Editor’s note: Paul Earle shares extraordinary podcast interviews that reveal the innovative genius, trials and triumphs behind the invention and reinvention of great institutions, spanning entirely different verticals and even generations. Today, Innovation Excellence proudly launches Season One of Origin Stories of Innovation™.
As professionals in the world of brands and innovation, we are trained to scour the category in which we operate for every last morsel of information and insight. You know the drill: gather all the data (hey, “big data” even!), learn all the rules, hyper-analyze every competitor big and small, go deep on consumer research, understand everything about what has been done before and why.
And that’s just in the first month on the job. It gets worse from there.
Yes, worse. Guess what: if you want to create a real breakthrough, striving for comprehensive category mastery is probably a bad idea, as counterintuitive as it may seem. When it comes to innovation, we should remember that “know-it-all” is a pejorative term!
Over the past year, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to have spent untold hours with many great innovators and entrepreneurs, listening to their recounting of the origin stories of their profoundly successful endeavors. Spanning many verticals and even generations, all principals entered their respective spaces with a healthy dose of what I’ll call “creative naiveté.”
Season One launches today. Listen to the full “Innovation Origin Stories” series – click here!
Consider the runaway sensation Skinny Pop. Established in just 2010, this better-for-you popcorn brand was a near instant success, and today is beloved by millions of consumers. The company was sold to a private equity firm in 2014, and then— via its new parent company— IPOed in 2015 at a valuation of over $1 Billion (that’s right, technically not one but two fantastic financial events for the founders; suffice it to say, the idea worked).
When I asked Skinny Pop co-founder Andy Friedman to walk me through his strategy and playbook back in the critical early days, he looked at me as if I was nuts. “Paul,” he said contemplatively, “In hindsight, I had no idea what I was doing.” (Don’t be fooled; Friedman was and is a great business person; he just didn’t know the popcorn business).
Crate & Barrel co-founder Gordon Segal told me essentially the same thing about his own adventures when he was starting out. Just as Friedman would do forty years later, Segal broke all the rules, in large part, because he never played by them. This mutiny against category norms, however inadvertent, is how enormous value was created.
Owner and Chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey club Rocky Wirtz, the man who transformed a nearly irrelevant and insolvent franchise into a three-time Stanley Cup champion and one of the strongest sports brands in the world, also told me that he was, uh, winging it when he first took over. Sure, he inherited the team from his father, but previously he had never been in an operating role, or really even had any active visibility to the business.
Those three guys and the other interviewees in Season One — Angel’s Envy co-founder and former CEO Marc Bushala, Radio Flyer chief (and grandson of the founder) Robert Pasin, and top Second City executive Kelly Leonard— are living proof of the power of applying fresh eyes to old problems, the importance of good old-fashioned common sense, and the wisdom of active experimentation as an alternative to “expert” advance planning.
A liberating confession for anyone looking to create something new and awesome: I don’t know. We should all do more to embrace the unknown and use it as a tool for disruption. Perhaps innovation follows something of a knowledge curve that shows diminishing returns once you know too much.
Now, of course, the aforementioned “knowledge curve” does not apply to all industries. I’m not sure that Boeing should have their next passenger jet designed by people who don’t understand how flight works, nor should Pfizer trust novices to create the next big drug (although speaking of drugs, a newcomer’s perspective sure did work for Heisenberg in Breaking Bad; as a business case, it is an interesting example of disruptive innovation, albeit a fictional one).
But few product categories deal with matters of life and death, and in any event, consumers are generally a forgiving lot. That means innovators should be comfortable trying unplanned new approaches, even if—or because— that may mean venturing into uncharted territory.
Leonard and his mates at Second City are great examples of the creative potency that comes from an intentional lack of planning, or even an articulation of a desired outcome. The improvisation method for which Second City is famous requires that there never be a script! Improv itself is an apt metaphor for Second City as an institution, which has been wildly successful from the very beginning without ever having had anything close to a traditional “strategy” or business plan.
Other examples of breakthroughs made possible by an outsider’s perspective (and a healthy dose of pure opportunism) include Bushala and his team’s avoidance of overt references to heritage and provenance, which are (were!) sacred cows in brown spirits; and Pasin’s infusion of imaginative, beautiful design elements (the distinctive red styling, the beautiful curvature of the metal, etc.) into a product experience that was previously only functional (haul stuff and occasionally people from point A to point B).
So how can you apply the power of naïveté to your business?
See if you can simulate it. Pretend you’re exploring the space for the first time. Whether you’ve been working in a vertical for a minute or a decade, ask yourself what someone like Segal, Friedman, Pasin, or Bushala would have done. Try to identify every orthodoxy in the category and ask yourself if it makes sense. What can be busted, what is calling for change? How can you improvise, like Leonard? How can you emulate Wirtz’ uncanny ability to implement simple, practical solutions to complex problems?
It’s natural to want to know everything, to script it all out, to develop a brilliant, masterful plan. There are untold cases of greatness, however, that are marked by the creative confidence to walk through a door without knowing what’s on the other side. What you don’t know can be an advantage.
© Paul Earle 2017 all rights reserved. Thanks to my friends at Leo Burnett for their significant contributions to this work.
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Paul Earle is Principal at the corporate innovation and venturing platform Paul Earle & Co., and an adjunct lecturer of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He can be contacted at email@example.com and followed @Paul_Earle. His Origin Stories of Innovation podcast interviews can be found at here.