Excerpts from the book, The Innovation Superstar Playbook

It turns out that the best practices, and for that matter, the best organizations have created a success infrastructure by emphasizing the four pillars of the innovation superstars.

1. Collective Passion

Passion is the stuff of entrepreneurs: a clear crisp focus driven by a spiritual energy to do something special for your customer. That something special can be an amazing new product, technology or service. Collective passion, in my mind, is something more special and unique: It is the ability to scale passion up into the size of a larger group or organization. This is key: very few companies have the unique and special skill and ultimate commitment to institutionalize the passion for their business. All innovation superstars achieve sustainable success by keeping their eye on the customer with a powerful fueling force of collective passion. How do they do it?

I’ve had the privilege of working with an amazing company based in Seattle, Washington called “Sur la Table.” Sur la Table is a national gourmet retailer, and their whole world is about kitchen tools and kitchen gadgets. I remember going to their corporate headquarters and spending some time with their buyers and some of their media people. In fact the day I was there the CEO was on her way home to try out a new pizza oven they were considering adding to their catalog. They are people who absolutely love gourmet food. Discussing the latest quality gourmet food and tools and the latest innovation to make your life and your culinary experience terrific was almost like talking religion—that’s how passionate they felt about their business.

I’ll never forget the energy and the feeling of passion at Sur la Table. If you ever have a chance to go to one of their retail stores or to look at them online or to get one of their catalogs, you can see the results of people who absolutely love what they’re doing. It’s not just what they do for a living—it’s truly part of their DNA.

Innovation superstars live with passion. Personally, I believe that, with the exception of some mutated accident, it’s impossible to invent—and to deliver high levels of net customer value unless you do it “from the belly.” It’s a visceral thing. It isn’t inherently intellectual, and you can throw as many processes and policies and procedures and consultants as you want at it, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have “fire in the belly,” you aren’t going to be an innovation superstar.

The dividends from being an innovation superstar are colossal. Conversely, ignoring these components can lead to titanic failure.

Innovation superstars love what they do. They wake up every day with exuberance. And it’s not just the customer; it’s the “stuff.” They love the technology, they love the business, they love the space.

Is that feeling, that ethos, alive and well in your organization? Do you love what you do? Do you love the people who create the bright shiny objects you bring to market with layers of new and exciting value? It’s an important question. In my view, all innovation superstars have a collective passion.


The Collective Passion Checklist

 Does the company understand the importance of successful innovation as part of its long term success? Are they driven by the long term or short term?

 Does the company appear to have passion for its customers?

 Does the company appear to have passion for its products?

 Does the company feature breakthrough innovations in its “portfolio?” Are breakthroughs more important than tweaks?

 Are the people within the company passionate about what they do?

Does the company—and do people within it love what they do and it shows? Do they have the “mojo?”

 Are vision statements and corporate brand promises passionate? Or dry and dull?

2. Craftsmanship

At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I believe that one amazing component that is alive and well with all innovation superstars is craftsmanship. Now, when we think of the term “craftsmanship” we think of hand-crafted wood items or hand-sewn quilts or hand-painted this-or-that. But I believe craftsmanship is alive and well in all things. It is about quality that is connected to what a customer feels.

Craftsmanship is about creating value for customers that elicits a visceral response above and beyond the mere function of a product or service. It requires a real connection to what customers value and the skill to craft it for them. Unfortunately, the trend today is that most organizations focus on minimizing components, on increasing manufacturing efficiencies with a core objective of reducing cost of goods sold. Craftsmanship, in my mind, is creating multiple “fibers” of experience for your customer. It’s about the way it looks, the way it feels, the way it smells, its reputation, the way it makes you feel about yourself. It’s the convenience, the timeliness, the ease of learning, the ease of use—the more such “fibers” you connect in this multisensory being we know as humans, the more that craftsmanship is alive and well.

But craftsmanship isn’t always about something old or traditional. There are new forms of craftsmanship and new ways to deliver craftsmanship. Take Facebook as an example. In my family, as well as family members and individuals and companies around the world, Facebook has provided an amazing way to stay connected. It’s almost like my neighbors with whom I’ve been out of touch for years are now again like neighbors. I get a chance to know what’s going on in the lives of people I care about every single day. That’s a form of craftsmanship, because it touches us on so many levels; it’s multidimensional.

