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U.S. Corporations are crushing the spirits of their best and brightest

As the resumes roll in for open positions here at the Studio, we are facing a trend we have suspected for a while. There are legions of burned out corporate drones looking for liberation. Study after study shows that Gen X and Gen Y will have more than six jobs in their lifetime, viewing each as a brief stint before their next move.

One report in the Boston Globe stated that between 30 and 40 percent of graduates from a selection of top schools, including Harvard and Carnegie-Mellon, are bypassing corporate America and starting their own businesses. Similar reports show that at least half of all Millennials aspire to be self-employed, and view a solo career as more stable than a corporate one.

Young, bright and motivated people are tired of working hard and having their work go nowhere except down the crevices of the corporate bureaucracy. A friend of ours, a brilliant social media and PR strategist just left a global company with Memphis headquarters, exasperated after years of playing politics and waiting for his boss to get promoted or leave so that he could move up a rung. His boss sits in the traffic jam as well, waiting for the Boomers to retire so that he can move up and feel a small sense of accomplishment. Our friend left and has taken a job overseas. Another friend of ours discovered a way to save a cola giant tens of millions of dollars by making a simple policy and financial change. Her suggestion fell on deaf ears; no one wanted to rock the boat. Then a high-level executive heard about the idea and suddenly her group was up for an internal award. Of course they decided to have a more senior colleague represent the team and the idea because he was “funnier.”

Bright people are streaming out of corporate America because they want to make an impact. They want to grow businesses. They want have a purpose and make a difference.  As it stands today, they are relegated to their cubes. Business is not disrupted when they leave and no one notices they are gone.

Corporate America: you are losing your best people. You are left with the worker bees (a very important part of the team to be sure) and the politicians. These people are mired in old ways of thinking and doing things “the way they have always been done.”

The problem is you, not them. They want what all bright people require: intellectual stimulation, autonomy, and entrepreneurial incentives.

Fortune 500: you want to innovate? Empower your younger workforce to think creatively. Give them and their innovative ideas access to top leadership. Break the ladder and shatter the concept of pay grades – promote them over their status quo managers. Shake things up. The days of the rank and file and the gold watch are gone. Your Boomer management will be gone soon too.

Then what?

The Innovation Consultant and the Marathon Meeting of Diminishing Returns

by Josh Roberts

Everyone has been to a marathon meeting.

It’s the day-long discussion during which several business challenges will be overcome in distinctly compartmentalized blocks of time. We will be there all day. We will be full of energy. We will be productive.

Lunch will be catered.

I recently participated in the majority of a marathon meeting. The well-articulated agenda started at 8:15 and the session was to last all day. Breaks were scheduled at regular intervals and copious amounts of sugar-based snacks were provided.
The only difference between my experience and that of the dozen or so other participants is that I left for an hour and a half in the middle of the day. The meeting that I had left and the one to which I returned to were wildly different affairs.

The energetic, vibrant group from the morning had been replaced by long faces held in tired hands, propped up by wide-set elbows resting heavily on tables. The droopy eyes of participants had no sparkle; they were speaking slowly, with less chatter.

Maybe your opinion on marathon meetings is different than mine, but I believe that – unless you are careful – they become a waste of time starting somewhere around hour three. There are, however, a few easy ways to make your marathon meeting productive all the way through to the finish line:

  1. Prepare for success. Don’t waste time and sap energy at the beginning of the day by reviewing excessive amounts of data that can be distributed before your marathon meeting. Give participants the level-setting information they need in advance.
  2. Create some fun. Injecting some play into serious work will help engagement and energy levels. Draw pictures, tell stories, and create dream scenarios about your business challenges to make things interesting.
  3. Enjoy the intermission. Plowing through one agenda item to the next never gives participant brains a break. Have a guest come in to provide insight by reacting to ideas already generated and talk about how the business challenge affects their job.
  4. Play musical chairs. Sitting in the same seat with the same perspective while having the same conversation is tedious. Move your meeting participants around in your or a different space, break out into smaller groups to dedicate time to precise problem solving.

You wouldn’t force your body to run a marathon of 26.2 miles without proper training, nourishment, and recovery. In the best case scenario, you would perform poorly. In the worst case, you would end up seriously injured or ill. Putting your body through that kind of stress without proper preparation is dangerous.

