Episode: 367 |
Robyn M. Bolton:
Encouraging Innovation:


Robyn M. Bolton

Encouraging Innovation

Show Notes


Robyn Bolton is a leading innovation consultant. A BCG alum, she was a partner at Innosight, a top innovation consulting firm that was founded by Clayton Christensen.  

She has been an independent consultant focused on innovation since 2018. You can reach out to Robyn or follow her thought leadership blog on her website at milezero.io.

Key points include:

  • 01:03: How innovation differs from R&D
  • 04:16: An example of innovation consulting for a sporting goods manufacturer’s business model
  • 08:54: The diagnostic of the current state of innovation within the company
  • 11:53: Categorizing each project on dimensions
  • 16:56: Getting the project off the ground
  • 25:32: Innovation that gets results
  • 32:00: Venture teams as a strategy


One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman 00:01
Hello, and welcome to Unleashed the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. If you go to Umbrex.com slash Unleashed, you can sign up for our weekly email. And I’ll tell you about all the most recent episodes. I’m your host Will Bachman and I’m here today with Robyn Bolton who is a leading innovation consultant. She was at BCG for a number of years, she was a partner at Innosight, one of the top innovation consulting firms that was founded by Clayton Christensen. And she’s been an independent consultant focused on innovation for a number of years. Robyn, welcome to the show.

Robyn Bolton 00:42
Thank you so much. Well, I’m so happy to be here.

Will Bachman 00:45
So Robin, I want to start just with some definitions. What do we mean by innovation? How is that different from r&d? How is that different from just normal? Like product development? What do we mean by that term?

Robyn Bolton 01:03
That is a fantastic question. You know, innovation has become such a buzzword over the last several decades that it’s, it’s basically become meaningless. So perfect, perfect way to start off. And the way I define innovation is pretty simple. It’s something new, that creates value. And that last part of the definition, around creating value is really what differentiates innovation from invention. So, you know, something new, could be a lot of things, it could certainly be an invention. It could be, you know, putting things together in a new way, it could be a new business model, a new way of monetizing something. But it all has to lead to value creation for the company or the person who’s done the creating. And so r&d absolutely fits in it can be a source of innovation, product development, absolutely. Can innovation can come from that. And but innovation can come from a lot of different places. It’s not the exclusive purview of r&d.

Will Bachman 02:16
So I suppose we might immediately think about new products, but then tell me what’s kind of the other maybe categories of innovation. So we can think about new business models, new sales channels, I suppose new ways of delivering the service. Tell me, are there maybe is there a taxonomy of innovation? Or like, what are the sub categories of innovation?

Robyn Bolton 02:44
Yeah, so there’s lots of different ways you can slice it, the way I usually think about it and talk to my clients about it is yes, there’s new products. And that’s kind of the what everyone gravitates to, when they first think of innovation. There’s also new processes. So you can think of something like the Toyota Production System, which, you know, I’m sure most people have heard of, that was an innovation in how to produce cars. So you have process innovation, you certainly have business model innovation, which you can break that down further into, okay, you know, business models, the way I think about them, or how you create, capture and deliver value. And so you can create something new around, Hey, how are you capturing value? You know, it’s something like Xerox moving towards a leasing model versus just selling copiers. So your revenue model you use, you can innovate that. And you can innovate how you deliver value. So, you know, like you said, What retail channels do you use? How does your supply chain work? Things like that. So I really usually think about its product, its process. It’s your financial model, your revenue model, and then also your delivery model.

Will Bachman 04:04
Great. Let’s make this real. Could you walk me through a few examples that can be sanitized, but have it have enough of an innovation, you know, consulting project?

Robyn Bolton 04:16
Yeah. So they will of course be sanitized. But the one that springs immediately to mind because it really was a business model innovation was I was working with a very large sporting goods manufacturer. And their business model, like a lot of their competitors was very retail based. They made shoes, they made shirts, they made shorts, made socks, and then they sold either through their own stores or through retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, footlocker, something like that. And the business model innovation was really around selling shoes through a subscription service. And where we focused was actually on the kids market? Because, you know, well, I know you have kids, kids grow fast, and you’re constantly cycling through shoes. So we created a new business and a new business model for the company that said, okay, you know, parents can sign up for an annual subscription, and then they can swap out shoes, as often as they need to, as their kids grow as their kids were through the shoes as their kids just get tired of the shoes. It’s kind of an unlimited model. You can swap out the shoes, like shoes as a service. Yeah, like shoes.

