3 Things Leaders Must Do to Drive Innovation Success

3 Things Leaders Must Do to Drive Innovation Success

Dear Corporate Executive,

Congratulations! You’ve taken action to make innovation happen. You created an innovation team, you gave them all the Design Thinking, Lean Innovation, and Disruptive Innovation books and articles, and you left them alone to make sure that they aren’t infected by the corporate antibodies that plague those working on the day-to-day business.

But nothing is happening.

Or maybe something is happening but it’s not what you need or want.

You are frustrated.

Your team is frustrated.

This is not going well and if the team doesn’t turn things around, you’re shutting it all down. After all, you have a business that needs your attention and management and if you don’t keep your eye on that ball, there won’t be a future for the business.

I understand. I’ve been there. Lots of leaders have been there.

And you’re right, something does need to change.

YOU need to change.

As a leader in an organization, there are 3 thing YOU must do in order to have a chance at innovation success.

YOU need to do these things because only you have the organizational authority, influence, and power to make these decisions and support and defend the actions required to deliver on them.  Note that I use the word “chance.” Doing these 3 things is not a guarantee of success but, I promise you, NOT doing them does guarantee failure.

Talk about what Innovation will enable, not just why it’s important

Your innovation team knows that innovation is important, they desperately want to do it, and they’re working hard on it. But they need direction and the rest of the organization needs to know why the team is doing what it’s doing and why you’re giving them the resources.

Doing this requires that you go beyond explaining why innovation is important. We all know that innovation is essential to an organization’s long-term success. We also know that we should eat 5 servings of vegetables a day and floss twice daily. Knowing that something is important isn’t the same as doing something that is important.

Instead you need to set the vision for what things will look like in the future, after the innovation has taken hold. You need to show everyone how things will be better in the future because of the changes being made today. You need to give everyone something to believe in and work towards.

Man driving a floor scrubbing machine

Tennant T15 Floor Scrubber Operator Training

Consider Tennant, maker of the small bluish-green Zamboni like machines you see cleaning floors in office buildings and airports. They were founded in 1870 as a supplier of hardwood floors and invented floor scrubbers in the 1930s. For over 120 years, they worked to fulfill their mission “to become the preeminent company in residential floor maintenance equipment, floor coatings, and related products” and they enjoyed a nice steady business as a result.

Then, in 1999, Janet Dolan was named CEO, becoming the first non-family member to run the company. As a long-time member of the Board, Ms. Dolan knew the company well and she also knew that it was facing increasing competition and price pressure. So, with the support of the Board and her executive team, a year after she took the reigns, Ms. Dolan announced a new mission for Tennant: “To bring to market sustainable cleaning innovations that empower others to create a cleaner, safer, healthier world.”

That’s a pretty big change from floor maintenance, coatings, and related products.

And way more inspiring.

So what happened?

Revenue decreased from 2000 to 2001. Then it plateaued from 2001 to 2002. So far not so good, right?

In 2002, Tennant launched 2 new products — one that cleaned floors with 70% less water and 90% less detergent but resulted in significantly lower labor costs, and a carpet cleaning scrubber that used less water and detergent but which decreased drying time from 18 hours to 30 minutes.

Neither of these innovation would have been possible under the old mission because it defined Tennant as a company that made (and sold) “floor coatings, and related products.” But both were spot-on with the new one mission, one that defined the company as an enabler of a “cleaner, safer, healthier world.”

The result? A steady upward climb in revenue from approximately $400M in 2002 to $701M in 2008

Yes, Tennant did many other things (restructuring, altering their manufacturing process and supply chain) during that time period that also contributed to their growth. But you can’t cut your way to a nearly 10% CAGR. You innovate your way there. And Tennant’s new mission made that possible.*

Quantify what Innovation must deliver

“Money talks, bullsh*t walks.”

– Some guy in my 12th grade French class (I have no idea why this was said in the context of a French class but I do remember it better than most of the French I learned).

Yes, innovation is fun. But innovation for the purpose of having fun is a hobby. You’re innovating because you need to grow your business. So treat innovation like a business and give it a target.

Mind The Gap written in LEGO on the floor

LEGO Shop: “Mind the Gap” from TripAdvisor

That target is known as the Growth Gap.