Stop doing the equivalent to your brain.

Are you really in a relationship with your customers?

by Josh Roberts

In the literal sense of the word, every business has a relationship with their customers. Corporations are somehow oriented with customer corporations as a vendor or service provider. Yes, two companies doing business with one another are in a relationship.

When brands claim customer relationships as a competitive differentiator, the word is being used in a human sense. They are invoking the emotional sense of relationships: friendship, trust, mutual reliance, and admiration. The implication is that customers will choose and stay loyal to vendors because of a very human, emotional relationship.

But is it dangerous to believe two logos do good, continuous business together because of human relationships?

There’s certainly value in having healthy relationships with your clients. Good lines of communication and an appreciation of working together support good deliverables. However, cultivating relationships with clients is part of the cost of doing business, which leaves your company with the responsibility of defining – and fulfilling – a value proposition that exceeds baseline expectations.

At the Studio, we believe in identifying a position true to your organization that is available in your competitive landscape. Thinking this way leads to a competitive stance that will allow your company to rise above the repetitive noise that plagues sales and marketing in so many industries. It will unify your team in performing to a distinct and high professional standard.

Most importantly, however, operating under a true and available competitive position guarantees your logo is providing value to client logos that – unlike human relationships – can be captured on balance sheets.

Which is what businesses really want out of their relationships.



Design Thinking isn’t for everyone*

*but it can be

by Josh Roberts

We are big fans of Stanford’s methodology (link: at the Southern Growth Studio and employ these methods often for our innovation clients. At its best, Design Thinking is an inspiring process that reveals a variety of positive ways clients can evolve. The framework can energize stagnant organizations, even before tangible results are developed – the process itself creates a buzz that has a way of spreading around even the most departmentalized office environments.

But Design Thinking isn’t for everyone.

I think Excel-based, linear-oriented organizations sometimes have trouble trusting a process that can look too playful or iterative to find significant long-term value. Rudimentary drawings, excessive amounts of sticky notes, and rooms full of people creating ideas that will get the organization shut down can be uncomfortable in certain environments.

We’ve been fortunate to find great Design Thinking success with clients that, at first glance, look like they might have trouble adopting it.

Here are three things these clients consistently do to make the process work for them, and they can work for you:

  1. Get ready for new learnings – When empathy is collected the right way, you will learn something new about users that won’t be found in quantitative data. This first stage of this human-centered design process is the most rewarding part of the Design Thinking for me, and that’s even truer when you are prepared to embrace this primary market knowledge and evolve because of it.
  2. Embrace total participation (no lurking) – When you’ve started a Design Thinking project, the buzz spreading through the office is usually from the internal ideation sessions that challenge participants to stretch their imaginations beyond current capabilities and biases to create powerful, user-focused solutions. Organizational leaders often get curious about the enthusiasm and creativity coming from sessions and want to watch it in action. Don’t let them. Be respectful, but firm in your stance supervision is not allowed, but leaders are absolutely welcome to participate. When department heads, VPs, and CEOs lead by example in the Design Thinking process, it frees everyone to think big, to aspire to be disruptive.
  3. Properly define success – Design Thinking executed properly should be refreshingly disruptive in a variety of beneficial ways including your user’s experience, your organization’s culture, and your internal problem solving processes. It’s often more appropriate to measure success with terms like, “we’re going to change the way our customers engage us,” rather than, “we’re going to grow our top line by 5%.” When done right, the latter is a by-product of the former, which benefits the organization more than a single line item metric ever could.

Maybe your organization has flirted with doing a Design Thinking project and shied away, or perhaps you’ve tried it and weren’t satisfied with the results. Focusing on these three things can help make Design Thinking work for anyone. Give it a try with these things in mind, and you just might be surprised by what your organization is capable of doing.

Happy disrupting.

No Risk, No Reward: Innovation Quiz

A good CEO should make the CFO a little nervous. When the CFO is sleeping soundly, the CEO is not reaching high enough and lacks vision.

If the CEO does not provoke people with an aggressive vision of organic growth, someone at the firm needs to be appointed as the official risk-taker. Without risks, there is no reward.

