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Telling Compelling Stories

This is another excerpt from 2016’s FEI conference in Boston, MA.  This one comes from William Greenwald, Founder and Chief Neuroleaderologist at Windsor Leadership Group.


He 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…”


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.”


Greenwald also employed the tactic of waiting 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 requires 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 in an improv mode.
  4. Manage your fears. You can find ways to help lessen 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.

Tethering the Void Between Moonshot Ideas and Customer Connection

FEI Conference, Boston, MA, 2016—Donna Sturgess, Executive in Residence, Carnegie Mellon University


“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 recurring theme. What is Moonshot thinking? How does it work?


“Technology runs far ahead of the customer—and the sweet spot is relevance and shape-shifting technology.”


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 to 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 in between the earth and the moonshot ideas. This gulf between the two is the road to opportunity.

What’s Your Innovation Definition?

So many organizations set out to innovate, but lose their way close to the finish line. All of the time, money, and energy invested loom over them like an ominous shadow of failure ready to overtake the whole scene.


What happened? There was so much momentum, good will, collaboration, and then—the painful, public crash into the wall.


What is this wall? The revenue expectations of the business may not have been formally expressed on the front end. Pressure builds. You see it on the faces of coworkers in the hallways. Things tighten up. The market has shifted. Competitors have gained ground. All longer-term projects need to shorten their cycle or cease.


The scenario above happened at many companies, and in departments at companies, as they started their long journey to make innovation a formal discipline.


A lot of tension gets created; and, if harnessed correctly, it can be useful, creative tension. It would be a mistake and inauthentic for any organization to try and create rigid tools, processes, metrics, and even a definition for innovation without having experienced some of its transformative power first-hand.


If you are trying a new work mode, outside of the existing paradigm, think of the first trial or two as a learning investment. You may stumble upon revenue or insights that lead to giant leaps of both money and inspiration; however, embrace this tension at the right moment. You have arrived. Now is the right time to begin discussing a befitting innovation definition for your organization.


Do it too prematurely and you risk a bad fit, which ends up worse than a bloated software implementation that no one adopts after spending too much money and time on it.


Do it too late and you lack the formal constraints to drive meaningful business results or cultural changes.


When you are ready to have a filter to sift innovation, consider drafting a formal definition. While it is easy to draft an MBA-like set of Innovation criteria to please executives, this may not be the curative needed to catalyze your organization.


Still, the starter set of a definition, the baseline, contains these three points. Must be own-able. Must create a sustainable competitive advantage. Must be based on new market insights.


Yet, there is a problem with this general prescription. If you already suffer from a cultural bias, the baseline may only inflate an already chronic tendency.


Consider a company that jumps with an engineering solution to every synapse in their industry then sees their development costs rise while adding only flat or negative growth for years. Also, the firm may be damaging their brand equity by releasing “me-too” products or following tech trends without adding anything new to the market.


Adding a tenet to a definition of innovation such as “must create an irresistible product experience” could cure a world of ills.


There are many types of tonics for similar problems that can be embedded into an innovation definition. The point: live into it and create a custom definition for your organization.

Essential Tactics for Innovation Intrepreneurs

For authentic innovation to occur at an organization, you have to craft the culture of a place to accept and embrace new ways of working together and being in the market.


More often than not, teams or outsourced agencies follow an innovation method, create many concepts that are new to the market and certain to create new value, but are crushed by the cultural antibodies of a place while still an embryonic idea.


To mitigate this internal risk and overcome this too common barrier, risk taking should be encouraged and strategies that welcome new business models should be rewarded. Ultimately, culture is simply defined by how people express (or do not express) themselves in a given organization—the guiding norms of a place.


The guiding light of any successful innovation project is the intrepreneurs that navigate the old world of the existing business culture and the new world of possibility at the same time. Their influence can determine if a project thrives or dies.


Here are three essential tips for Innovation Intrepreneurs:


Build a multi-department team. You’ll need help from every critical discipline to manifest this work. Gather a mix of marketers, strategists, engineers, financial, regulatory, and other key departments as part of the core team. You’ll need help from different skill sets and a variety of problem solving approaches. Once gathered, go through a few exercises to eliminate the idea of role and department. Rename each person for this project. Agree to not have any rank during the tenure of this project. Finally, do an exercise to give voice to the organization’s orthodoxies you may encounter so you have the power to say, “yes, that is our current reality, but it’s not Reality.”


Form a Realization Group. Recast the roles of key stakeholders as a Realization Group. These are the people used to saying “no” for a living—legal, brand, regulatory, etc. By changing the language and style of engagement with them, you reframe their response. Have them agree to use Appreciative Inquiry as a method of inquiry for this project, and that they must commit to exploring How to make things work instead of analyzing reasons Why they might not work. Ensure responses follow this method of communication. Reframing how these roles work and resetting their language defaults will aid your mission immeasurably.