The Growth Gap is a concept which, as far as I can tell, was introduced in Robert B. Tucker’s 2002 book Driving Growth Through Innovation: How leading firms are transforming their future and is one of the most important and simple innovation tools I’ve seen used.

In fact, you’ve probably already calculated your Growth Gap. You just do’t know it. Yet.

Start with your future revenue goal (you probably set this during your annual strategic planning process as the goal for 3–5 years from now). Now subtract your current revenue. Then, subtract the expected revenue of everything else in your pipeline. What’s left is your Growth Gap, aka the amount of revenue that innovation (i.e. stuff you don’t yet have funded or in the pipeline) needs to deliver.

NOTE: there are far more precise and complicated ways to calculate the Growth Gap but this was is quick and will get you to an answer that is more right than wrong.

Several years ago, I worked with a global athletic company that was already well known for its innovations but which was trying to become more systematic in their efforts and more diligent about investing in Breakthrough and Disruptive innovation. The team and its C-Suite sponsors knew that additional investment was required to fund Breakthrough and Disruptive innovation but senior leaders were hesitant to allocate the cash.

So we calculated the growth gap.**

At the time, the company had $25B in revenue and the stated goal of growing to $50B in revenue in 7 years. According to their strategic plan, they had line of sight to an additional $15B in net revenue (new revenue from new launches less revenue losses from declining and discontinued products) resulting in an estimated $40B revenue in 7 years. From there, the math is pretty easy $50B promised minus $40B predicted equals $10B Growth Gap.

This means that management had to believe that they could create and scale 2 new Facebooks (based on Facebook’s revenue at the time) in the next 7 years.

With the need for innovation quantified, the coffers opened and innovation investment, activity, and results sky-rocketed.

Get involved in the work

Yes, you have a lot on your plate. No, that does not give you the right to delegate innovation.

If you have set a vision for what the business looks like as a result of innovation and you’ve quantified what innovation needs to deliver for your business then your innovation team IS a business and you need to be involved

But you do have a lot on your plate.

And you’re probably already involved in innovation governance processes like sitting on an Innovation Council, reviewing learnings from innovation projects, making small investments to get to the next learning stage, asking different questions in innovation meetings than you do in your regular business review meetings, and celebrating “failures” instead of brushing them under the rug.

Good for you! (no really, I mean that).

But are you getting your hands dirty? Are you leaving the office to see innovation at work? Are you going into the market to talk to the people you want to serve?

How much of your time are you spending on innovation? If, like the executives in the above example, you expect 26% of your future revenue to come from innovation, are you spending 25% of your time with the innovation team? 10% (i.e. 4 hours per week or 2 days per month?) 2.5% (1 hour per week or a half-day a month)?

Spending time outside of meetings and inside the work of innovation can make all the difference. In one case, it made a nearly $1B+ difference

Welcome to Cedar Rapids Iowa sign

Liz Martin/ The Gazette

I started my career at P&G working on a product code-named DD-1.

In my first year at P&G, we launched DD-1 into test markets in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. And those test markets went extremely well. So well in fact, that we experienced product shortages and the emergence of a strange gray-market of DD-1 products.

At the same time, we were working with IRI to run DD-1 through a BASES test, a standard modeling exercise that sought to forecast initial and on-going revenue for new products and a standard step in the process for securing launch approval.

Since the test markets were going so well, we were confident that the BASES results would be equally strong and moved forward with putting together a launch recommendation for the new brand. We even scheduled a meeting with the CEO and COO to get their signatures on the launch approval document

Then the BASES results came back. And they were bad. Historically bad. Perhaps the worst results in the history of P&G.

But we were not deterred. We had the real-world results from our test markets and we confidently and optimistically plowed ahead.

DD-1’s leadership team presented the launch reco, including BASES results, to the CEO and COO. They explained that we did not believe that the BASES results were accurate because they used the re-purchase cycle of canned aerosol dusting sprays as an analog to the re-purchase cycle of DD-1 cloths and data from the test market (real world data! real usage data!) told a very different story. They asked for approval to launch.

The CEO said no.

The CEO believed the BASES results. BASES had always been accurate for all previous launches (keep in mind 99% of previous launches were incremental improvements to existing brands). The launch was cancelled.