Will Bachman 05:43
So it’s sort of like, like one of these clothing subscription services, but you wear the shoes until they you know, they wear out and then you can ship them in and you get a new pair at the new size.

Robyn Bolton 05:55
Yep, it’s our new size. And, you know, created a whole experience around it for kids. So it would come with stickers and with little games the kids could play and you know, the boxes actually came with the kid’s name on it, because you know, how much kids love to get mail. So it was really, you know, creating the whole experience for the kid as well. But yeah, subscription service for shoes.

Will Bachman 06:15
Okay, that’s, that’s a pretty cool idea. And so beyond just sort of, I mean, the shoes sounds like may not even change in that case. But, walk me into the really into the nitty gritty of this, maybe how did that project even start? Like, what sort of day one like, Hey, we were tired of just selling our shoes one at a time to dick? So blue sky? What, what, what else? Could we do? Or? Or was it there was some real already hypothesis around? Let’s think about alternate direct to consumer, or, I’d love to kind of walk through the actual problem solving process the, like, what were the stages of the project? How did you get to that, you know, so chooses service at the end?

Robyn Bolton 07:01
Yeah, it was actually a fairly long journey to even get to the idea of shoes as a service. So where we started with that client was in a, they had an incredible have an incredible reputation as an innovator within the industry. But the CEO at the time had made a comment that he felt like he was sitting at a poker table, placing bets, but all the lights in the room were off. And he didn’t know what he was betting on when it came to innovation within his organization. And so one of the members of the C suite kind of took that up as a clarion call and said, Okay, we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing as a business within innovation. And that’s where I got started with them. So over the course of several months, we really put in place an innovation discipline, as I call it. So what is the innovation portfolio? And is it balanced? Are we investing a lot on moonshots versus, you know, something that has a higher probability probability of success. And, you know, one of the things that came out of just even look pulling together, the company’s first ever innovation portfolio was, Oh, my gosh, we’re spending 90% of our quote unquote, innovation dollars on the next incremental improvement of our product.

Will Bachman 08:26
So the first so the first step, excuse me was, was really kind of a diagnostic of the current state of innovation within the company. So what are all the different new things we’re working on? Whether it’s new products, or new business models, or new channels or new systems? And just getting your arms around? What are we currently doing across the company? And then kind of category categorizing that?

Robyn Bolton 08:54
Yep. Which sounds like kind of a pretty standard start or, you know, get your arms around the portfolio, but what it does, and I’ve seen this, and every time I’ve, I’ve done this is that what the perception of executives that is in terms of innovation going on in their company and the reality are always far apart. And so in this case, the C suite thought they were investing a lot in really radical innovation. And the reality was quite the opposite. And so what that does, is that kind of creates, that wakes everybody up and creates a need of, oh my gosh, we need to change our approach. And so now people are feeling the need for change. In addition to just having a suspicion that change is needed. And that’s what that’s what opens the door to do something completely different, like setup. Yeah, shoes was as a service.

Will Bachman 09:54
How do you actually do that? current state? I mean, do you just walk again Talk to each executive and say, What are you doing that’s new or different from current state? Like, what sorts of projects do you have going on? And then, you know, kind of gather up this list of every what everybody says, or how, practically tactically, how did you do that kind of current state diagnostic?

Robyn Bolton 10:16
Yep. Well, we start where you and I started this, this podcast, which is what is the definition of innovation. And we get it. Here’s the company’s definition of innovation. And then, in some cases, it is, you know, literally walking around or now having calls and saying, All right, what are you working on that fits this definition? And the case with this client, we actually they had six different innovation teams. And so we got the heads of all of the innovation teams together for half a day, and said, All right, let’s run through your portfolio come to the meeting with a list. And we’re going to talk about it. And what we found is that I think, at least, at least two thirds of the projects that came up in this discussion, somebody else was also working on. So there were there were definitely some efficiencies on Earth, shall we say? And and some partnerships created. But that got us, you know, that discussion, you know, not only got us to a clear view of the portfolio, but also got people talking to each other and advanced a lot of projects and freed up some money to start new projects.

