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Give us Your Lions!

Command-and-control, top-down organizations have the most trouble innovating. In particular, the fearful mindsets that review, align, and sign off on “decks” to be presented to Vice President-level colleagues often edit out the insights and recommendations that have the power to grow the business in new ways.

These well-trained, obedient keepers of the status quo are rewarded for not taking risks and for not thinking outside of the existing paradigm of the business.

When we are assigned fretful, career-minded people to project teams we know that we must spend half of our time reorienting such people. Otherwise, the innovation project will implode under such fears as what will they think, can we give a preview to the VP of No, or how does this effect my bonus?

Notice that all of the above thinking conveys a myopic internally-focused view—and is contrary to where innovations tend to be discovered, namely in the market and with real people. This mindset lacks the exploratory and inquisitive nature required to break new ground and create new value.

Curiosity and openness are key prerequisites for this kind of work. A discovery process must be undertaken. Often, the output of an innovation project cannot be imagined beforehand; the findings can only be unveiled as the journey unfolds. Without open-minded exploration, possible solutions will be suffocated in infancies—and not nurtured to reach their potential.

Equally critical to success, if you want to become an innovative company, your employees will need to be doing some of the work themselves.

You cannot outsource this type of work and expect lasting results, just as your mountain Sherpa cannot actually walk for you and make a movie of the adventure for you to show at home. Your team has to experience the alchemy of change. Otherwise, they—and your organization—will not be able to accept new thinking about the business. This point may sound small, but it is the biggest impediment to developing and deploying innovation. If you are in a rigid and fixed system, innovation by design is impossible.

If you want to be able to innovate on a level deeper than cost cutting, stop with all of the small actions that seek to present only perfection up the food chain. Practice presenting work in different formats and in different stages of development. In other words, innovate how presentations to those in leadership positions are conducted.

To enter this Growth Mindset means to encourage your people to take risks, embrace possible failure, and aim for an ambitious goal. If the whole system of your culture rewards incremental thinking and has a bias for data, change the game. Set up the expectations of the meetings differently. Be and signify change. Remember, if you are tasked with innovation, you are hired to transform, not inform.

Why assign a lion to be a dog? Change, or don’t bother. As it has been said of advertising the same is true in this field: companies get the innovation results they deserve.

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 and the Tech World

While the world of Technology has filled the world with tools of productivity and connection, it has its drawbacks. Many people today suffer from the shadow side of technology.


Droves of burned out, screen-addicted zombies sign up for Digital Detox weekends. Families schedule nights without cellphones at the table once a week or only allow their preschoolers to play video games after reading. As well, technology has imploded many of the societal norms we once held sacred: just look how online dating has disrupted generations of courtships rituals.


Indeed, with culture moving at the speed of a Tweet or a Pin, it’s hard to make sense of it how it all either enhances or distracts from life. Even more perplexing, the lines between our digital lives and non-digital lives blur in so many ways that the fabric of a contemporary life has some pixels, code, cloud uploads, profiles, and updates woven into the overall tapestry.


This week I presented to a room filled with CIOs and IT directors. It was unusual for them to hear about Innovation, as the subject is often heard by only by those in Strategy, Marketing, Product Management, or R&D.


And yet, it was the right audience. Given the way they work, they were familiar with many typical aspects of innovation. They work in rapid, iterative cycles in Agile development, begin user-centered design with personas for software creation, and more.


In many ways, Technology was the fulfillment of the Industrial Revolution, making us more efficient and accountable, ensuring we are all billable and productive. Unknowingly, the rush to digital the world of business and culture at large has ushered in a new era: the post-industrial world.


After we mapped the world, shared it online, digitized the office, and reached Big Data’s dream of optimizing supply chains and accounting for operational excellence, a new hope is realized. Technology is here to serve people, not the other way around. Computers and devices that once seemed so monolithic now empower our species to think about our role in a more noble sense than the Industrial Revolution’s primary objective: the profit motive.


Now, we see how we can positively impact education, the environment, healthcare, and other systems in need of redemption using the these tools. In other words, we are seeing the rise of the human-to-human era where empathy trumps power and a win-win relationship between organizations and people is a preferred outcome to a monopoly.


The most interesting aspect of this human-centered movement is to see technology companies embed innovation practices into their cultures and to see such empathy-based methods as Design Thinking, mindfulness programs, or generative frameworks like Growth Mindset Training be integral to leadership training as such companies as Microsoft, Intel, GE, IBM, aspects of Google, and even at companies such as Citrix.