Then, the COO spoke up. He believed the test market results and agreed that there was a flaw in the BASES methodology. He believed DD-1 should launch. He would take responsibility for its launch and its results.

The CEO acquiesced.

Swiffer was launched in 1999

Today, it is closing in on the coveted $1B Brand status.

Why, when presented with the same launch recommendation, did the CEO and COO make two different decisions? The COO spent a few hours one day in Cedar Rapids Iowa. He saw the test market results playing out live, he spoke to the people who drove from store to store to find refill cloths. He experienced the innovation instead of just reading about it.

So, my corporate executive friend, do not give up. Step up and lead (yes, even more than you have). Paint the picture of how innovation will shape your business’ future. Quantify what it must deliver so that you can make informed (and realistic) investment decisions. Get your hands dirty because even a few hours of working in innovation, alongside your team, can make all the difference.

Success is possible. You must lead the way.


*This story is based on two case studies by HBS professor, Lynda Applegate: Tennant Company (February 2010, revised January 2014) and Tennant Company: Innovating Within and Beyond the Core (June 2010, revised August 2011)

** Numbers have been changed to preserve confidentiality

Failure to Innovate is Evidence of Failed Leadership

Failure to Innovate is Evidence of Failed Leadership

When a business fails to innovate it is because executives fail to lead.

It is not because there is a lack of ideas

It is not because there aren’t enough resources

It is not because the market doesn’t support it.

It is because executives lack the courage to lead so they focus on being a “great” manager.

Now, before you get all upset about that truth bomb, let’s get clear on what two of the words used above — innovation and manager — mean

  • Innovation — Something different that creates value. Yes, it could be a new to the world widget. It could also be an improvement to an internal process. Trust me, employees have lots of ideas on how to improve things and many of those ideas require no resources. But they don’t speak up because they don’t see leaders, only managers.
  • Manager — Leaders set a vision and inspire people to follow them. Managers enforce the status quo and monitor and measure people’s performance. Leaders encourage debate, growth, and ambition. Managers demand compliance and repetition in pursuit of perfection. Leaders encourage curiosity and continuous improvement. Managers would rather live with a problem they understand than a solution they don’t. Organizations are filled with managers enjoying long and “successful” careers.

“Managers would rather live with a problem they understand than with a solution they don’t.” — John Bolton (my dad, not the ambassador)

One of the hazards of a career spent in innovation, as an intrapreneur and as a consultant, is that I’ve lost count of the number of innovation efforts I’ve been a part of. But I can tell you that none of the failures were due to a bad idea or a lack of resources or the absence of market opportunity. They were due to executives who didn’t have time to engage in and understand the process, who chose to allocate all resources to the core business, or who didn’t have the patience to invest in something now only to have their successor reap the rewards.

But I have worked with a few precious leaders who achieved great success.

Here’s what we can learn from the leaders.

Integrate leadership and innovation

One of my clients, the CHRO of a global pharma company, repeatedly points out, “every organization is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets. If you don’t like the results, change the organization’s design.” Given that most organizations keep their innovation team separate from the group within HR that focuses on leadership development, we shouldn’t be surprised that true leadership is often absent in innovation.

“Every organization is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets. If you don’t like the results, change the organization’s design.” — CHRO of a global pharma co.

We also shouldn’t be surprised that the CHRO mentioned above designed a “Leadership & Innovation” function within her company. She and her C-suite peers recognize that these two things are inextricably linked and thus they must organize to encourage and enable both. They’ve put top talent in place in the organization and brought in practitioners from other companies to encourage diverse thinking and approaches. And they’ve put innovation and leadership goals on everyone’s development plans because you don’t become a world-class innovator through wishes and words.

Immediately be of service

The most successful innovation organization that I’ve ever helped build started with a grand vision and a humble task list. The vision was to be a “moonshot factory” in which new business models could be created, incubated, and launched without fear of falling victim to the tyranny of the business’ daily demands. The humble task list for the first year was to assemble and monitor the company’s innovation portfolio — the IP, projects, and products in each silo that were drawing funds from the corporate innovation budget.