Will Bachman 11:26
Now, after you got this list, it sounds like you also categorized each project on some dimensions. You mentioned one, which was, is this sort of incremental innovation or step change, quantum leap innovation? What were what was the set of dimensions that you did this, you know, that you looked at each one on? It was like the size of it? Or, you know, what were the different things that you’d look at each one and classified?

Robyn Bolton 11:53
Right, we really looked at what is the magnitude of change that’s required, because big companies, especially, they don’t like change, they may say they do, but you know, they really are built and optimized to run as efficiently as possible. And so any change is a threat to the system. So the way we looked at the projects was to say, okay, on, you know, one access, kind of the vertical access, let’s look at how big of a change we’re making to either the customer that’s being served, or the, the product that we’re offering. And so, you know, they make, like I said, shirts and T shirt, you know, t shirts, shorts, shoes, if we had said suddenly, okay, we want to create an activity tracker, that would be a huge change for the company. And the other assets, the horizontal axis, we looked at, internally, how big is the change to the internal systems, like, how we make money, how we go to market, how we deliver value, and anything that was changing, you know, a big change on either dimension, so you know, we’re gonna make an activity tracker, and we’re gonna sell it only direct to consumer, that would be a big change. Whereas something like the kids shoe subscription service, you know, we’re keeping the product the same. And, you know, they were already making and selling kids shoes. So, you know, not a big change on that axis. But a subscription model is a huge change. And so that was, we looked at that and actually said, Well, okay, that’s a radical change for the company. And, you know, kind of categorized things that way.

Will Bachman 13:49
How did you get from this initial diagnostic, where you identify that most of the things were incremental changes? So how did you get from that to the idea of shoes as a service? So what were the stages between those two things?

Robyn Bolton 14:05
Right, between those two things. So first, was identifying kind of the gap in the portfolios, we’re not doing anything, you know, adjacent or radical innovation. It’s like, okay, we want to do radical innovation, the most radical innovation that we can do is business model innovation. So changing how we go to market, and how we monetize the products we create. And then honestly, at that point, it was just sitting down and saying, really, what are some of the untapped resources or businesses within this bigger company, because if you go after kind of the biggest, most important business, so making this up basketball, you’re going to run into a lot of resistance, because that’s your golden goose. So let’s go to the places where nobody really cares. And children’s shoes happened to be one of those places and we said okay, let’s go talk to kids and let’s talk to parents and figure out what their, their pain points are. Or in clay Christensen’s terminology, what are their jobs to be done? And through the process of, you know, discovery and qualitative research, found out, there’s a lot of frustration with, you know, cycling through kids shoes very quickly. And so, alright, let’s create a subscription service and do it just the way an entrepreneur would have, we’re gonna get some kids shoes, and we’re gonna put up a website on Squarespace and get some warehouse space and just go from there.

Will Bachman 15:41
That’s amazing. So it’s kind of interesting the route you took, because I can imagine, some innovation processes might start by saying, rather than this diagnostic, which is most internal, what are we doing already? could start with? What are some big trends in the industry out just trends in the universe? Like, okay, the shift to direct to consumer, the shift to social media? influencers? I mean, I don’t know just other you just look looking at trends and saying, which of these apply to us? Or like the sharing economy, Uber, Airbnb? And sort of taking those as inspiration? Or it sounds like you did? Do, you know, you got to a stage where you’re doing more voice of the customer? That isn’t sound like wasn’t step one, but it was, you know, in there? So what were some of the what were some of the changes that had to happen in the company to accommodate this, this, this subscription service? It sounds like, you know, maybe the products might have been the same, but you’d have to have this whole direct to consumer marketing capability that didn’t exist and shipping capability, what did it actually take to get this thing off the ground?