They know the world has changed and they need to transform and pivot to remain not only relevant, but vital in the human-to-human era. The companies that innovative themselves will innovate the world.



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.



When to Call an Innovation Firm

Change is difficult, and changing for the better rarely happens out of virtue. When prospects reach out we know only one fact: They want to change something in their organizational mix and grow and want help. Often the need is an unexpressed and even unconscious urge for the company or nonprofit.

Sometimes the board demands innovation. Other times, Wall Street needs to see innovation in the pipeline to ratchet up the market value. Often, a new leader brings the discipline to an organization that has never had a formal innovation process. Usually, organizations hire an innovation firm after suffering a lack of genuine growth for too long. They want a new way out of the predictable rut in which they find themselves. Many companies yearn for real growth results. Many organizations long to reboot into something more active, vital and viable. Yet, they are stuck, unable to crack the code of growth.

In short, they want change, a new path to creating new value. But the very idea of change can bring up its own negative shadows – fear and rigidity.

In many cases they lack the learned soft skills to face hard truths. These hard truths may include that their business model is broken, growth has stalled for an unknown reason, most talented employees leave after a short stint at the organization, a new competitor has entered out of nowhere and has quickly changed the way the category operates, or newly launched products and services fail to thrive in the market. Perhaps distributors will not allow high-margin growth? Maybe a whole category has become a commodity, signified by a price war, the rise of private label, and a lack of meaningful sales with innovations?

All of the above symptoms convey a type of crisis. As a rough guess, 99 percent of our clients are in one of these crisis states. In most cases, the firm is stable overall, but one brand or product line isn’t performing either as expected or as well as it has historically. Something needs to change.

Change requires a guide into new, unknown territory – think of hiring an innovation firm the same way you would hire a Sherpa to lead an expedition. The Sherpa knows the path, the pitfalls, knows what tools to bring, and has the mix of soft and hard skills to navigate the journey.

Although you will most likely go out into the field to gather insights, most of the journey, as with any journey, is mental. It is important to trust the process and the guide. True, it’s hard to shift mindsets – and get out of the realm of day-to-day business and into seeing new possibilities. Put another way, it’s hard to turn off the analytical preset filters and see new models and ways of being in the market.

Facing such predicaments requires courage, willingness and the core capacity of seeking truth. If you have accepted that old behaviors will not fuel growth, seek innovation help.

Michael Graber, managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, can be reached at

Healthy Visionaries

If you want to create a high-growth company or transform a slow- or flat-growth organization into a category-dominating leader, you cannot manage this type of growth with an MBA-styled leader who wants to function like a strategic CFO by mainly cutting costs and managing profit and loss.


Companies looking to lead—to either invent or reset a category—need to study the phenomenon of healthy visionaries.


What makes legendary great leaders great? They share a sense of destiny. Staying plugged into this ardor of insight is their main task. They go to any length to hear the voice of their calling to ensure creative responses.


Whether by extroverted means—reading daily reports of numbers and trends, surrounding themselves with a fiercely debating and refining trusted team, or by engaging employees, shareholders, customers, and prospects in meaningful conversation—or by introverted ways such as taking a week a year as a reflective retreat, insisting on a rigorous exercise or meditation regimen, or by reading and journaling prodigiously, tuning into a realm of vision as an act of devotion and practice is key.


Through a mix of idiosyncratic means, such leaders embody a dynamic, do-what-it-takes inherent discipline to maintain this rarified field of vision, trusting that each step will be a move toward keeping them in tune. Another word for this quest for the perpetually authentic response is integrity.


Bad visionaries, those oddly charismatic magicians, see only what they want to see and deny and ignore the people, threats, and market forces that do not fit into their line of sight. These types of leaders too often also suffer from narcissistic personality disorder. This type of unhealthy visionary gives all visionaries a bad name, but unnecessarily so. As soon as the glitter falls off of their vision, they flee. Furthermore, their obvious lack of empathy for others makes dealing with them a chilling experience. Lastly, the most symptomatic sign of a bad visionary is how their life is built around defenses and denial rather than an open-hearted, life-long search for truth.