While a company can streamline itself to operational excellence, it still needs to innovate to grow market share. You cannot realize true growth from cost cutting alone.

Innovation requires a different mindset and behaviors than crafting an efficient organization. Businesses need both operational excellence and strategic innovation to prosper in the short- and long-term.

Does your business have a culture that fosters growth and innovation? So many innovation efforts are merely puny attempts to pacify a board request. Worse: when companies believe they are earnest in their innovation efforts, but the culture of the business does not allow for real innovation to happen.

Is your company really innovating or just talking about it?

Take this short quiz by answering “yes” or “no” and find out.

  1. People are tasked to plan how to push the boundaries of what seems possible to ensure that we stay ahead.
  2. Employees are comfortable asking provocative and unsettling questions about company strategy.
  3. Project teams apply offbeat sources in search of the breakthrough solutions.
  4. Our organization actively seeks solutions to stay ahead of the curve.
  5. Project teams are given time and resources to learn about innovation and trends.
  6. We push for continual improvement, even if what we’re offering is the industry-leading product or service.
  7. Competitors change their offering to mock our business model and market strategy.
  8. Failure and smart risk taking are celebrated by our leadership. Efforts do not have to be “successful” to be recognized.
  9. There is an active, open culture of dialogue between roles, departments, functions, and levels within the organization.
  10. We know that we do not have all the expertise in-house, and partner with firms outside the company to develop new ideas.
  11. We purposefully hire people with diverse backgrounds and strive to create teams that are comprised of a variety of disciplines to ensure a wide-sweeping perspective.
  12. Good ideas are born from every corner and rank of the company—and there is a formal way to present them and have them seriously considered.

Add up the yeses. Here’s the score key:

10-12, rejoice. Your company knows both the wild joys and smart business sense of innovating.

7-9, high five. Your company has a healthy innovation attitude and will be around in the future to celebrate.

4-6, sigh. Well, your company suffers from wanting to innovate but not really understanding how to implement strategic growth across the culture.

0-3, ugh. If you are an employee, you deserve more, hit Monster now. If you own or run the company, it is time to get real. Your competitors will crush you and your best people will leave, soon. Get help, today.

Lean Innovation, the Market is Your Petri Dish

We live in the fastest-evolving marketplace in history, so why is it that so many companies still move so slowly bringing new products to market?

We believe it is because they are holding fast to an industrial revolution mindset where innovations are carefully devised, honed and perfected. The heft of extensive machines and expensive infrastructure mire down the collective mindset, locking in a collective fear of imperfection. There is much to learn from the nimble tech industry that focuses on speed to market over perfection.

Eric Ries’ book “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses” contemplates how the lessons of Lean Manufacturing and the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley form an entrepreneurial framework relevant to companies in all stages of the corporate lifecycle. The focus is on efficiency and speed, shortening the product development cycle and reducing the amount of investment capital needed to develop a product that meets market demand.

Lean Start-Up differs from Design Thinking in its emphasis on hypothesis generation over idea generation. Like scientific methods, Lean Start-Up begins with a defined hypothesis and starting “leap-of-faith assumptions” to be proved or disproved in the petri dish of the market. A minimum viable product (MVP) that is not yet finalized is then launched in the market complete with methods to evaluate the hypothesis and experiments to test and measure its veracity, referred to as “validated learning.”

Like Design Thinking, Lean Start-Up stresses the importance of iteration through end-user feedback. However, the type of feedback is where the two methodologies differ. While Lean Start-Up does use customer feedback during product development to avoid time invested designing undesirable features or services, the methodology’s business-hypothesis-driven experimentation is tested in a live environment and rapid iterations are made according to quantitative metrics. Structured pilots with split testing, known as A/B testing in the tech world, test two versions simultaneously.

The goal of this learn-build-measure loop is to prove out market demand and meet it with a minimally viable product for early adopters. If the hypothesis doesn’t play out, the team quickly pivots by formulating new a hypothesis for real-time testing. Products that show some traction in their metrics are refined according to user feedback, gradually becoming a more perfected solution to satisfy the larger market opportunity.

Want to be a lean innovator? Work backwards from the business results you are trying to achieve instead of forward from a technology already built. Here is some advice we like from entrepreneur Ash Maury: 1. Go only as fast as you can learn 2. Validate qualitatively, verify quantitatively 3. Systematically test your model.

