Almost 10 years ago, I left my 12-year career in tech marketing (much of it spent at Microsoft) to become an early pioneer in the Innovation industry, helping to develop innovation programs for organizations all over the world. The startup I had joined for this was a “merry band” of 30 misfits who, while successful in their respective fields, felt stifled by the over-processed, very siloed culture most large corporations were about. Like me, they thrived in an unstructured, incredibly creative culture in which no idea was a bad idea (unless it involved over-processing something). As one former colleague said, “When I joined, away went the corporate pens, and out came the crayons and markers.”
For the first few years we were in business, we weren’t sure if we would be able to keep the lights on, as most organizations we pitched to were highly skeptical that an innovation program, much less an open culture, were going to have staying power. And, for those large corporations we did sell to, it was usually to a small department within them that had the budget to play with. While this would have demotivated many to keep going, it invigorated us. After all, our business was innovating how things got done.
We spent countless late nights profiling our target industries. We brought in consultative experts from a variety of creative and organizational fields that like us, brought a wealth of experience with them, but didn’t quite fit the typical “mold” of a traditional organization. And, we produced numerous studies on the next generational workforce and consumer to understand what the impact would be to healthcare, financial services, utilities, manufacturing organizations, etc. It was through these investments that we realized we weren’t just selling a program, we were selling a culture - one that every industry was going to have to transition to whether they were ready or not.
Sure enough, by mid-2013, our hard work began paying off. Some of the most well-known global brands, from all industries, were coming to us, citing the same three needs over again: 1. They needed to do more with less, 2. They needed to keep up with how the new generational workforce works, and 3. They needed to get in the minds of their customer to keep up with how they purchase, why they purchase what they do, and what motivates them to buy from certain organizations.
During my tenure there, I helped hundreds of organizations stand up programs that birthed new product lines, generating tens of millions of dollars; transformed century-old cultures into something more open and agile; developed innovation “universities” and recruitment programs designed to engage the younger workforce; and improved employee morale by way of giving each an outlet to share their ideas.
Our success was largely due to three principles, the latter of which I found to be the “aha” moment for many organizations:
- Stay uncomfortable as though your competitor is about to take the lead. No matter your organization’s success, there are competitors out there, right now, either replicating what you are doing, or are finding ways to do it better. This means you have to continue to “build the car as you’re racing it”, and never stop.
- Believe in what you’re doing, know it’s okay to fail, and remain humble. In the most bleak of times, we never gave up on our belief that we were on the right path, even though we had a ton of failures along the way. When success became a reality, we continued to remain grateful for each and every customer that came to us, and our customers took notice of that.
- Remain as curious as a small child. Had we stopped asking each other, “what if…” or “what about…”, we wouldn’t have made it past the second year I was on board. Regardless of how large or small the idea is, it only takes one to revolutionize a process, a product, a company, an industry, and beyond. This curiosity became the lynch pin of innovation program development.
So, how do you work with these to ensure that even in the worst of economic times, your organization is able to do well, if not, excel? The answer usually lies in an unexpected place most of us don’t usually tap into - our “inner child”.
We Have a Massive Opportunity in Front of Us, So Let’s Go Back to the ‘Playmat’
I’ll never forget the customer workshop I did in Melbourne, Australia, in 2017. We had partnered with a local innovation accelerator company that had had great success with transforming many large organizations’ cultures into more agile, open places to work. They were famous for doing a simple exercise that was quite uncomfortable for most adults to perform, though it delivered the biggest “aha” moment on understanding what innovation is all about. Each attendee was asked to take a piece of paper and a pen, and draw the person to their left. With nervous laughter and a lot of apologies, we all drew hilarious caricatures of each other until time was up. We then had to show our drawing to the person we drew, which brought on more apologies, laughter, and some teasing. The instructor told us, “When I do this exercise with children at my summer workshops, they don’t apologize or laugh. They just start drawing. Why? Because they haven’t been told they can offend someone, or that their interpretation or idea is dumb, or that they are terrible at drawing. As adults, we’re told we’re wrong more often than when we’re right, which stifles our ability to create and grow.” And just like that, the invisible “lightbulb” above each of the attendees’ heads lit up in an epic “aha” moment.