Healthy visionaries make everyone around them feel possibilities as if they are certainties. Although they may see patterns before they merge explicitly, they make those around them see the connections while inspiring a mission-like zeal. They also welcome the role of play and imagination in business. As Walt Disney, a healthy visionary, was fond of saying: “my imagination creates my reality.”


Here’s the take-away. This column recognizes some of the attributes of healthy visionaries. If you are on the board of an organization that hasn’t hit its numbers in years, perhaps you need a more visionary leader than a manager. Then, once the vision is in place, all of the managers can better perform their function. Healthy visionaries lead and lead with integrity. They are just wired that way.


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.


Reboot a Sluggish Brand: Part Two

In last week’s column we explored the corporate psychological journey that happens to accept the fact that a once-leading brand needs to be transformed and relaunched.


This column will walk you through how to do it.


Allow me to be clear. I am not discussing refreshing a logo or crafting a new tag line, but rather a Reboot means a radical and transformational change to the business model and every facet of the business itself.


Choose a multi-disciplinary team. When they first gather, encourage them to think fresh. Go through a warm up exercise wherein the brand has been newly acquired and they are there to rebirth it.


Now, go through an Orthodoxy exercise to make all inherent bias explicit. Then, run a Business Model Canvas exercise on the existing model.


Examine the orthodoxies and structures of the current business model. Doing this work liberates the team to not see their current practices as reality itself, but instead as just one mental model that can be changed for a greater return.


Then, arm the team with stories of other companies who have made a similar leap. Have team members research and report at least one company who have rebooted themselves for hyper growth and also at leader one company that disrupted an industry. You’ll notice how these stories will be quoted for inspiration throughout the project cycle.


At this juncture, create some guardrails, criteria for a new model. Here are some possible points: must be new in the market, must 5x the business in two years, must disrupt the current category, etc.


Now you are ready to generate five to ten new business models for the brand that are radically different from one another. Then, run a pro and con exercise for each model.


Have the team choose the two or three models that best meet the criteria.


Create a Strategy Brief and Opportunity Brief for each of them. Armed with these briefs, sketch out the new concepts in low-fidelity hand-drawn sketches that convey the concept, the value proposition, the core benefits, and unique features.


Hold several consumer feedback sessions where you listen deeply to members of your target audience. Learn from them and include their insights in the next version of your concept sketches.


Take the one or two concepts that tested well and draft a formal business case for making this epic brand pivot.


Now comes the easy part. Present the concepts to the executive team. After you pass this hurdle, pilot the concept in one market as a learning phase. If viable, scale accordingly.


Remember it takes more courage than foreknowledge to reboot a brand. But, you’ll learn as you go.


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.


Reboot a Sluggish Brand

Once market shares dwindles and revenue targets are missed year after year (despite category growth), it may be time to reboot a once-beloved brand.


First off, you need to decide if you genuinely want to reboot a brand.  Some people get so tethered to old ideas about the brand that there is resistance to rethink its meaning and potential. If you are serious about growth and see rebooting as the only path of salvation, read on.


Don’t burn too much time analyzing the predicament for the umpteenth time. Do not dwell on what drove the brand value down to ruin and the irrevocable equity damage. Remember, it’s time to transform, not inform.


Let’s just start with simply accepting a few facts. Can you agree with a few of the following suppositions?


Sales are down. Sales have been declining each year. New brands are dominating the leadership position in the category. Yet, your brand despite having a good name and decent recall in the market isn’t living up to its potential. Perhaps it is a problem with the product itself, maybe it’s a channel issue, perhaps it’s a sales issue. Maybe private label has usurped the category? Whatever the factors, do you accept the brand could be worth more than it is?


Did you identify with three or more of these factors in the above paragraph? If so, ask yourself if you (assuming you are in a position that owns the brand) are willing to grow new value for the brand by trying some radically different ways of being in the market and a few new possible business models, a huge shift from the losing situation to a potentially high-growth situation?


Yes, there may be some investment required. Yes, your resource and capabilities mix may need to altered. The good and bad news is the same: you might have to change everything.


Indeed, everything is subject to change, which also means you’ll have to phase out how you are currently in the market and take a risk to potentially grow the value of the brand exponentially.


Everything up to this point has been a psychological journey to free you and your team from the historical bias that the brand you plan to reboot needs to represent anything like it has in the past. From this point forward, you will enter the frontier of the future and create a new path.