Portfolio management is not glamorous work and it’s even harder when it means shining a light on decisions and activities that have thrived in the dark. But the work immediately created value for the CEO, providing evidence that the company really was spending 95% of its innovation resources on incremental improvements and less than 5% on projects that would redefine the company and the industry.

With the CEO now endorsing the existence of the group, they had the license to expand their scope and start helping select innovation teams. Once they proved helpful to leaders of those teams, they could expand a bit more into establishing their own projects. Now, 7 years later, the organization team employs 200+ people and has launched or piloted nearly a dozen new businesses.

Help people break the right rules

I’m all for “ask forgiveness, not permission” but the fact is that some rules cannot and should not be broken. Some of the unbreakable rules are obvious, like laws and government regulations, but some aren’t. That’s where leaders come in.

When I was in brand management at P&G, leading the launch of Swiffer WetJet, I broke a lot of rules. I made sure to never surprise my boss and even asked for his input on which ones to break and how to break them.

Sometimes he would tell me how to break the rule, sometimes he would tell me to break it and he would cover me, and sometimes he would tell me that if I broke the rule I was on my own. He trusted me to never surprise him and to always make smart choices and I trusted him to have my back when he said he would.

You have a choice.

You can be a leader or you can be a manager.

Being a manger is safer and easier. You can have a very long and successful career just being a manager.

Being a leader can feel risky and difficult. But it’s the only way to to inspire and impact others and to drive the innovation and change that is so desperately needed.

What will you choose?

The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

“How are you doing?  How are you handling all this?”

It seems like 90% of conversations these days start with those two sentences.  We ask out of genuine concern and also out of a need to commiserate, to share our experiences, and to find someone that understands.

The connection these questions create is just one of the Gifts of Uncertainty that have been given to us by the pandemic.

Yes, I know that the idea of uncertainty, especially in big things like our lives and businesses, being a gift is bizarre.  When one of my friends first suggested the idea, I rolled my eyes pretty hard and then checked to make sure I was talk to my smart sarcastic fellow business owner and not the Dali Lama.

But as I thought about it more, started looking for “gifts” in the news and listening for them in conversations with friends and clients, I realized how wise my friend truly was.

Faced with levels of uncertainty we’ve never before experienced, people and businesses are doing things they’ve never imagined having to do and, as a result, are discovering skills and abilities they never knew they had.  These are the Gifts of Uncertainty

  1. Necessity of offering a vision – When we’re facing or doing something new, we don’t have all the answers. But we don’t need all the answers to take action.  The people emerging as leaders, in both the political and business realms, are the ones acknowledging this reality by sharing what they do know, offering a vision for the future, laying out a process to achieve it, and admitting the unknowns and the variables that will affect both the plan and the outcome.
  2. Freedom to experiment – As governments ordered businesses like restaurants to close and social distancing made it nearly impossible for other businesses to continue operating, business owners were suddenly faced with a tough choice – stop operations completely or find new ways to continue to serve. Restaurants began to offer carry out and delivery.  Bookstores, like Powell’s in Portland OR and Northshire Bookstore in Manchester VT, also got into curbside pick-up and delivery game.  Even dentists and orthodontists began to offer virtual visits through services like Wally Health and Orthodontic Screening Kit, respectively.
  3. Ability to change – Businesses are discovering that they can move quickly, change rapidly, and use existing capabilities to produce entirely new products. Nike and HP are producing face shields. Zara and Prada are producing face masks. Fanatics, makers of MLB uniforms, and Ford are producing gowns.  GM and Dyson are gearing up to produce ventilators. And seemingly every alcohol company is making hand sanitizer.  Months ago, all of these companies were in very different businesses and likely never imagined that they could or would pivot to producing products for the healthcare sector.  But they did pivot.
  4. Power of Relationships – Social distancing and self-isolation are bringing into sharp relief the importance of human connection and the power of relationships. The shift to virtual meetups like happy hours, coffees, and lunches is causing us to be thoughtful about who we spend time with rather than defaulting to whoever is nearby.  We are shifting to seeking connection with others rather than simply racking up as many LinkedIn Connections, Facebook friends, or Instagram followers as possible.  Even companies are realizing the powerful difference between relationships and subscribers as people unsubscribed en mass to the “How we’re dealing with COVID-19 emails” they received from every company with which they had ever provided their information.
  5. Business benefit of doing the right thing – In a perfect world, businesses that consistently operate ethically, fairly, and with the best interests of ALL their stakeholders (not just shareholders) in mind, would be rewarded. We are certainly not in a perfect world, but some businesses are doing the “right thing” and rea being rewarded.  Companies like Target are offering high-risk employees like seniors pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems 30-days of paid leave.  CVS and Comcast are paying store employees extra in the form of one-time bonuses or percent increases on hourly wages.  Sweetgreen and AllBirds are donating food and shoes, respectively, to healthcare workers.  On the other hand, businesses that try to leverage the pandemic to boost their bottom lines are being taken to task.  Rothy’s, the popular shoe brand, announced on April 13 that they would shift one-third of their production capacity to making “disposable, non-medical masks to workers on the front line” and would donate five face masks for every item purchased.  Less than 12 hours later, they issued an apology for their “mis-step,” withdrew their purchase-to-donate program, and announced a bulk donation of 100,000 non-medical masks.