Robyn Bolton 16:56
It took a lot. And you hit on something that that I want to make sure. We talked about a little bit, which is the fact that we started internally, versus with external trends. And I think you definitely have to bring both together in any sort of innovation work. The reason I always start internally, it’s because you know, as much as people say, oh, innovation, it’s blue sky, it’s white piece of paper, you know, pick your color analogy. The reality is that companies aren’t going to do anything, there are constraints and innovation actually thrives within constraints, because constraints are what require creativity. And so understanding from the very beginning, okay, what is this company willing to do? And not willing to do? And what are the capabilities and strengths, they have the give them a right to play in a different market? And then marrying that view with, okay, what are the you know, the trends and things going on in the market. But when I, I’ve worked with companies, and often they’ve started with only an external view, and they said, Oh, you know, subscription service, or social economy, this is really hot, let’s play there. That’s when I see projects kind of fall apart. Because the company just doesn’t have the will to invest in that in the long term, because it’s just too different.

Will Bachman 18:31
Let’s talk for a moment, I’m moving beyond shoes, which is pretty cool. Let’s say innovation, innovation consulting, what would you say are the three or four or five or six common types of innovation consulting projects that you might see, you know, see, see innovation firms doing? I imagine that, you know, this one was kind of a business model innovation kind of project. But are there but are there other kind of common common types that you would see?

Robyn Bolton 19:08
Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, like you said, this one that we just described as, in a very much a, we want to create a new business, and establish a new business so that we’re generating revenue in the future. And that, I think, is what most people think of when they think of innovation consulting, it’s, we’ve identified a place in the market that we want to play, we buy or we’ve identified, a need to create something new, whatever that is, and so come in and help us with the creation process. That’s one kind. The The second type of innovation consulting is really around capability building. And so that’s much more focused on the people within the organization and helping them build what you could describe as their innovation. skills, which can be everything from Okay, you know, design thinking lean startup, to really, you know, how do you? How do you question things in a productive way? How do you listen, in order to draw out the information you need to get to the heart of a problem. And so really building capabilities either broadly across an organization or specifically within teams that are creating something new, and have a mandate to innovate.

Will Bachman 20:34
So on that one, are there is it possible to do that divorced from actually doing innovation? Or? Or? Or would you build people’s capabilities by actually going through an innovation process and bringing them on the journey with you? Is it kind of like that? Or is it more like, oh, let’s sit in a classroom and have a, you know, have a talk?

Robyn Bolton 21:00
Yeah, the best way to learn anything is to do it. And so most of the time, even when I have clients asked for training program, what I’ll talk to them about is just in basic principles in adult learning, and that as adults, we learn by doing and kind of proving to ourselves that what we’re learning is relevant and actionable, and will produce benefits. And so even in a training program, we need to find a way to create ways for people in the program to use the skills that they’re learning in real time. And so eventually, that does lead to here’s an innovation project, we’re going to work on this and and move it forward. You know, a lot of times, though, companies are still kind of dipping their toes in the innovation waters. And so they’ll hear design thinking, or they’ll hear lean startup and be like, Hey, you know, we want you to train people in that. And so what I tried to do is really make sure that Yeah, we’ll explain what that is. But let me give you one or two things, skills that you can use pretty much on any, anything you’re working on, that starts to build an innovation mindset. And then close out those training programs with Ok, let’s make a commitment. What are you going to do in the next week to practice one of these skills? Again, going back to you got to use it right away, or you’ll lose it?

Will Bachman 22:24
Okay, cool. So number one was building new businesses, project type number two capability building, what are some other types.

Robyn Bolton 22:32
The third type is really coming in. And, you know, the company has invested in innovation in the past, they have, you know, tried to launch new products, or they’ve launched new products, and the new product hasn’t met expectations in the market. Or they’ve been, you know, kind of chasing the silver bullets. And they’ve started a corporate venture capital team, and then shut it down. And they started an accelerator and shut it down. And ultimately, what they’re asking is, how do we innovate in a repeatable, almost predictable, even though I hesitate to say that word way that is gonna get us tangible results, because we’ve tried a little bit of everything and nothing has worked. And, you know, that I see actually more and more becoming, you know, the question that companies are asking and a big part of my business, and really going in and helping people pull out the lessons from their past efforts, because there are learnings there, and then use those as a springboard to say, Okay, let’s create something that works for your company that, like I said, builds on the learnings, but it’s also going to set you up for long term success.

Will Bachman 23:52
And how do you approach a project like that? It sounds a little bit different than the just the capability building.