Now you want to start by examining the stories and strategies of other brands that have utterly transformed across categories. How can an outfitter of serious outdoorsmen become a leading fashion brand for teens (Ambercrombie & Fitch), for example? Look at 10 or more brands that have made the leap. These stories will inspire your team throughout the process.


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.


Brand Essence: The Rock’n’Roll of Business (Part Three)

Part 3 of 3

Your marketers either need to create a fire or be fired. If you have uninspired and uninspiring marketing professionals on your team, be warned. Give him or her one chance to kick into high gear. Then act decisively. Fire them if they cannot change tempo. Be bold and be emboldened.


Marketers are responsible for both your commercial success and the esprit de corps of your culture. If you grant the requisite authority to marketing to create tangible value to your organization, it is the role’s passion that will help make downstream sales, quicken upstream decisions, and improve water cooler morale.


Think of passion as the core fabric weaving together the corporate psyche, your golden thread. It takes real passion to find this thread, seize it, and use it as an organizing principle to align all of a company’s experiences into a form of synchronicity.


Begin by hiring smart. Discover what really excites candidates—as this reservoir will carry them over the driest days. Ideally, look for those with a cunning mix of skill and native talent.


Hire for drive more than experience, if you have to choose one. If you locate someone who has learned from the streets, make an offer on the spot. These are rare birds.


At the risk of being overly autobiographical I will offer an illustrative vignette. I learned marketing and business best practices by playing in bands in high school and college more so than any book or class. Here’s what we did.


We established the mission, goals, and objectives of the organization: from the ethos of the band, to the sound, to the details—we would be an all original band, for example, writing at least four songs a month.


We created the product: the band sound, the sensibility, the look.


We made sure we had the best talent available to us to augment our product and business: from extra musicians to sound technicians to doormen—every role mattered.


We crafted the branding: name, logo, style guide, tone of voice.


We benchmarked pricing for shows, CDs, and tickets.


We chose the right setting when selecting a venue.


We used a mix of PR and marketing, selecting places where we knew our audience would see our brand. In this case, we hung up flyers at certain intersections and shops, sent PR to radio and newspaper outlets, and identified key influencers who could help us attract more people.


We established a post-mortem feedback loop where we would analyze what worked and make adaptive improvements where needed.


We practiced a lot, making a shared commitment to grow and develop as individuals and as a team.


Most important, every encounter with the band was a branded encounter, imbued with a palpable sense of character. A golden thread was woven through every interaction, every sighting, everything. We provided a continuum of experience. It mattered to us to make it matter to others. Our sweat and focus ensured results.


Business leaders, ask yourself this question: is your marketing team or agency partner sweating on your behalf?


If not, enjoy the Muzak of mediocrity.


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.


Brand Essence: The Rock’n’Roll of Business (Part Two)

Part two of three

One real power of a brand is that it serves as a tuning fork for an organization, helping them quicken strategic decisions, vetting new opportunities, and making hard choices when projections are slipping away from the target.

Nothing kills brand value more than short-term revenue focus. When the deafening sirens of Wall Street start signing, listening to the essence of brand can keep a company from wrecking on its own overexcited ambition. Brand is the moral DNA of an organization, and therefore it’s crucial to understand your brand as more than a veneer, as more of an outward expression of who and what the company stands for.

Like bands that lose their sound after scoring a minor hit, companies often get “big head” disorder and inflated egos after hitting their first success tier. These days, musicians often do a better job of knowing what makes a strong brand than companies with multi-million dollar agency contracts and a deep bench of brand managers who have forgotten why they started the venture or joined the firm in the first place.

CEOs would do well to learn from Jack White’s days leading the White Stripes: “Everything from your haircut to your clothes to the type of instrument you play to the melody of a song to the rhythm—they’re all tricks to get people to pay attention to the story. If you just stood up in a crowd and said your story—‘I came home, and this girl I was dating wasn’t there, and I was wondering where she was’—it’s not interesting, but give it a melody, give it a beat, build it all the way up to a haircut. Now people pay attention.”

Jack White intuitively knew how everything works to create a singular impression, an icon. By following this street-smart lesson with rigorous discipline, White created a value-generating entity that tied together the packaging, promotional, placement, and product aspects of his business with a golden thread. Even when he wanted to play with a full band, he started a side project, keeping the White Stripes brand pure.

While I do not expect the accountants of the world to rock too hard, business thrives when momentum builds. The business acts like an organism, like a well-rehearsed band. Their customers turn into fans. Smart branding makes this possibility real.

