executing their personal Do-Not-Do lists—will not tolerate work-for-work’s sake. They seek significance and meaning. Don’t manage the potential out of them.


Do things, but make sure you and team focus on doing the right things, things that matter.



Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of Going Electric. Visit to learn more.

Telling Compelling Stories

A talk by William Greenwald, Founder and Chief Neuroleaderologist, Windsor Leadership Group


William began with a story.


This one was about air travel. Something happens. The plane makes an odd noise. Then, nose dives. “What am I’m going to do?” echoed in his head. The captain chimed in, “You may use your phone — you have ten seconds to send a message.” What would you say?


William said, “We are going down. I love you all … remember, I’m flying on business so I get double indemnity with life ins…” His voice trails off.


The plane landed safely after all. A world of self-reflection confounded William and made him reflect on what matters—family, love.


What makes this story compelling?


The audience can relate. They are traveling. It is a strong opening that builds rapport with everyone in the room.


“Stories need to connect. Stories need to be relevant.”


Another tactic employed was that Greenwald waited until the middle of the story to introduce himself: “to get better reception right out of the gate.” This is a best practice of storytelling.


Presentation excellence calls four parts: Planning, Design, Delivery, and QA (quality assurance).


These four parts amount to an arc of successful storytelling. Each part has a mix of methods, both art and science, that can be planned carefully, rehearsed, and mastered.


Ask yourself, “Is it more important to be brilliant or relevant?” Remember, it’s not about you; it is about the listener and the impact you make on their views and actions. When it’s done, no one remembers your brilliance. Relevance drives impact. Think about adding seven words at the end of each point: “this is why it matters to you.”


Another tip: show up early. You’ll be more relaxed. You’ll also have the opportunity to meet your audience members beforehand.


You can always ask you audience if they see the relevance. Don’t be afraid to veer from slides or even close down Power Point.


Kill the podium. You don’t need it. Walk around. Make connections, but keep notes handy.


Here are some elements of successful presentations:

  1. Stories are important. Tell one.
  2. Humor can be a good tool to deepen connections.
  3. Improv makes things relevant in “a crazy way.” You have to be willing to be an in improve mode.
  4. Manage your fears. You can find ways to help lesson fear.
  5. Talent is all about practice. Practice and then practice more. Talent is simply hard work.


Emotions make stories work and cultivate memory. Science has proven this fact over and over. Stories aid recall. The more emotional, the more it lodges in the memory bank.


Stories inspire. Stories teach. Stories influence. Stories breathe life into real issues.


Tell yours now.


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of Going Electric. Visit to learn more.





Blended Reality: Riding the Waves of Innovation

A talk given by Shane Wall, CTO, HP

“Innovation is culture,” says Wall to start his keynote in high gear.

 The way you get insight is to understand culture, he suggests, is to look at societal change. Not technology.

At HP labs we are charged with “What’s the future? Where are we going? We don’t look at technology, we look at society—we look 30 years into the future, into megatrends, such as rapid urbanization, changing demographics, hyper globalizations, accelerated innovation.”

“Think about changing demographics. It will be a different world when most of the people on earth are over 50 years old. Most marketing will go after the silver spenders.”

The HP vision is called Blended Reality: the intersection of physical life with digital life. The key is to do it seamlessly. How does it all integrate? It is happening already. Look at medicine—take a diabetic, for example, how insulin pumps work.

First example of a dimension of Blended Reality trend is Hyper Mobility. “Today we think of phones and tablets—things we look at no less than 137 times a day. But, what happens when wearables measure and predict and even fix issues?” The day is coming soon.

The second one is 3D Transformation. “This is nothing less than the next industrial revolution. Consumer will be able to configure everything. Tax laws and regulations will change. Supply chains will change. Manufacturing will change.”

The last one is the Internet of All Things. This is a bigger idea than Internet of Things. Here, every single thing can be connected, even without technology. “Products and packaging can be encoded with patterns that can be read, allowing all types of tracking,” claims Wall.

So, how does HP do innovation? They say that “innovation is culture.” It goes back to the company’s roots as a garage-based start up. It’s native to their story. From this simple garage Silicon Valley was born.

HP’s innovation definition?  The word, Jugaad. It’s a Punjab word meaning innovative fix. The idea is that you have no money but you seek inventive, adaptive intelligence. You see it in India everyday. This is when you don’t have a showerhead, so you take a bottle and poke holes in it and affix it to a hose to create a shower.

You must capture this spirit. You can’t reward it with money and praise. “Rather, leadership at HP embraces change. We work to highlight innovation across the company these ways:


1.    Prepare yourself to recognize new opportunities and act on them, even if they don’t fit your existing business model

2.    Communicate a clear vision, direction—and communicate the vision of where you are going often. Do not let process get in the way of the destination.

3.    Empower everyone to make decisions—and celebrate decision making loudly.

4.    Suspend judgment—this is really critical. Stomp out naysayers. The best ideas often come from people who never heard, ‘We tried that already. We don’t do that, etc.”

Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of Going Electric. Visit to learn more. 

Tethering the Void between Moonshot Ideas and Customer Connection

This talk was given by Donna Sturgess, Executive in Residence, Carnegie Mellon University, and the annual Front End of Innovation Conference in Boston this month.


“I’ve been spending a lot of time in the future,” is how Sturgess opened this evocative session. “Things get funded at Carnegie Mellon for big, breakthrough ideas, exponential innovations.”


Moonshot ideas is the theme. What is Moonshot thinking? How does it work?


“Technology runs far ahead of the customer, so far ahead that people don’t see relevance—and the sweet spot hover between relevance and shape-shifting technology.” Moonshots, then, are far-off territories of growth.


Here are two examples: Self-driving cars and big data.


Self-driving cars

The concept for autonomous vehicles began in 1939, but the ones we know began in 1984. This concept has been brewing for a long time.


“This car can drive from Pittsburg to Seattle without a human,” said Sturgess, showing a Cadillac. “We only need humans to fill gas and change oil.” We took it to Washington where there is concern about traffic patterns many years from now.


The cars are here, but policies are keeping them from being on the road. Yet, Congress realized the technology is ready.


One driving question is “what do people want in a self-driving car?” Here surveyed 1,000 people. Here are some of the responses:

  1. Want to connect to home system
  2. Want my car to be designed like an office
  3. Want my car to be a mobile medical office
  4. Want a have a party car.


Understanding the context helps design the experience. Yet, people have to see the future to believe in it.



Big Data

Big data versus little data. “The moonshot here is how advanced sensors can be. How specific can the use be? For example, if we add sensors in devices to be mindful when elderly people fall, it would be a win.”


There is an “enormous hunger” for services and product for sensors and the elderly.


Perhaps sensors can be used with infants, too. “How can sensors add real value?”


In this case, the sensor can measure your gait and let you know that you are moving toward a condition to anticipate falls.


Zooming out, Sturgess claims that the public is not open to the quantum speed of innovation. “I feel pressure where the future is being created, but we haven’t defined what kind of future we want.”


“Not until you are willing to abandon your world view, can you see new mental models,” she says.


There is a correlation between the earth and the moonshot ideas. This gulf between the two is the road to opportunity.

Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of Going Electric. Visit to learn more. 

Innovation from the Inside-Out

A talk from Karen Hersherson, clay street project leader, Proctor & Gamble

Innovation for P&G is about platforms and pipelines that create long-lasting value. To get these types of results, the company had to build an incubator for project teams, named clay street.


Innovation for P&G gathers multi-functional teams that work together over a long period of time to create truly holistic innovation.


We work with teams and their leaders to create innovators. On the journey they become more confident and creative to handle the messy side of front-end innovation.


We have an amazing group of adjunct facility—from psychology to drama to arts and design.


The stories I will share are about what we’ve seen and learned at clay street.


Here is the main point: if we can bring more of our humanity to innovation, we get better results.


So, we work on seeing, feeling, and being.


SEEING. If you look at any work of art, any product, it is a reflection of the people that created it. A Jungian taught me this valuable lesson. Therefore, we focus on people, not the concepts.


People come in with very silo-ed thinking. Marketers thought as marketers, for example, and engineers thought as engineers. It is hard to see outside of their trained perspectives, as identities are tied to their role.


Our goal was to give space and time for people to get out of their given roles. Let people live the questions, not rush into a debrief. Let new neural connections begin to take root.


The second thing that got in the way was the sense of being valued. If you don’t feel valued, you won’t take risk and throw out “stupid” ideas. Therefore, we do a lot of ideation, and do “Yes, And” exercises. The idea isn’t to get the killer idea, but to learn how creativity is a team sport. Then, the valuable ideas flow.


What we learned is the concept of disorientation. Here, in this state of mind, the world is crazy and topsy turvy.


Three soft-skill methods to see dynamics underneath as part of Seeing:


  1. Display thinking
  2. Slow down
  3. Name it



FEELING. We now tear away the armor. We invite for everyone to put away phones and laptops. The ROI of putting these distractions away allows for genuine incubation. Data is making us lazy thinkers, invalidating our gut instincts.


Here’s our recipe: Take away distractions. Take away roles. Take away templates. Add love. We work on the relationships early to mitigate against the conflicts that always arise as a by-product of the creative process.


As we build the heart, it showed up in their work as part of Feeling:


  1. Subtract what distracts
  2. Ditch the templates
  3. Build relationships


BEING. I have to surrender control and fully trust the people and process. We use a lot of mindfulness practices. We mediate together.


Here are some habits of Being we practice:


  1. Identify your triggers
  2. Explore the feeling
  3. Build daily habits



Think about if you can see the human dynamics happening underneath your innovation practice? How comfortable are you dealing with the emotions that arise? How are you role modeling the feelings that arise?


These parting words should be the motto for clay street: “if you want create transformation innovations, you have to be able to transform yourself.”


Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an innovation and strategic growth firm based in Memphis, TN and the author of Going Electric. Visit to learn more.