Robyn Bolton 24:00
Yeah, it’s, it’s kind of a mix of, you know, certainly capability building and actually a little bit of some of the stuff that we talked about with the shoe example of, you know, coming in, initially, really doing an assessment or a diagnostic and focusing really internally and listening to people because there’s always, especially in companies that have tried innovation in the past, and it hasn’t worked. There’s a lot of skepticism. And there’s a lot of us, this is the flavor of the month and then next quarter, it’ll be Scrum and the quarter after that. It’ll be agile, and so, you know, whatever. And so really focusing on listening to folks, getting an understanding of the culture and really figuring out you know, what is the next smallest thing we can do to prove that this is the way we’re going to do business in the future. And so it’s as much as Say no kind of strategy as it is really Organizational Behavior coaching type of stuff. And so there’s that first phase diagnostic. And then coming up with, hey, this is what an innovation process could look like. This is what a language run innovation could look like. This is how you could operationalize innovation in a way that works for you. Company. The second phase is then actually implementing that, which is nothing ever quite survives the, the transition from hey, here’s theoretically what you could do to, to actually putting it in place. But that’s good, because the putting it in place phase really is done collaboratively so that people understand the why behind things. And they can continue to be an evangelist as well as an operator of the innovation system.

Will Bachman 25:53
Yeah, things that work in practice, but not in theory.

Robyn Bolton 25:56
Yeah, no good.

Will Bachman 25:59
So imagine that parts of that could be actual changes to the organization or changes to, you know, metrics or KPIs or role descriptions. You can’t just just change mindsets, but sometimes you have to change things structurally as well.

Robyn Bolton 26:17
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And that’s then where, you know, things like training comes in, that’s where things like, I’m really making sure that all along the way, working with a cross functional team, because you know, if you change KPIs, you’ve got to be working with finance, because and I always pick on finance, and apologies to the finance folks listening, you know, finance wants to see the five year NPV and, and all of that detail, when you’re doing something that’s never been done before, we can’t really predict how it’s going to go like I can make up numbers. And I too am guilty of goal seeking to get to the answer of finance once, but it’s all made up. So instead, you got to partner with finance and say, Okay, how, what are the metrics that we need to see at this point, when we’re spending just a little bit of money versus, you know, at this point, much closer to going to market when we’re spending in, you know, the millions of dollars. And so that collaboration is really, really important with finance with HR when you’re changing roles or creating roles, certainly within r&d, because a lot of innovation does come from r&d, figuring that out supply chain. So it’s, it’s very much a cross functional effort to to build a business to build a capability around growth.

Will Bachman 27:47
You mentioned two things I’m curious to hear more about. So you mentioned accelerators. And you mentioned setting up a Venture Capital Group. Let’s talk about each one of those. Tell me about accelerators. When do they work? And what does it take to make them successful?

Robyn Bolton 28:06
So accelerators, I feel like they were the The first of these shiny, shiny innovation structures. And they absolutely can work. What’s required? Well, first off what they are, is they can be, I always think of them as a program, where you have typically a team, and they’re working on an innovation project. So starting up in your business implementing a new process. And they’re either kind of in the very early days of figuring out what it is that would be more of an incubator, or they figured out what it is. And now they they need to kind of cross that chasm from we have an idea two, we have something that’s scalable. And, you know, an accelerator helps you move from that point of idea to scalable solution. So accelerators can be very, very effective. What you need for a successful accelerator, is, you absolutely have to make sure that you have senior executive, not just buy in, but involvement. And that’s because innovation is the first line item that gets cut when there’s a bad quarter or a bad year. Because it’s seen as optional, you know, and, you know, certainly if your core business is floundering, yeah, you got to shore up the foundation, you’ve got to shore up that core business. It’s very hard to cut things that have the CEO support. It’s very easy to cut things that the CEO doesn’t know about. And so that’s why you need, you know, senior executive involvement and the accelerator. You also need to make sure that what people are working on in the accelerator have a direct tie to Business priority or business strategy. Because if you can’t link it to something that’s important to the business, again, very easy to cut. So that’s kind of the accelerator. And,

Will Bachman 30:13
I mean, I imagine that one challenge is having a little too much attention from the corporate parent, where if they’re going to apply the same sort of legal reviews, and, you know, layers of approval, it’s almost impossible to operate as a startup in that environment. Because a startup outside the company can just move so much more, so much faster.

