Before Cloverleaf, Eliot’s career featured key roles at two of the world’s leading brand strategy and design firms; as the global President of UK-based Elmwood and as Managing Director of Chicago-based Brandimage. Through twenty-five years, Eliot’s award winning work (recognized by the Clios, Mobius, and Communications Arts) has served a wide array of category leaders, including: Campbell Soup, Perrier, J&J, Kimberly-Clark, PepsiCo, Unilever, Wrigley, and Coca-Cola. Somewhat uniquely in the innovation space, Eliot took his B.A. in political science from Brown (magna cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa) and earned his J.D. from Northwestern Law where he was also an editor of the Journal of International Law & Business.
I’ve known Eliot for years and when we ran across each other at the “Front End of Innovation Conference” in Boston last year we agreed to sit down “at some point soon”. Here at long last are some enlightening thoughts from Eliot: an eternal optimist whose thoughtful approach ensures positive outcomes in the marketplace. His observations reflect the judgment from lessons learned the hard way through many years of practice. Eliot speaks, as always, with calm assurance yet real conviction about what works and what doesn’t – and why. And on occasion he even echoes lessons learned from Hillary Clinton…
Lou Killeffer: Eliot, let’s start at the very beginning: what makes innovation so difficult? Why must so many companies fail at it?
Eliot Schreiber: Well, innovation is many things but it’s inherently about change, right? And I think the bigger a company becomes the slower they tend to move. Bringing change to a large organization is often hobbled by hierarchy or burdened by deeply embedded notions of what’s “not possible”. And then of course there are companies that, even with the best of efforts, don’t truly understand what their customers want and need through time. Companies must challenge themselves to overcome these hurdles, and they must organize themselves, their core competencies and their goods and services, around what their customers place a value on – rather than just what the company knows how to make or deliver.
LK: Successful companies of all stripes work hard to keep their customer at the center don’t they?
EK: Yes, and I think that basic belief lies at the heart of innovation – uncovering the insights that drive new, hopefully ownable, ways to engage your customers; delivering value that engenders ongoing loyalty, and ideally, delivers all this at a price premium. Apple’s an amazing example of this. Apple looks to its myriad business partners to help bring its products to market. And it’s not always been the first-mover in each of its many product categories. But clearly Apple understands human behavior better than most, and they build on this understanding to deliver a unique, multi-sensory consumer experience. One that people quite literally line up to pay more for. (Smiles)
LK: Apple’s interesting because there’s so much back and forth, criticism really, as to whether the bloom’s off the rose now; whether they can continue to be as remarkably successful as they’ve been to date…
ES: Well, it does appear they’ve entered a pivotal period in their corporate life…Can they continue to be at the forefront of innovation, continue to be the real game-changers? Do they still have the culture, first led and now inspired by Steve Jobs, to carry the mantle of design-led, product development, and brand-marketing excellence? No doubt there’s a pipeline of new products that he touched and are still in development, including the next generation Apple TV, the much-rumored wristwatch, etc. But I guess what strikes me is that the bigger the company the higher the expectations from shareholders and the public regarding their performance, and without the courage of Steve Jobs this could have a dampening effect on the company’s tolerance for risk…and the corresponding size of their rewards…
Look at Sony; it’s bewildering how they lost their way and ceded first-mover advantage to far more nimble competitors. Look at Samsung, long an OEM supplier, and how they’ve transformed themselves into the consumer products powerhouse they are today…I think the lifespan of companies, particularly in the tech sector, is increasingly fragile. While hardly down and out, once upstart Microsoft is now viewed as the grandfather of OS, seemingly out of step with today’s market needs and opportunities. Big companies birth new stars as their most talented up and comers seek to break new ground with fewer restrictions and perceived notions. It’s this innovative spirit, and the courage to enable and empower it, that needs to be fostered and retained in companies, whatever their size.
LK: Are there specific best practices companies with such courage can apply to drive their innovation efforts?
ES: Yes, and I believe these fall within both qualitative and quantitative dimensions.
Qualitatively, innovative organizations foster intellectual curiosity in addition to executional excellence. Their people get out into the market and see the world through their consumers’/customers’ eyes. They’re encouraged to report and share back so that their colleagues can enrich their observations with additional insights of their own. They not only take note of the big “aha’s” but also the seemingly innocuous nuggets that may represent the next big trend or opportunity, those findings that simply need to be better articulated and nurtured. And these activities aren’t the sole province of the company’s marketing or consumer insights team, they’re part of everyone’s job and contribution to the organization. This helps drive innovative thinking as it also focuses and aligns people around the corporate mission and culture.