Crowdsourcing & Collaboration

Despite tremendous advances in technology that yield nearly infinite access to information and the Internet’s connectivity of the world’s greatest experts, many companies continue to look inward for new product development and innovation.

This navel gazing and resistance to collaborate with the technology-enabled global network limits these companies’ capacity to innovate. What is needed is a culture of collaboration and eradication of the “not invented here” mentality.

Throughout history, many of humanity’s greatest achievements stem from collaboration. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary came into being in the mid-19th century as a result of an open call for volunteers. Over 70 years, 6 million submissions were collected, identifying all words in the English language and example quotations exemplifying their usages. Imagine how much easier and faster this task would be today harnessing the power of the Internet.

Global collaboration is a trend that has been picking up steam, creating a virtual community with a sense of unity and interest in sharing information for the common good. Perhaps the development community was the pioneer of this movement with their open-source software model, where source code was made universally available to make collective advances in technology. In 2005, the editors at Wired Magazine coined the term “crowdsourcing” to describe how some businesses were using the Internet to collect information and outsource work to individuals. Since then, smart companies have been utilizing human capital outside their walls and actively practicing Open Innovation to source and fuel significant growth opportunities.

In his 2013 book “Crowdsourcing,” Daren C. Brabham describes how crowdsourcing is being used today:

Knowledge Discovery & Management: For information-management problems where an organization mobilizes a crowd to find and assemble information. Ideal for creating collective resources.

Distributed Human Intelligence Tasking: For information-management problems where an organization has a set of information in hand and mobilizes a crowd to process or analyze the information. Ideal for processing large data sets that computers cannot easily do.

Broadcast Search: For ideation problems where an organization mobilizes a crowd to come up with a solution to a problem that has an objective, provable right answer. Ideal for scientific problem-solving.

Peer-Vetted Creative Production: For ideation problems where an organization mobilizes a crowd to come up with a solution to a problem that has an answer that is subjective or dependent on public support. Ideal for design, aesthetic or policy problems.

The collective minds are more generative than one mind working alone. Be vigilant about employees becoming insular; cognitive bias limits group thinking. Look outside your walls for answers to problems. Tap the crowd.

Enroll the Skeptics Early.

After working on hundreds of innovation projects, one fact remains. If you cannot get executive sponsorship of the final concepts, they will never launch. We recommend a few steps to get leadership engaged in solving the problem with you as part of the process; therefore, they will feel invested in the outcome of the innovations in the marketplace.

Set up a meeting to unpack the starting assumptions of the Innovation Project. Make sure you include time to think about unthinkable things. For example, if the company needs a new product, make sure you include time to ideate on different business models. Also, provide the context to free everyone of their current paradigm and boundaries. We like to use a simple exercise called What Will Get Us Fired, and we encourage wild thinking.

After relishing thinking about all types of illicit, weird and shadowy things they are not allowed to voice normally, then make their minds stretch into solutions thinking. Have them pair up, pick the wildest ones and then flip the concepts on their head – and transform them into a concept the market would accept. Once they witness the process, they will understand the adage the awesome breakthroughs often sit right next to ridiculous.

Then, re-write their role. Instead of setting them up to analyze the results at the end of the process in a PASS/FAIL or YES/NO dynamic, have them check in as part of a team invested in something that will enhance the company’s top line and make its brand a leader. Call them an Action Team or a Realization Team, something inherently collaborative and additive.

Check in at key points. After all of the empathy and fieldwork is complete, give them a window into the insights. Likewise, after the define phase is complete, connect the dots for them, let them help wordsmith the reframing of the findings so they have genuine ownership in solving the right problem.

Use their expertise. Let’s say one member is in the legal department, one is in R&D, one is in business development and another works in regulatory affairs. After the ideation phase is complete and consumer desirability has been validated for concepts in a series of prototype co-creations, then enroll them at their level of expertise by asking them to help figure out how to make these possible solutions technically feasible and market viable. We have witnessed naysayers transformed into complex problem solvers on the widest array of issues: chemistry, technology, claims work, etc.