Here’s the thing… in times like this where almost every single industry has been affected by COVID in one way or another, it’s those organizations that use this time to re-define how they adapt their businesses to the current conditions, while planning for how it will run in the future. They understand the “normal” that once was, is no longer, and to use that as the foundation for building something even greater. In other words, once they shifted HOW they worked, they got to work on how to evolve, or as I like to put it, “went back to the playmat”.
Below are ten inspiring examples of how some companies have done this:
- A small mom-and-pop cleaning service was losing business, given that no one wanted them in their homes. They brainstormed on what else they could do and came up with an offering of disinfecting apartment hallways, entryways, office buildings, etc. It has not only allowed them to stay afloat, but will continue to be an offering in the future.
- A distillery started making hand sanitizer, giving it away for free as part of a Marketing campaign. They have seen increased revenue as a result.
- A design and decor store partnered with a local florist to offer a free bouquet to any customer that purchased decor. The florist has seen additional revenue from this partnership.
- Chipotle started doing lunch break Zoom video calls with a different celebrity everyday, in which anyone that joined the Chipotle community, could join the video call.
- A meal delivery company promised to deliver a meal to a healthcare worker for every meal purchased. In the last month, they have delivered 1600 meals and as a result, they have seen a huge spike in sales.
- Local gyms are creating kid-friendly online workout classes to keep kids moving, generating brand awareness and health education at a young age.
- A toy store offered a “FaceTime browsing service” for children who need help picking out the right toy, allowing them to stay in business.
- A graphics design company added free downloadable coloring sheets to their site, after one of the employee’s children finished their coloring book and was upset that they weren’t able to get another.
- Hotels are posting videos on “how to create your own turn-down service”, “how to create our signature cocktail”, etc.
- Burger King shared their recipe for making their Whopper at home, and also gave out free Whoppers to students that could answer tricky math, science, and literature questions.
While the examples above might not apply to your organization, the message is still the same - those that know their audience and are proactive in adapting to their current environment, are the ones that are surviving and even thriving. They know it requires quick thinking (flexibility in operations), constant monitoring (quick pivots based on market trends), rapid adjustment in approach (meeting evolving customer needs/demands), and repetition (creating “stickiness” in the customer’s mind). But, how did they get there? What was their process for arriving at the right set of offerings for their customer base? Well, it requires an inquisitive culture that thrives in the “unknown” and to get there, you have to transform your organization to think that way.
In every two-day innovation program development workshop I conducted, I used a series of five exercises to shift the team’s mindset to think more openly and innovatively as a “warm-up” to how a culture is transformed. It was through conducting these exercises that I’ve witnessed so much success, even today when much of the economy is at a stand-still. I encourage you to use them.
Five Creative Exercises to Spark Business Innovation in the “New Future”
Below, are the five creative exercises, along with instructions on how to use them.
How to Tackle These Questions
If you choose to use these questions, I recommend doing this in a virtual team meeting, utilizing a whiteboarding tool or some other means to capture all ideas in a virtual environment. Remember, no idea/response is wrong, there should be absolutely no judgment, and it should be a team effort! If you get stuck at any time, “phone a friend”, which means, ask someone outside of your organization and perhaps, outside of your industry - children are the most honest, followed by younger generations that will undoubtedly shape your business in the future, followed by anyone that knows you but doesn’t directly interact with your brand. That way, you’re getting the unbiased inspiration you need in the most unexpected of places.
- Profiling your current and future customer - Sure, you may know what your current customer profile looks like, but things are changing. Ask yourself the following:
a. What is the demographic profile of your typical customer today?
b. How do they usually work, shop, and live?
c. If there was a shift in lifestyle (i.e. working remotely, reduction in travel, etc.), how would they then accomplish the above?
d. Now, think about five years from now when a new generation is making purchasing decisions and/or is entering the workforce. How does that change your demographic profile? What do you predict their lifestyle will look like?