Robyn Bolton 30:36
Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of, you can get loved to death, where the senior executives spend a lot of time and throw a lot of resources at you. And those resources are used to doing things in a certain way, for a certain context, which is, you know, a going business a business has been up and running at scale for for probably decades, and that can can crush innovation. I’ve also seen accelerators swing way to the other extreme, and say, No, just like, go get what you need, go engage outside counsel, go, you know, sign up, you know, a new warehouse, and that eventually guess, makes people within the company very, very nervous. And that gets shut down. So it’s really about striking the right balance between Okay, you know, yes, yes, little startup, little innovation team, you’re gonna need legal help. Let’s find a lawyer within our company, who has the right mindset. Who understands we’ve got to move fast. And so it’s about picking the right people to get involved.

Will Bachman 31:47
And what about venture teams? What’s your thoughts there on when, when that can be a good strategy? And what? And what’s a way to make you kind of set it up so that it’s more likely to succeed?

Robyn Bolton 32:00
Yeah, corporate venture capital, that is the latest of the shiny innovation structures. And we’re going to the the origin of it was, in a lot of ways, the failure of a lot of accelerators, companies saying, gosh, we’re, we’re terrible at creating, you know, radically new businesses, because all of the things that make us great and successful and big, do just as you said, well suffocate the innovation that that our own internal entrepreneurs are intrapreneurs are trying to create. So instead of trying to do it ourselves, let’s set up essentially a venture capital team, and they will find startups that we can invest in. And then if things go, Well, we can pull them in to the company, acquire them and make them part of our portfolio. What’s working really well in in corporate venture capital CVC, is the scouting and finding companies that are doing really interesting things. What is a challenge, and I’ve heard this from talking to loads of people in CBC and at startups, is that in order for a business to be interesting to a really big multibillion dollar international company, that that is not a startup, a startup is too small and too risky. And so corporate venture capital tends to look at a lot of startups, but then the company passes because it’s too small, it’s too risky. We just, it’s not worth the time or the investment. then ultimately, what happens, you start looking at bigger companies, companies that have launched medium sized companies. And now really, we’re just into an m&a game. So the idea of venture capital kind of fades away again, you know, because of the needs of the bigger company, they need to make bigger acquisitions to to have meaningful results.

Will Bachman 34:07
And what are, are there any other of these sort of shiny objects beyond accelerators and venture capital, venture capital, corporate venture capital?

Robyn Bolton 34:16
Yeah, they’re certainly the incubators, which are kind of the earlier version of the accelerator. I think the most, I will say, insidious of all the shiny objects is the hackathons and the shark tanks, and things like that. And those are much more even events versus programs. And the reason I say they’re insidious is, is because there are events. And people get really excited, you get a lot of engagements, you get a lot of great ideas. And then either nothing happens. Everyone goes back to their day jobs, or a team wins, quote, unquote, and now they get to work on the innovation project in addition to their day jobs. And like, That does not sound like a price I want. So, and ultimately what happens is people lose faith in the company’s commitment to innovation. And it reinforces the belief of, you know, the company is all talk and no action when it comes to really investing in innovation for long term growth.

Will Bachman 35:29
Well on that, Robin, if people want to do follow up with you, or find out your latest thinking, your latest work, where would you point them?

Robyn Bolton 35:39
So you can go to my firm’s website, my firm’s name is mile zero, and zero spelled out z are Oh, you can go to the website, it is miles zero dot i O. There’s a blog there. That’s kind of all my latest thinking. I also have a whole section on back to basics. So defining things like innovation, design, thinking, stuff like that. And you can also on the website, schedule a call with me or you can just reach out to me directly at Robin, our ob YN at mile zero.io.

Will Bachman 36:13
Fantastic. definitely reach out to Robin, follow up, check out our blog. And if you found this show helpful and are so inclined to leave a five star review on iTunes, that does help people discover the show and it just makes me feel good. Robin, this was so fantastic. Really fun hearing about innovation from you and helping get some definitions on the ground. Thanks so much for joining today.

Robyn Bolton 36:39
Oh, it was my pleasure. It was really fun. Thank you Will.

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