That sort of craftsmanship is so valuable to so many that it has become an explosive phenomenon—simply because the market responds to what they feel. They respond to what they experience, and that’s what craftsmanship is all about. I find that a sense of craftsmanship is alive and well in all of my innovation superstars.


The Craftsmanship Checklist

 Do a company’s products reflect a pride of craftsmanship? A superior quality, fit form, and package?

 Do a company’s products or services consistently exceed customer expectations?

Do a company’s services (sometimes around a product) reflect a pride of craftsmanship? Ownership?

 Do a company’s communications—websites, ad collateral etc—reflect a pride of craftsmanship?

 Do people act like owners of the company?

 Do a company’s facilities reflect the same level of craftsmanship, care, and pride of ownership as its products?

3. Fear No More

As the widely quoted axiom holds: “The biggest cause of failure is the fear of failure.” It’s an unbelievable cosmic truth that so many forget. Fear is the most insidious of all human emotions. Yet organizations often try to use fear as a tool of manipulation—even more oddly, as a motivation tool! Believe me, innovation and creativity do not prosper in an environment that is driven by fear. But, since fear sounds so cryptic and so primal, organizations have decided to call it other things. Of course, the most common term, or euphemism, for “fear” is “risk.” “We have to be careful about X”—that’s fear. “We have to control Y”—fear. “We have to make sure that Z doesn’t happen.” Fear.

The systems that have been created around risk management are really all about fear management. And I can tell you that, in my 20-years of experience as a management consultant, I don’t think there is any dynamic that has killed more wonderful companies than this encroachment of risk-creep and fear.

It turns out that, ironically, fear is your enemy. It’s your enemy for a lot of reasons. First of all, it s-l-o-w-s y-o-u d-o-w-n. And at today’s rapidly increasing speed of business and speed of technology, that’s death. It is imperative to employ broad-based fast tracking methods in all aspects of your business. But if you’re required to do to many checklists and too many what-ifs and too many financial projections while your competitors are delivering insanely cool stuff to your customers, you lose. We’ve seen this in the car industry. We’ve seen it in other “old line” businesses. We’ve also seen it even in more modern tech companies, too. It’s important not just to manage the business, but also to manage fear.

When my youngest daughter was in kindergarten, she was asked to get up in front of her classmates and explain what her father did. Having heard me say what I do many times, she got up in front of her class and proudly proclaimed “He’s in the failure business!” Of course, she was right.

To invent means to fail, to innovate means to fail. And that’s why there have been so many methods, so many systems put together to try to control the unruly, cosmic beast that is risk. But the idea that you can eliminate risk completely is nuts. In fact, as the saying goes, where there is risk, there is likely to be reward—and where there is no risk, there is likely to be no reward. No risk can only happen on something that has been done and proven already, and while proven products are certainly good to have in a portfolio as a cash cow, they don’t last forever. They can’t last forever—as Kodak so painfully learned and as Microsoft worries about every day—the innovation pipeline must have something in it, and so risks must be taken.

You get reward by exposing yourself to risk. This is a cosmic law. I’ve never been able to break it, and if anybody does, please call me because I’ve been trying to figure out how to short circuit the process by pulling failure out of innovation. But the reality shows it can’t be done: fewer than 1 percent of all the patents applied for with the U.S. government make it to the marketplace.

When you look at the statistics, at the number of products that are successful compared to the hundreds and thousands of products that are launched, the numbers are unbelievably bad. But if we know we can look at innovation as a portfolio rather than an individual act, we can be comforted with the fact that at the end of the day, we can still be successful at innovation. But instead, companies have tried to do everything they can to pull risk out of an inherently risky proposition. The more they talk about risk, the more they think about fear and the more they try to manage fear, the less that happens.

In fact, most large corporations today have all but stopped inventing. Sadly, most of the resources go towards things like strategic acquisitions, often of startup technologies that have already earned market validation. Maybe that’s the right strategy—a strategy where we smaller entrepreneurs create while large companies acquire. In a sense, that outsources innovation, and that might be a good strategy for some companies.