LK: Fine, but how does one make all this happen?
ES: Well, the beliefs that create these behaviors must start at the very top, and be woven into the fabric of a company’s culture, both with their employees and their business partner communities, with the appropriate incentives and recognition to drive them. And people must be motivated, and organizations must be organized to promote cross-functional collaboration as THE very best way things are achieved corporately. Silos must be broken down, factional, political agendas dismissed and replaced with a real commitment to view and pursue innovation as part of the daily lifeblood of the business.
Finally, I suspect the best companies know that great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, at anytime and that innovation isn’t a linear process but rather an iterative, seemingly contradictory one, where “failure” is simply a stop along the way to reaching major breakthroughs.
LK: Right. And then, you say, there’s a strong quantitative dimension as well?
ES: Yes, indeed. Qualitative discipline will take a company only part of the way to successful innovation. Capturing, managing and archiving critical insights are essential to high performing organizations, and with the advent of enterprise software developed specifically for innovation companies can harness this rich input more successfully; with the software serving as the “back bone” of a company’s intellectual capital. But assigning value to the most compelling ideas and business opportunities is also part of the quantitative approach to commercializing innovation. Among the many concepts that demonstrate merit for consideration, which one(s) deserve the investment in human and financial capital to go forward? And once decided, what’s the best way to enlist and coordinate the efforts of a diverse implementation team of internal and external stakeholders? This is all best accomplished though robust, secure, enterprise software, that effectively dispenses with yesterday’s endless spreadsheets, emails, and pointless meetings.
LK: Are these best practices naturally occurring in most companies or are they more routinely found and sourced from the outside?
ES: I think these practices are often too daunting to “live” and implement for most companies, because they’re really not structured to promote these practices. A company’s competing priorities, P&L’s, budgets, and timelines, all create naturally conflicting biases internally that often work against innovation. Guidance from external partners can take a company only so far. It’s a shop worn cliché of course, but it applies here as well because it’s so true, and I’m paraphrasing, but companies can’t merely be given the fish, they must be taught how to fish for themselves…
That said, there are those companies where innovation was the spark of their formation in the first place – and for whom innovation is their central organizing principle and reason for being. These are most often “challenger” companies who can or must take risks to succeed and are most frequently led by highly motivational personalities who’re truly “driven” to make a difference in the marketplace. This dynamic is incredibly inspiring and empowering to employees who, in understanding the overall mission and goals of the organization, know individual trial and exploration is not only encouraged but expected.
LK: So Eliot, what most attracts you to the practice of innovation?
ES: I’m drawn to innovation because it’s such a powerful driver to any organization’s performance, regardless of size, industry or mission, and because the journey to breakthrough opportunities depends upon the collaborative contribution of a wide array of stakeholders. Innovation really does “take a village”. That, and the ability to apply our thinking across a variety of different challenges, industries, and markets keeps the work and our solutions fresh, insightful, and actionable. And that’s very rewarding…
LK: What do you enjoy most about pursuing innovation?
ES: Connecting the dots between seemingly incongruous data points; witnessing the closer, more inspired alignment among our client’s cross-functional teams as they join us on their innovation journey; the opportunity to help realize the potential of not only those who create and deliver innovative solutions but of those to whom they’re directed. And, of course, in the end, delivering innovations that matter…
LK: What makes a great client in your experience?
ES: Success most often comes when a client brings an open mind to addressing their challenge, is receptive to constructive collaboration, engages in clear, ongoing communication, and understands innovation is a non-linear process that requires patience to see it through to completion. And that a big idea is of little value unless grounded in rich insight, and harnessed to a well-conceived plan of execution that brings it to marketplace reality.
LK: What’s at the core of Cloverleaf’s approach? What’s essential to your model?
ES: We believe that successful innovation begins with collaboration. Our approach is holistic and inclusive, drawing not only on our team of strategists, creatives, researchers, behaviorists and facilitators, but our clients’ cross functional expertise, the voice of the consumer and other stakeholders, all of whose contributions ensure more powerful outcomes. Not surprisingly, at the core of innovation are people, and by honoring both the rational and emotional dimensions they naturally bring to the process, they can spark the catalysts for breakthrough innovation.
LK: Eliot, thank you very much. Your ideas and experience are enlightening, and no doubt satisfying for your clients. Thanks for sharing.
ES: Thank you, Lou. It’s been fun. Come see us next time you’re in Chicago.
Copyright Lou Killeffer February 2014 All rights reserved.
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Lou Killeffer is a Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.