How Greg Satell Learned to Navigate a New Era of Innovation

by Greg Satell


Greg Satell’s new book is Mapping Innovation: A playbook for navigating a disruptive age. In anticipation of the finished book, I sat down with Greg who has been a top contributor to Innovation Excellence since 2011, and spoke with him about his writing and work.

Q: You’ve had a popular blog, Digital Tonto, since 2009. It started as a platform for you to write in your words, about “the crossroads of media, marketing and technology.” Share with us a little bit about your background in these fields and what drove you ultimately to write a book about innovation?

A: Well, I spent most of my professional life leading media businesses internationally. So I got really good at jumping into a new market, learning the culture, the language and figuring out how to build a business. I was able to do this because I developed systems for everything — marketing, sales, operations, you name it — but there was one thing I could never build a system for — innovation — and that was always really frustrating.

So I spent years talking to every great innovator I could find, from major corporations to world-class labs to startups of every shape and size. What I found was that innovation is really about solving problems and that there are as many ways to innovate as there are types of problems to solve. So I saw an opportunity to make that connection and see which innovation strategies fit which types of problems. Once I took that perspective, I found things shook out pretty nicely.

Q: I once submitted one of my better pieces of writing, and said to my mentor that I was surprised it took me such a short time to write it. He replied, “you’ve actually been writing it for many years.” I know this is the case with several of our best authors who’ve been immersed in the real work of innovation for many years. You’ve written hundreds of blogs. At what point did you want – or need – to tell the Mapping Innovation story?

A: I think that’s very true. We’re all, in some sense, the sum total of our experiences. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to run a number of businesses in a variety of contexts and also to work with a lot of great people. So that gives me a great database of experience to work from and I think that’s why my writing resonates, because I’m not trying to be dazzling or anything like that, but give readers a window into my experiences and those of some amazing people I’ve gotten to meet and who were willing to share their experiences and ideas with me.

What drove me to write the book was that I saw a big “thinking-doing gap” in most of the innovation books I’ve read. While many are really smart and valuable in their own way, they are also very analytical and backward looking. They focus on a small number of cases where a particular strategy was successful, but tend to ignore other cases that don’t fit. I wanted to write a book that was more forward looking and asked questions like, “What should I do?” “ How do I go about it?” “What do the other options look like?”

Q: For the last decade,  you’ve been an innovation speaker and consultant. How did your work in innovation evolve?

A: When I advise clients I always refer back to my own career as a manager and ask, “If this was my business, what would I do?” That’s often a very difficult question because running a business is a much tougher than most give it credit for. You have to make so many tough decisions; ones that nobody else in the organization is able to take responsibility for, and those decisions are going to affect people’s lives. To make things worse, you are going to get a certain percentage of them wrong and then you’re going to have to clean up the mess.

So I always try to take that perspective as an advisor. To feel that weight of responsibility because I know the advice I give is likely to have that kind of impact. And I think that pushes me to really work hard and search for every scrap of relevant information I can find and really think hard about what it all means before I voice an opinion.

Q: Who are some of your innovation mentors and heroes? Favorite authors?

A: There are so many. Tim Kastelle really stands out as someone I’ve learned a lot from. Bernie Meyerson, the Chief Innovation Officer at IBM is another person who has taken a lot of time to explain things to me that I could have never figured out for myself. Another guy is Eric Haller at Experian Datalabs. He’s just a super smart guy, highly engaging and always generous with his insights.

Q: What are one or two of your most memorable moments in the innovation space or in the writing of this book?

A: There are a few that I wrote about in the book. One happened in a business I was running that had hit on hard times. We came up with a lot of really sensible solutions and another that was not so sensible, but very feasible so we gave it a try. As it turned out, we never got any results out of the sensible ideas, but the unlikely one really took off and saved the business. That was a good lesson!

Another actually came when I sent sections of the book to sources for fact checking. I was surprised to find out that some came back not only with helpful suggestions, but also with my typos corrected. So here were these brilliant people taking the time to correct my stupid typos, just because they were eager to help out. I also noticed that in most of the cases they asked me to give less credit to them and more to others. I think that says a lot about what it really takes to be a great innovator.

Q: What’s next?

A: Well, I have a TED talk that just came out about social movements and hopefully, that’s what my next book will be about.

Check out Greg’s animated YouTube video here:

image credit: McGraw-Hill Education

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Greg SatellGreg Satell is a popular speaker and consultant. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, is available now. Follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @Digital Tonto.

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