Many members of this group are pre-amped to say “no, here is why it won’t work,” and this habitual knee-jerk response has caused billions of dollars to be left on innovation’s cutting room floor. By getting their enrollment early, and by making them part of the process and solution, they work toward, rather than against, new products and solutions.

Hope these lessons from the field help you to have a great success with launching meaningful innovations in your organizations.

Have Courage to Leap.

As Innovation and Growth Strategy consultants, we have methods, processes and exercises that we apply to client problems.

While tools from this vast toolbox work for any type of organization seeking to provide a better service or product (health care, nonprofit, hospitality, consumer goods, financial services, wholesalers and B2B) to generate insights and custom solutions that set them up as a category leader, what we sell is something else ultimately. This is perhaps the rarest asset in corporate America for an unknown reason, called courage.

According to Wikipedia, courage is the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty or intimidation. Most corporate cultures move in fear, make decisions for the worst case, then present power points for their leadership teams like a pep rally squad playing the roles of analyst and accountant.

What happened to the ability to dream, to share a vision, to outline something bold? In the land of how-we-do-things-here, no new thinking is allowed and courage is stamped out the moment it shows the glint in its dreamy eye.

It’s little wonder that all of the big telecommunications companies can only grow by major acquisition rather than human invention. Given that they are fixed and rigid in their business model, infrastructure costs and roles, they cannot afford to rethink the industry. So, in moves a concept that defies their paradigmatic models, Skype, and without the capital-intensive notion of a network, they become the market leader in international calls, with more than 12 percent of the market. The bigger companies lacked the courage to drop their world-view and see the market needs and new technological possibilities with the objectivity of a startup.

Yet, many corporate citizens lust after such a wild leap. On every corporate desk, we see copies of the Business Model Canvas or Lean Start-up.

Skunkworks teams meet with the fervor and passion of illicit love. Like stolen love, these relationships really make it in the light of day. The concepts are cleaned up and presented to the larger enterprise. Then, behold the attack. Behold the boundaries. Behold the reasons why we cannot move ahead with something radical. Faint praise for fresh thinking peppers the conversation, then it’s back to business as usual.

This cynical, but too-true, scene is enacted again and again every day in America. Cultural antibodies eat at any expression of courage like rapacious piranha in company after company. The only antidote is courage, the courage to confront fears, dangers and uncertainties. To be able to enact this courage, it takes a focus on an innovation culture where even the business model that brings us together is an ongoing experiment and prototype open to improvement.

Courage: It changes things, for the better.

How to get unstuck from a rut.

Perspective is everything. In life and work life this adage proves true time and time again.

If you can see opportunity without preset lenses, you are more prone to make advantageous use of this gift. If you harness the skill to zoom out and zoom in, you see your business in many different settings, in different categories and segments, and serving different customers. We, at the Studio, cannot empathize the power of fresh thinking and a cached perspective.

Let’s look at the opposite skill. Your organization has attained the glory of management, operational excellence. You have orchestrated the entire flow of work down to a predictable algorithm.

While you may realize a short-term bump in cost savings because you have optimized efficiencies, something is not right. No matter how tightly you put the screws to your sales team, sales are down, heading toward flat.

What you manufacture is no longer desired at a premium price. Imports are killing your once-sacred margin. The market has changed. Distributors turn your loyal relationship into a parts-dealer relationship. Low cost is king. And, they will not take your higher-margin products to their clients. The market has changed. Your business model, although optimized, is no longer viable. You have gotten so rigid in your perspective that you cannot adapt and transform the business to meet today’s demands. You have essentially created a trap, built upon the faulty assumption that your snapshot of reality from which you derived the operational algorithm was an eternal truth.

Now, you must change or face extinction. If you kept a fresh perspective – and the ability to zoom in and zoom out – you would have never found yourself in such a costly bind.

Leaders today realize they need to disorient their perspectives and reorient themselves to the market with fresh eyes on a daily or weekly basis to avoid getting stuck in such a deep rut. The market is never linear, nor should businesses be.

There are exercises leadership teams can do to disorient their perspectives, think creatively about their businesses and awaken to a broader sense of opportunities for their firms.

If you are stuck and what once worked well is working against you, try some creative disorientation and role-playing to way find and lead a way out.