In the language of business, having a fan club for your brand raises the top line, giving accountants something to rave about.


Stay tuned for part three 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.


Brand Essence: The Rock’n’Roll of Business

Like famous musicians, effective brands maintain a certain sway over those who come into contact with them, a sense of awe and authority that translates talent, focus, and hard work into an essence that communicates instantly.


Let’s begin by defining the word “brand.”


To start we will play the game “no.” I’ll ask several questions to which you have already been supplied the answer.


Is your brand your logo? No. Is your brand your pithy tagline or your mission statement? No. Is your marketing manager in charge of your brand? No.


Now, let’s play the game “yes.”


Is brand important in all types of businesses? Yes. Even business-to-business and service companies? Yes. Can a strong brand presence increase your market value? Yes? Can it garner a premium for your products or services? Yes. Can a brand dramatically increase your company’s valuation? Yes.


Consider this example: when the Pillsbury company sold in 1988, 88% of the 990-million sales price was shelled out for the goodwill of the brand, not the machinery, management, or distribution. In the business world, this mysterious value is known as brand equity. In rock and roll, it would be called a platinum hit.


Brand, then, may be defined as every perception and interaction that anyone has or doesn’t have with your organization and how the cumulative effect of these interactions. Brand essence is elusive, but carefully and artfully cultivated.


Brand essence is never static and cannot be controlled.


Like famous musicians, strong brands evoke a sense of wonder and self-evident identity. Consumers do not have to stop and think about the brands; they transform into a short-hand understanding of a whole gestalt of experience.


Think of some musical performers. Grateful Dead. What images and feelings pop into mind? Lawrence Welk? Metallica? Beyoncé? Now, think of a few business brands: Apple, Home Depot, Hello Kitty?


Successful bands and successful business understand how to align every experience with their different audiences. They weave a golden thread of significance and unique value into every expression of their organization: shareholders, the press, fans, or customers


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 is the most potent form of leadership development.


Innovation is the most potent form of leadership development.


You can’t outsource the important things. After working with more than 100 clients, we have noted one of the most critical factors in the success of an innovation project: if you outsource all of the work on your innovation projects, they will fail.

It doesn’t matter if you use our humble Studio or a 7-figure firm from Palo Alto or London. Many good innovation firms can generate consumer insights and craft a winning portfolio of concepts that have the nature to change your top-line growth. Yet, without training your team on the methods and tools of innovation, the breakthrough thinking will be resisted. The concepts will die on the vine.
Train Your Team

Therefore, you have to train your team to vet new growth without preset filters, especially if this growth is outside of your current business model. Training a core team of innovators at your organization has many benefits. Here are several:

  • Learn the tools that create new value
  • Generate consumer and customer insights
  • Break down silos by having multidisciplinary teams train together

Innovation now demands to be a centerpiece of any professional training and development program. If you aren’t teaching these core practices, your competitors are.


Innovation as Leadership and Professional Development

The primary objective of Leadership and Professional Development is to cultivate emerging leaders who show nascent traits of greatness—and to harness their value they bring to their organizations. Innovation training teaches many of the most valuable skills in an immersive, hands-on, non-theoretical way.


The hard skills including learning empathy for potential users of their product or service, a contextual understanding of the market, methods for analyzing primary market research data, tools for reframing business issues, mastering the creation and facilitation of ideation sessions, rapid prototyping, market testing of prototyping, incorporating adaptive market-feedback inspired changes to prototypes quickly and inexpensively, and practice of narrative-style communication skills that evoke and motivate.


Soft skills include expanding mindsets so they look for market potential even if it exists outside of the current business model, rank-less and multi-disciplinary collaboration training, deep listening, respect for others, creative confidence and conviction, an in-depth understanding of the human factors and psychology guiding the invisible forces of the market, adaptive thinking, iterative and non-linear approaches to problem solving, critical thinking, pattern recognition, and abductive reasoning.


As a veteran of many training programs, I can attest that there is no more engrossing of a leadership development process than attending an innovation bootcamp or workshop. The lessons work upon both the external work processes and relationship skills and internal, personal growth. More important, as you learn by doing, there is a sense of the lesson adding value outside of the sometimes solipsistic category of personal development.


You cannot outsource innovation without missing the most seminal opportunity of a lifetime, including the new value you can create for your organization and the most holistic leadership training on the market.



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.