Before the pandemic, many of these things seemed impossibly hard, even theoretical.  In the midst of uncertainty, though, these each of these things became practical, even necessary.  As a result, in a few short weeks, we’ve proven to ourselves that we can do what we spent years saying we could not.

These are gifts to be cherished, remembered and used when the uncertainty, inevitably, fades.

Originally published on Mat 19, 2020 on Forbes.com

How Looking at Art Can Make You a Better Thinker, Communicator, and Leader

How Looking at Art Can Make You a Better Thinker, Communicator, and Leader

“It was quite a sight!  A dozen senior executives from a big, conservative financial services firm, all sitting on the floor in front of a painting, talking about what it could mean and why they think that.”

On a typical dreary November day, and Suzi and I were sitting in the café inside Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  She had just left her job as Head of Design Thinking at Fidelity Investments and I was taking a sabbatical before deciding what would be next for my career.  Introduced by a mutual friend, we decided to swap stories over lunch and a walk through one of the museum’s special exhibitions.

She was describing a Visual Thinking (VTS) session she had recently facilitated and the nearly instant impact it had on the way executives expressed themselves and communicated with each other.  She saw them engage in a level of creative problem-solving and critical thinking that they hadn’t in the past.

Intrigued, I set off to learn more.  What I discovered was a powerful, proven, and gasp fun way to help my clients navigate the ambiguous early days of innovation and embrace their inner curiosity and creativity.

 

Why should you care about VTS?

Imagine someone says to you, “If you and your team spend 1-2 hours with me each month for 9 months, I guarantee an improvement in your abilities to:

  • Quickly gather and synthesize accurate and unique insights by listening deeply and re-phrasing what they heard ensure understanding
  • Think critically and creatively by examining information or an idea from all angles, rethinking it, and deciding whether to keep, revise, or discard it
  • Communicate more clearly, respectfully, and productively with a variety of people inside and outside the organization
  • Work cross-functionally because they can apply critical thinking skills confidently to topics outside of their expertise
  • Innovate and experiment because they have learned how to individually and as a team operate in uncertainty
  • Provide more effective feedback by phrasing criticisms as questions and engaging in collaborative discovery and problem-solving conversations

Would you make the time commitment?

Now, what if they said, “All you have to do each month is sit together in a conference room and take part in a conversation.  No travel.  No additional expenses.  Just turn off your email and your phone for one hour and have a conversation in a room you already pay rent on.”

Would you do it then?

Of course you would.

Because you’ve been to trainings that focus on only one of the items in the list above and those trainings are expensive, time-consuming, and not nearly as effective as they should be.

 

What is Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)?

According to the book, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines, VTS “uses art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills – listening an expressing oneself.”

Philip Yenawine was the Director of Education at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York from 1983 – 1993.  During that time, he noticed that despite the museum’s efforts to organize and craft detailed explanations and interpretations for each piece of art, visitors would still ask lots of “Why?” questions and would remember little, if anything, from their visit.

Frustrated but curious, he and his team began studying developmental research and theory and discovered that what MOMA visitors needed wasn’t explanations, details, and facts, it was “permission to be puzzled and to think.  Consent to use their powerful eyes and intelligent minds.  Time to noodle and figure things out.  The go-ahead to use what they already know to reflect on what they don’t; the first steps of learning.”