But it seems to me that this is where a lot of companies lose their “soul,” their connections with their customers. They lose the ability to drive the relationships with their customers to new products, and to fast tracking their products to market. What if there is no suitable technology startup to acquire? What if the market is looking for something besides bright shiny things—what if it’s service or delivery that differentiates the product? Soon, a bad acquisition is made—or no acquisition at all—and the company starts down the path to a broad decline. Companies like Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, HP, and Exxon have all made bad acquisitions in an effort to acquire technologies that should have probably been grown internally.

But if you are a company and you do want to create, managing fear is absolutely fundamental. All innovation superstars look at risk reasonably. They deal with—or extinguish—fear, and focus on the opportunity to serve their customer.


The Fear No More Checklist

 How does the company’s reward system treat failure? Can an individual innovator—or innovating organization—fail without harsh repercussions?

Does the company applaud failure as a necessary evil in the innovative process, or as even a good? Does the company ever celebrate failure?

 Is the company quick to “bail” on a downside project, with sufficient rational observation but before it turns into a more expensive failure?

 Does the company “failure reference”—that is, dwell on past failures—or do they “success reference?”

4. The Right Team

Lastly, along with “love thy customer” and the rest of the “customer touch” components, we arrive at one of the more human elements of the innovation process: teamwork and the team itself. Basically what I look for is a team that really “walks the walk,” rather than just hanging those ubiquitous “Successories” posters all over the walls.

All innovation superstars have teams that work, and they work for a variety of reasons. But before I get into that, it’s worth spending a minute to talk about what’s wrong with most teams. Now, if you were to talk to most management consultants, they’d probably tell you that each one of the various multifunctional team members have a different personality type, and that there’s a “collision in the psychodynamics” of the marketing person, the operations person, finance, etc.

But the truth of the matter is—they’re wrong. Teams need to be made up of good people. Healthy people, people who are happy. People who love the bright shiny objects and everything that makes them into a whole product. People who love customers. People who love other team members.

I know this sounds like “La-la land,” but at the end of the day you cannot fix bad people. And the biggest problem in most team architectures is that you have one or many bad people. I know this sounds almost too simple to be as profound as it actually is, but if you want to get good results you have to have good people. Why? Because good people understand the needs and sensitivities of others. In fact, when we looked at most teams, we found that the biggest problem with most team members was that they were very selfish! They were self-serving and egocentric. It was about them, them, and them. Effective innovation culture cannot survive in this environment.

Going back to my comments earlier about internal and external focus, we want to hire people who are externalists in terms of their ability to look at others, the needs of others, the opportunities offered by others. So that’s the challenge to becoming a superstar—hire good people, because great companies and great innovators are made up of good people. Remember that great people aren’t necessarily creative geniuses—they’re value experts. They have a sense for what others need and care about and how they can deliver it efficiently.

Not only do great companies hire great people, but the other part of the equation—they treat them well. Such well treated, great people are far more likely to do a good job serving their valued customers, especially with effective leadership.


The Right Team Checklist

Are employees treated well? Does the company do things to make them feel better about themselves, their work, their jobs, their health, their career?

 Does the team have a positive attitude? Body language?

 Does the team think of customers as part of the team? Does it empathize with customers?

 Does the team think about the entire customer experience, vs. just the product or “bright shiny object?”

 Do team members really work as part of the team? Is the language centered on pronouns like “we and us?” Or is it instead “I, me, they and them?”

Action Item Checklist

 Innovation Superstardom is based on a healthy and balanced combination of customer focus, process and culture.

 Customer focus is analogous to the “head” of the anatomy; it drives and decides everything else. Component checklists include “External Auto-focus,” “Love thy Customer,” and “Market-focused Innovation.”

 Process focus is analogous to the body; it supports bodily function without getting in the way. Components include “Process-Serves-Innovation,” “Framework for Success,” and “Open for Business.”

 Culture is the “legs” that give further support and keeps everything moving forward in the right direction. Component checklists include “Collective Passion,” Craftsmanship,” “Fear No More,” and “The Right Team.”