Leave the building. Get out of your head and go out into the world. Begin with the intention of deeply understanding the context of those from whom you’ll be solving problems. Go into people’s homes, their closets, and go shopping with them. You will be surprised how much this seemingly little action can add value to the process. As one world-renowned chemist told me after visiting a few contact dermatitis sufferers in their home and understanding their routines, rituals, and struggles, “we need to start every project this way or we are just creating for ourselves.”


These three essential tactics will empower any innovation intrepreneur and create a culture of engagement and encouragement.


Radical Team Dynamics for the Highly Productive

Investing in people means the conventional and expected things. You can send high-performers to leadership development, provide access and time for seminars and online learning. You can reward with money, praise, and attention. Yet, three aspects of people investment tend to get overlooked, leaving the most driven and brightest unmotivated and rudderless, looking for the door.


These three elements of high-functioning team dynamics for the highly productive are: radical acceptance, radical collaboration, and radical challenges.


Let’s look at each of the three in a little more depth and you can decide how radically productive you want your culture to be.


Radical acceptance. Professional life used to require a compartmentalization of life. You’d leave your personal issues, interests, and even many of your driving proclivities and core passions out of the office. Given the rise of volunteerism and community involvement, the high value placed on individual talent, the war for talent, and the hope for retaining top talent for the long-term, organizations must allow a fully human expression of its employees.


We call this trend radical acceptance of the people who choose to work at a culture. Prospective employees are looking for a place to invest most of their waking life. If you choose to embrace all of them and accept them as a multi-dimensional human, rather than a replaceable cog in a machine, loyalty increases dramatically.


Radical collaboration. The rise of project-led teams equals a non-hierarchical approach to complex problem solving. After accepting the individuals at your firm, you then need to craft a culture that allows for radical collaboration. Radical collaboration means more than meeting to toss ideas around and defer to higher ranked members to ascribe priorities to them. Rather, it is an invitation to journey into the realms of strategy, insights, innovation, and new revenue possibilities together. Collaborating on this type of project team allows each team member to bring his or her passion to work.


Often it takes a little unlearning for people to behave with such deep trust that they risk exploring with one another, counting on support from the team. When radical collaboration is embraced by an organization, you engage deeply, playing to one another’s innate strengths. Think of it like a jazz band where a form of telepathy takes hold and you intuitively know how one member of the band will embellish a theme yet are surprised by the sublime results.


Radical challenges. If you want to incentivize high performers give them more and more complex challenges. The thrill of solving a problem that no one else has solved can be as motivating as money or a promotion. With certain types of professionals, radical challenges can be a more compelling incentive to make your organization their work home. Being assigned a key special project is a reward that cannot be underestimated.


Want to win the talent wars? Let your people be people at work, allow them to engage fully, and reward them with increasingly more interesting work. What sounds radical is really a common sense way to build an innovative organization.

Lip Service or Real Metamorphosis? How Real Innovation Happens.

When we get called into a company it is often because a very expensive innovation effort failed.

One of the huge global innovation firms was called in to create a new platform and what happens next is very much like a bad action movie—you know the story. No surprises.

The company received breakthrough concepts but they don’t know what to do with them, which means the concepts are little more than expensive doorstoppers.

The company painfully realizes that unless they embed innovation inside their organization, nothing new to the market will leave the nest. In other words, they just can’t outsource innovation. So much of the practice is an inside job.

At this point, they begin to reflect more deeply on their culture. They realize that they need to train people in-house to entertain new ideas about new business models, new channels, and even new products. They learn three key things.

One. They need the executive team’s full support and sign off on the innovation journey.

Two. They need visible and tangible signs of that endorsement.

That is probably 75 percent of the importance. If they know that the executive team is behind the effort, they can do anything. They feel empowered to explore, because innovation is an exploration of new possible value.

This sea change means building multidisciplinary teams and hiring some new talent that can act as innovation navigators—who know many methods, can teach and mentor processes, and walk your teams through several projects.

Three. They must re-calibrate the new process development processes themselves.

As soon as the multidisciplinary team generates a portfolio of value, they then have to formally place it in the new product development pipeline, complete with consumer insights, a business case, a portfolio of concepts, and complete quantitative studies for validation.

You can’t just mouth the lip service to innovation, do some crowdsourcing or have a suggestion box of ideas for new products, and then blame each other and the field of innovation when it doesn’t work.

You have to play for keeps. Entering a whole new field of possibilities has great consequences to the engine of the business.

You have to go through this chrysalis as a culture.

There is a key insight based on the science of morphing: when the caterpillar turns into primordial soup, they become what scientists call imaginal cells.