Philip and his team with MOMA partnered with cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen to develop and test a process now known as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).

In the 30 years since their initial experiments, Philip and Abigail’s work has been used in 28 countries and 58 museums, over 12,000 students have engaged in VTS discussions and 1,200 people have become trained facilitators.

 

 

How to do VTS

The secret to VTS’ effectiveness is in the facilitation so if you’re going to do this, invest in an expert facilitator.  An expert facilitator is the only way to get the results listed above.

 

Here’s how a VTS session works:

  • Facilitator shares a piece of art specially selected so that “the subjects are familiar… but they also contain elements of mystery.”
  • Attendees take one minute to silently focus on the art
  • Facilitator asks 3 questions over the hour:
    • What’s going on in this picture?
    • What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What more can you find?
  • As each individual answers a question, the Facilitator:
    • Points at what is being observed
    • Paraphrases what has been said
    • Links what has been said to what others have said
  • Facilitator wraps up the session by thanking everyone and sharing something s/he learned from listening. They do NOT give “the answer” because “this isn’t about right and wrong but about thinking and…that the students singly and together are capable of wonderful, grounded ideas.”

That’s it – 1 piece of art, 3 questions, and at least 5 major benefits if you commit to the process.

 

Seems like something worth sitting on an art gallery floor for, right?

To learn more, read Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines by Philip Yenawine and visit the website Visual Thinking Strategies

3 Questions to Figure Out What to Do and Say Now

3 Questions to Figure Out What to Do and Say Now

It started with emails from the airlines letting us know that they’re cleaning the planes and taking precautions when handing out drinks and snacks

Then came the emails from every company you’ve ever given you email to.

Finally came the email with offers, like the one I received from a consulting firm stating that, in these uncertain times, the most important thing you can do is find new revenue streams and they can help, so give them a call.

Yes, it’s important to communicate, to be transparent about what you are doing and what you’re not doing, and to be honest about what you do and don’t know.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to send an email to their customers with news, updates, and offers.

The barrage of emails reminded me of a scene from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a frothy rom-com with a great cast and endlessly quotable quips. In this scene, the lead character, Peter (played by Jason Segal) decides to take lessons from the resort’s surfing instructor, Koonu (played by Paul Rudd).

Koonu: Okay, when we’re out there, I want you to ignore your instincts. I’m gonna be your instincts. Koonu will be your instincts. Don’t do anything. Don’t try to surf, don’t do it. The less you do, the more you do. Let’s see you pop up. Pop it up.

Peter hops up to standing on the surfboard

KoonuThat’s not it at all. Do less. Get down. Try less. Do it again. Pop up.

Peter starts to slowly do a push-up

KoonuNo, too slow. Do less. Pop up. Pop up.

Peter gets to his knees

Koonu: You’re doing too much. Do less. Pop down. Pop up now.

Peter tries again

Koonu: Stop. Get down. Get down there. Remember, don’t do anything. Nothing. Pop up.

Peter lies motionless on the surfboard

Koonu: Well, you… No, you gotta do more than that, ’cause you’re just laying right out. It looks like you’re boogie-boarding. Just do it. Feel it. Pop up.

Peter does exactly what he did the first time and hops to standing

Koonu: Yeah. That wasn’t quite it, but we’re gonna figure it out, out there.

I imagine this was the conversation that a lot of corporate/crisis communication folks were having with executives in the last two weeks — Do more. Do less. Don’t do anything. That’s not quite it.

In the midst of all of this uncertainty, how can companies know what to do now?

To be very clear, I am not an expert on communication or crisis management BUT I am an expert at understanding your customers, being a customer, and receiving lots of emails. I’m also a business owner who, for a brief moment, wondered if I needed to send a COVID-19 update to my clients and network.

Before making my decision, I asked myself these 3 questions:

Am I in a business that is the focus of a majority of the news stories? These businesses include anything in travel (airlines, cruises, hotels), food and food service (restaurants, fast food, grocery), medical supplies (masks, gowns, gloves, ventilators).