- Listening to your customers for clues - Regardless of what you are selling, customers are a wealth of information and ideas. You may hear them start sentences with, “I wish I had…”, “I wish we could…”, “I wish there was something out there that…”, or “I wish your (insert product or service you offer) was able to….”.
a. What are the top 3-5 things you have been routinely hearing from your customers that you should consider, even if they do not necessarily apply to your business?
b. What top 3-5 interesting things have you heard from your customers that don’t apply to you at all, but stuck in your mind?
c. How can you adapt these to your business, to provide offerings that meet their needs?
- Differentiators and how they are messaged - With an abundance of competitors out there, differentiators are usually what it comes down to when trying to close a deal, though if messaged incorrectly, could dissuade a prospect from becoming a customer.
a. What differentiators do you currently offer?
b. Do you feel they are significant enough to set you apart from your competitors?
c. How are these messaged to prospects? To customers?
d. Do you feel you could tweak this and if so, how?
e. Now, if you could offer anything in the short-term, as well as in the long-term, that you do not currently offer, what would it be?
f. What would be the impact to your organization, i.e. cost, time, etc.?
g. How would you message these?
- Creating the “stickiness factor” - With an overload of information that people process everyday, it’s impossible to remember every brand you come in contact with, unless the experience was so memorable that it stuck.
a. What was one campaign your marketing team created that was identified as a success?
b. What was the part of the campaign that you felt strongly contributed to that?
c. Would you have done anything differently? If so, why?
d. Now, think about a campaign that stuck out to you most - it doesn’t matter what it was for. What was the campaign for and why did it stick out (think of emotions it evoked in you, imagery, offerings, tag lines, etc.)
e. Using the list generated, what themes do you see developing in why they stuck out?
f. Would you be able to incorporate those themes into future campaigns?
- Creating a workforce that allows for this level of thinking everyday - Reflect back on the first four exercises and think about what this process did for you. Now, think about what it will do for others and how it will shape the future of your organization.
a. Do you feel you were able to better tap into your creativity?
b. Do you feel you can bring these exercises back to your organization to start to creatively move the needle? If not, why and what could be done to change that?
c. How will you capture, support, and nurture ideas that employees contribute?
d. What will success look like?
e. How will you reward people for their contributions? Their “winning” ideas?
f. Do you have an agile enough team in place to implement the ideas that come through?
g. Do you feel you have the executive-level support to carry this culture forward?
Yes, these questions can be a lot of work, but the outcome can be better than you ever imagined, especially when you are now tasked with how to creatively keep your brand front-of-mind both now, and in the “new future” for how business will undoubtedly be conducted.
Some Creative Examples to Close With
To close this post, I want to leave you with some inspiration of how some organizations are adapting to the “stay-at-home” orders, while ensuring their brand remains front-of-mind:
- Demonstrating they care - Nike’s newest ad that speaks directly to their customers and how even at home, their logo is still being worn: “To those playing in living rooms. To those playing in kitchens. To those playing in bedrooms. We may not be playing to giant crowds, but today we’re playing for 7.8 billion people.”
- Promoting innovation in isolation - Apple’s newest television campaign, “creativity goes on” uses “found footage” created by everyday Apple product users and celebrities alike, that sets an uplifting tone. It celebrates how innovation can thrive in the face of isolation.
- Getting creative with logo placement - Zoom’s backgrounds have sparked individuals to create their own, many of which can be downloaded and used in your own Zoom meetings (brilliant advertising).
- Becoming a thought leader to children - Many technology companies are hosting free educational webinars and/or are adding training videos that teach children about technology, such as the fundamentals of coding, how to design simple coloring pages, etc. I’ve even seen contests pop up to motivate kids to learn.
- Making people laugh while drawing web traffic - No matter what is sold and to who, some organizations are getting creative with their website in order to draw people in. I’ve seen “funny video of the day”, in which a bored sock puppet eats traffic, conference call mishaps, home exercise “innovations”, and cooking demos gone wrong.