But they have to go through the exercises first in order to get to this point of maturity, to take flight.

If you see a culture that is embraces innovation, people are laughing, they’re engaged, and they’re working through problems together.

Creativity becomes a team sport rather than a solo sport. It’s just a joy to be around because it generates its own positivity, and many happy financial returns.

Storytelling, the Brain & Work Culture

I love the quote by the poet Muriel Rukeyser that says “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Humans live for stories. We learn from stories at home, school, from friends, and also very compellingly at work.


Humans within a work culture are motivated by stories. Look at the famous founding myths of HP and Apple in the garages, of Fred Smith and FedEx, and many others. When new salespeople are hired, smart companies allow them to shadow the veterans until they know the War Stories by heart—another example of how stories define a culture and become its primary ambassador and sales vehicle. Once spoken, powerful words impart trust and experience, and, if told well, stories prompt core brain activities that neuroscience is just beginning to understand.


Mirroring = Connection: Listeners experience similar brain activity to one another and the speaker.


Neural Coupling: Stories light up parts of the brain that allow the listener to turn the story into their own experience, so they transfer the felt experience of the story as if they lived it.


Ah, Dopamine: Emotionally-charged events, such as listening to a good story, trigger the release of dopamine into the system, which makes details easier to remember with better accuracy.


Turn on the Cortex: Facts from a deadly power point or spread sheet get processed by only two parts of the brain (Broca’s and Wernicke’s area), but a strong story engages additional areas such as the motor cortex, sensory cortex, and frontal cortex.




While the science is interesting unto itself, it really just validates what intuition has told us for generations: stories are bonds of a culture, its invisible glue.


As a lifelong lover of stories, I earned an MFA in creative writing and still dabble as a poet and songwriter. Most people in business find these practices quaint or odd, and discount them for more conventional past times, such as watching professional sports, forgetting that eloquence can motivate, persuade, reframe perspectives, and add depth to key moments throughout the day.


To think new thoughts and go after a new market or new segment, you have to know how far a story can stretch while remaining credible, which means you will get into all kinds of brand elasticity work.


If you are launching a new product suite that is going to reset the brand in the leadership position, you have to give a name and a voice to a new growth category, such as Masstige, which means luxury for the masses. As the storyteller, you must create the right setting for your venture with well-chosen words.


The last point that I’ll add here is know your audience. Translate for them. If you know you are talking to the finance committee about an innovation platform use different language than if you were talking to product managers or with a team of marketers.


To earn credibility and trust, use their language to deliver the story. By going this extra step, by applying this empathetic curiosity, you will resonate more deeply and become one of creators of the culture.

Toward a Better Definition of ‘Innovation Process’

Innovation is one of those words that mean something different to each person that hears it. When you describe the while framework as an Innovation Process the confusion compounds exponentially. The word Process is more misleading than the word Innovation. 


Here’s why. The word process connotes a linear form of systemization and optimization, given the many processes that were formed under the banner of industrialization and the scientific management worldview.


Therefore, when the phrase Innovation Process is uttered, minds befuddle and cloud with a myriad of inaccurate meanings. The word process has been co-opted to mean a step-by-step sequence that makes doing something more efficient by a given system of measurement. Notions of other processes for manufacturing concepts or actual goods prove this theory: Lean, Six Sigma, TQM, Kaizen, for example.


The ghost of Edward Winslow Taylor haunts the word process. As a mechanical engineer and as the father of Scientific Management, Taylor was the philosophical force behind many of the principals used during the Industrial Revolution. Most of his consulting was based in applying engineering concepts to make factory function at a higher rate of productivity.


All of the types of processes listed above are based in Taylor’s school of thought. In this system process equals Value Engineering. This system is where you derive new value by squeezing it out of an existing system.


In innovation the process equals New Value Creation. This process of creation is non-linear, even iterative, insights-based, and way-finding, a process of discovery, not optimization; sometimes, it can be like playing the children’s game Chutes and Ladders as the team gains ground, then has to revert back to an earlier stage in the framework to dig deeper.


Or, think of the difference this way. In the Industrial World processes were logical, but in the Post-Industrial World (the age of networks, our era) processes are psychological, just like the humans we serve and the dynamic market itself. The world we inhabit changes so fast. Organizations die everyday, or leap across the ocean in a flash.


The dizzying rate of change happens as fast as Google Fiber allows it to move, which is much faster than the naked eye can see. To define the word Process from a bygone era means to miss the unveiling of the emerging world and its quantum quick, disruptive, dynamic glory—and it miss the opportunities that only a rebirth of perception allows to see.


Next time you hear the phrase Innovation Process pay attention. Let it serve as a mantra to wake you up to a new realm of possibilities of new value creation, new systems, new business models, new ways to be in the market, different methods for solving vexing problems.