If the answer is YES, send an email because people are thinking about you and wondering what you’re doing to keep them safe.

My answer was NO, so I went to the next question.

Am I a business that is woven into people’s daily lives? These could be essential businesses like banks, medical professionals (dentists, orthodontists, chiropractors), and cleaning services (home cleaners, dry cleaners, laundromats). The list could also include non-essential businesses like personal service providers (hair stylists, nail techs, aestheticians).

If you are a steady part of people’s lives, then YES, you should send them an email to let them know what you’re doing in light of the situation.

I’m a part of most of my clients’ lives during projects which have start and end dates, so I went to the next question.

Am I making fundamental changes to my business that will directly and immediately impact my customers? These changes could include changing your hours of operation (e.g. adding Senior hours), changing how you transact business (e.g. no more curb-side pick-up). Or the changes could be bigger, like closing because of a government order, or delaying or even cancelling shipments because manufacturing and shipping processes are delayed due lack of materials or staff.

If you’re making a fundamental change to how you do business, you should let your customers know and help them reset expectations.

Other than moving all meetings to Zoom and no longer traveling, no element of my business operations changed.

DECISION: Do less.

I did not send a “How MileZero is responding to the Coronavirus” email because, based on the answers to the three questions above, my clients had far more pressing concerns than how often I’m using Clorox wipes to clean my keyboard.

But I didn’t do Nothing.

In the work I do with clients, I get to know them extremely well. We move from the typical consultant-client interaction to a trusting (professional) relationship between two human-beings.

What I did tried to reflect that.

I sent quick personal notes to each individual, wishing them health and safety, asking how they and their families are doing, and offering to hop on the phone for a quick chat, to be a sounding board, or simply a shoulder to lean on. It’s not much but it’s genuine and appropriate for the circumstances.

I did not try to tell them what they should be doing right now. Nor did I try to sell them a new service. I simply offered support and connection because, in a time of social distancing, connection is what we need right now.

What do we do now?

The same thing we should have been doing all along. We think of our customers (i.e. the people at the other end of the email) and what they want and need, and we do our best to serve them.

Sometimes we’ll get it right. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong. But if we think first of our customer, not ourselves or our businesses, we’re gonna figure it out.

Just like Koonu promised.

5 Fave Innovators of 2019

5 Fave Innovators of 2019

It’s that time of year.

The time when we look back and take stock, and look forward and plan. So, it is in that spirit that I offer you my completely subjective list of the top 5 innovators of 2019.

Here’s the “criteria” for making the list:

  • Received media coverage (including traditional media, blogs, newsletters) BUT not so much that they’re amongst the “usual suspects” (e.g. FAANG CEOs)
  • Did, or currently doing, something different that creates value (i.e. innovation)
  • Exemplified the characteristics of an innovator including, but not limited to, courage, creativity, customer-centricity, perseverance, humility, and humor.

Without further ado, here’s my Top 5 Innovators:

Corie Barry, CEO of Best Buy

for exemplifying resilience and loyalty throughout her career

According to this fascinating Fortune article, early in her career, Corie Barry received a performance review that labeled her as a “risk to the organization.” Most people would take that as a sign that their days were numbered but Barry looked for the “nugget of truth” that contained the “things I need to work on” and “buckled down,” even creating her own development plan.

In 2012, when Best Buy seemed to be on its death bed, Barry buckled down again, choosing to stay with the retailer.

“If your purpose is stewardship, and leaving when things are bad is the ultimate crime,” she recalled.

Her perseverance, resilience, and loyalty paid off when, in June, she was named CEO of Best Buy and, at 44, the youngest female CEO in the Fortune 500. In September, she laid out a plan to Wall Street to grow her new charge from $43B in revenue to $50B by 2025.

That type of growth may seem like a long shot given all the talk of a “retail apocalypse,” but if her past is any indication, I wouldn’t doubt her for a second

Alex West Steinman, Bethany Iverson, Liz Geil, and Errin Farrell, Co-Founders of The Coven

for bringing inclusivity and diversity to a place where it’s not often found

I grew up in the Midwest (Cleveland, to be specific) and while I will be eternally grateful for that fact and will defend my Ohio roots (and sports teams) to the day I die, I will also be the first to admit that it’s not perfect.

And one of the Midwest’s many imperfections is it’s utter lack of diversity. That’s why Alex West Steinman makes this list.

In 2017, along with three other co-founders, Alex founded The Coven, a co-working space in Minneapolis. But The Coven is more than a local WeWork, it’s mission is to “economically empower women by providing safe, accessible space for personal and professional transformation.”

The Coven’s business model reflects its mission — for every 5 memberships purchased, the business gives one to a member of the community that couldn’t afford it, “prioritizing people of color, folks from the LGBTQ community, those who are differently abled, immigrants, and veterans.”

Now boasting 2 locations, 600+ members (including 140 at no cost), The Coven is making important progress in bringing diversity and inclusivity to innovation, entrepreneurship, and its Midwest community

Marcela Sappone and Jessica Beck, Co-founders of Hello Alfred

for the courage to go against the grain and do the right thing

Hardly a week passes when we don’t hear of the legal, economic, and ethical problems of the giants of the Sharing Economy choosing to designate their labor forces as contractors instead of employees.

Every company except for one.

When Marcel Sappone and Jessica Beck founded Hello Alfred while getting their MBAs at Harvard Business School, they were the Alfreds — running errands, doing odd-jobs, and responding to requests at all hours of the day and night. And when they had proof of concept, they began to design a sustainable and scalable business model. One with W2 employees.

Yes, they met resistance from investors, even being turned down by some because of their choice but they remained committed to their model because they believed that the success of their business required relationships, not just transactions,

“There should not be a disconnect between the success of a company and the success of its workers. We believe treating our employees as our primary customer is how we can best satisfy our end users.”

Sappone lays out the full argument in this 2015 Quartz article and the benefit of her stick-to-it-tiveness is undeniable. Now in 20+ cities and with 200+ employees, Hello Alfred raised a $40M Series B round in 2018, giving it the highest valuation in its competitive set (e.g. Task Rabbit and Nextdoor)

Jean Brownhill, Co-founder of Sweeten

for solving two problems with one solution

For two years, we’ve need to repaint our house. We originally contacted the painter who painted the house when it was built in 2013. One year and no progress but lots of sketchy stories later, we gave up and called a 2nd painter. He looked over the job and called us back to say he wasn’t comfortable doing it because he was friends with the original painter. He referred us to a 3rd painter who also came to scope the work, only to engage in absurdly belligerent text messaging when trying to nail down the logistics of the job. We talked to a 4th painter in summer 2019 and he agreed to do the work in spring 2020.

Because of this experience, and far too many others like it, Jean Brownhill and the company she founded, Sweeten, are on my list of 2019 Faves.

An architect by training, Brownhill founded the company after her own frustrating experience with a contractor. The concept was simple — Sweeten would match home owners with renovation projects to vetted general contractors and would take care of all of the back-office work that customer service, documentation, and marketing.

Sweeten’s projects have grown from an average of $2000 to over $100,000 in the past eight years and the company now boasts $1B in construction business and 1,5000 vetted contractors in it’s pipeline, according to an article in Architectural Digest.

This success has led to the creation of Sweeten Accelerator for Women (SAW) and initiative to actively recruit female general contractors into the platform and redesign the matching algorithm to allow home owners to select the gender of their contractors.

In an industry in which women comprise only 3% of the workforce and make $0.91 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts (interestingly, one of the smallest gender pay gaps of any industry), the effort simply makes sense,

“A shift in the professional paradigm for general contractors would mean more opportunities for women to enjoy business ownership and greater wealth, and would diversify the client experience in important ways.”

Angela Ahrendts, former SVP retail at Apple

for following her heart

Much has been written about Angela Ahrendts — her childhood in Indiana, her education at Ball State, her early career in fashion in NYC through to her triumphant reign as CEO of Burberry, and her “shocking” move to tech when she joined Apple.

Yes, it is all amazing.

So was her decision to walk away from her role at Apple, where she was the company’s highest paid exec, earning 2x the salary of the CEO, and the company’s only female SVP. She walked away without apology or explanation.

Testament to the fact that, sometimes, leaving something is just as powerful and inspiring as starting something.


Hope you enjoyed my Top 5!

Who made your list? Who did I miss?