Don’t let the monkeys of your mind spit out historic meanings of important words that impede your understanding. Yes, value engineering and its processes will always have its place in the world, but an Innovation Process has nothing to do with that mindset or set of practices. Generating new value by seeing the world and its needs in new ways is the essence of an Innovation Process.

Birth of a Product Company Pt. 4

Dear reader, this is the forth column of four. You may find the previous three in the Crazy Talk archives.


“After you have a solid business plan and actual market feedback on your product concepts, including revenue,” I continued, “you’ll want to think about raising capital.”


“You don’t want your company to wither on the vine before it ripens, so we’ll need to raise a round of Friends and Family money.”


“How do I do that? Just ask them for a hundred bucks each?” she asked.


“First, you need to figure out what you’re willing to give up in exchange. Are you willing to give up part of your company already? Are you willing to give up equity and report to a board yet? Or should you just consider a loan or structuring it as debt?”


“Equity. Debt. Board. Man, these are things I haven’t thought about at all,” she confessed.


“Have you heard of Old Wives’ Tales?” She nodded affirmatively. “This is one from the world of business ‘Most companies die of digestion rather than starvation,’ meaning they got a bunch of orders, hit a certain level of success, and then imploded –couldn’t produce and deliver quality at the rate the market desired. Think of all the struggle, the goodwill burned, the heartbreak of having to let people go, the taste of failure.”


She nodded, as this vision was one potentiality.


“The reasons they fail are two-fold, and unavoidable. First, they didn’t have a viable plan for scaling their growth. A plan cannot predict every possible pitfall, but it gives you a roadmap for finding your way and highlights key assets and resources you’ll need at certain levels of growth. You’ll be able to have a sense of what’s needed and can adapt more readily, more creatively with this plan. It pays to do your homework.”


I took a minute and made sure she was listening. She was, deeply.


So, I added, “the other reason is simple: money. Growth takes capital, investment; think of it as fertilizer. You have to spread it around pretty thick and generously, until it hurts, really. This is why you’ll need those Friends and Family dollars, to have something to put to work before you can either get a bank loan or raise what they call ‘more institutional money.’ Without ready capital, you can get trapped in a death spiral, a painful spot, which is why you want to plan for growth, account for it, and have money on hand when it is time to grow. I’ve had too many friends—all good people—who grew for a few years then got in over their heads, couldn’t handle their loan service or the price of production, then screech and grind until they finally close shop, still owing taxes, others. It’s a tragic end, but it is avoidable.”


Don’t focus on just the products. Write a business plan. Test market. Raise some money. Then, build with your plan as your guide. What a grand adventure.

Birth of a Product Company Pt. 3

Dear reader, this is the third column of four. You may find the previous two in the Crazy Talk archives.


At this point in the dialogue, I felt the need to break down the conversation into helpful actions in two main categories: test marketing and business planning.


“You asked what to do first. First: stop working on your products. You have beautiful prototypes built. Now, focus on the business,” I said. “In time you’ll need to think about capital, but first you have to prove yourself, so go and see how the market reacts and also draft a business plan—this way potential investors will know you are serious. Remember, they are betting on you, not on the products.”


“Whoa—how do I do all of that? Where do I start?”


“You already have begun test marketing by displaying your products on your shelf. Now, keep good records of what each one cost to make, which ones sell faster, and what the profit margins are.”


“Then, expand the test a little. Try to selling a few of the pieces you’ve created at your current asking price at the farmer’s market and a local gift shop or two for a set period of time, keeping good records on what sells, what doesn’t, and any feedback you get from people.”


“Most important, write a thorough business plan.”


“A business plan?” she sounded as crestfallen as someone just told they have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.


“I know this point sounds rough, but if you want to be successful, focus on the business. You have great product prototypes, but from this point forward it is not about the products—as long as quality is consistent—it is about growing a business.”


“A business plan …” she uttered this phrase with sour contempt, sounding defeated before a match.


Silence deafened us both. I couldn’t take it any longer, as she’s a friend, but she beat me to it.


“Can’t I hire someone else to write it?” she asked.


“That’s like asking who are you going to trust to raise your baby,” I responded, then switched metaphors: “do you know that old saying ‘you can’t hire anyone to do your push-ups for you?’ well, the same is true with business planning. You have to own it and do the hard work and homework to own it. That is, if you want to grow this effort into a business and you want to control it and be able to make the decisions.”


Her head nods affirmatively.


“There is one alternative,” I add, “if you want to take on a business-minded partner whom you trust and with whom you can work closely, you can focus on products. Still, you’ll have to have a deep, visceral understanding of costs, materials, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, business development, sales, cultural trends, the competition, and adapt your strategy according to these dynamic forces once you have a grasp of them.”