Recently Autodesk, CEO Carl Bass spoke about the New Rules for Innovation at the TEDx Berkeley event. "You keep using that word... I do not think it means what you think it means." This famous quote - which is about the world "inconceivable" - is from the movie The Princess Bride, but for Carl Bass it could just as well be applied to the word "innovation." After Carl took to the stage at TEDx Berkeley to present his take on what innovation is, how it happens, and why it's important, he also sat down with Autodesk Corporate Strategist, Bill O'Connor, for a follow-up interview on the subject. Bill shared the interview with me for posting on this blog.
Carl Bass at TEDx
BILL: Carl, I thought we could start with one of your fundamental beliefs about innovation, which is that it's not a corporate phenomenon. That's an interesting perspective, especially coming from a CEO running a large company. What do you mean by this idea, and why do you feel it's true?
CARL: First of all, I'm not saying innovation doesn't happen inside companies. Of course it does. But the source of that innovation isn't the company, and it's not even some kind of mythical "culture of innovation" - it's the individuals inside those companies. It's the people. The spark of a good idea...the sense that we can do something differently...that generally happens with an individual. It's a personal thing. But to make this idea a little less polarizing, I recognize that even a great idea is just that...it's just an idea. It's nothing until it's turned into something real - and for that you usually need a team of people, or even an entire company.
BILL: So first an individual has a great idea; then maybe a team helps him or her flesh it out and develop it; and finally, the rest of the company works to bring it to market?
CARL: Right. I mean, look at Apple. Most people think of Apple as "an innovative company," right? But is that really true? Let's look at it this way... Apple has 50,000 employees. Are they all "innovative?" Every single one of them? No, not at all. In fact, you can actually attribute most of the major innovations at Apple over the past 15 years to a small group of about half a dozen people Expanding that circle a bit, maybe there's another group of 50 people who also played significant roles in Apple's innovations. So now we're up to 56 people; but what do we say about the other 49,944 people in the company? My point is that even at an "innovative company" like Apple, I don't think you'll find that the contribution to - or the expectation of - innovation is equally distributed.
BILL: And looking at it another way, we know that a lot of "Apple's" innovations actually came from people outside the company, itself. In the creation of the iPod, Apple used PortalPlayer's platform, worked with Pixo on the design and building of the user interface, and even got the name "iPod" from an outside freelance copywriter!
CARL: And look at Siri, which also came from outside Apple. In some ways you could say that Apple isn't "doing" all the innovation, as much as they're "curating" the innovation. They're looking for great ideas, whatever their source and location, and putting them together in ways that make customers happy, and the company successful. To me, that's a more nuanced view of what it means to be "an innovative company."
BILL: So if we shift the discussion from "innovative companies" to the idea of innovation individuals and innovative ideas, whether from inside or outside the company, the next question is, how do you find and attract those innovative people to work with you?
CARL: That's the big challenge--hiring innovative people in the first place. And that's why, when I spoke recently at TEDx Berkeley, I said that if you want more innovation, you need more innovators. That's the single biggest thing you can do: hire the people who are going to be more imaginative, more creative, and have more innovative ideas. At TEDx I used the example of a basketball team, saying that, if your team is shooting badly, sure, you can always hire a shooting coach, but probably what you should focus on first is going out and getting some really good shooters.
BILL: And for Autodesk, getting that can mean hiring full-time employees, but also doing the right acquisitions.
CARL: Right. Acquisitions are a great way to say, here's a company, or even just a small team of smart people, that's doing something interesting; and if we bring them aboard, ideally we can benefit from not only the ideas they've already had, but from the good ideas they'll have in the future, as well. But acquisitions are just a small piece of the puzzle; the most important thing is hiring the right people.
BILL: Okay, so let's say we're focused on getting as many innovative people as possible on our team, the Autodesk team. Once they're here, what can we do to help them be as innovative as possible?
CARL: As long as we're clear that we're not talking about creating some mythical place where innovation is just automatically part of the "culture," and we're also not talking about encouraging some goofy idea like "design thinking," then yes, of course there are things we can do, as a company, to encourage and inspire people to be more innovative. I'm thinking about two related ways to do this: The first thing is to reward attempts at innovation, and the second is to avoid punishing failure. In some ways, because innovation deals with things that are relatively new, to some degree you can't know what's going to succeed and what's going to fail until you actually try some things out. You try to set up intelligent experiments, that will lead to, at best, innovation, and at worst, intelligent failure, and hopefully some useful learnings. And the related point here is - and this is a lot easier to talk about than to actually do - you can't punish someone for trying something out just because it doesn't work out in the end. Because when you punish good experimentation, people take that lesson away with them. They take it to heart, they get gun-shy, and you end up stifling innovation. And of course, when people come up with something new, take some risks, work hard to push it through, and actually create something innovative, then you've got to recognize and reward those people, and celebrate their achievements.
BILL: So if we can say that, in order to have innovations, you need innovators, the next question is, who are those innovators? We've already determined that not everyone is, by necessity or ability, an innovator -- so how do we know who will, and won't, be doing all of this innovating for us?
CARL: I think there are two possible answers to that question. The first is that everyone interested in doing innovative work - looking at things differently, trying new things, combining things that haven't been combined before, breaking the rules, taking risks, etc. - should always be trying to up their innovation game. And I think that's true regardless of how much natural talent for innovation you might or might not have. Let's go back to the basketball analogy, and let's face reality: you and I are never going to be 1/100th as athletic as Kobe Bryant. But that's not a license to say you're not going to work out, stay healthy, and be as fit as you can be. And if you happen to play basketball for fun, you can still work on improving your jump shot even if you know you'll never come close to Kobe's level of skill. So to me, if you're interested in innovation, you should work at getting better at it. It's that simple.
BILL: So it's not about either being an innovator or not; it's more about consistently trying to get better at the act of innovating, no matter how "good" you happen to be now?
CARL: That's right. And the second point is that you don't necessarily want to be "innovative" all the time, even if you could! In fact, it's very likely that in your job you'll have some days where you should be thinking about innovation, and other days when the concept shouldn't even cross your mind!
BILL: Can you give an example of when that might be true?
CARL: Sure. A great example in my own job is earnings day for Autodesk. I go out to speak to the financial community about our results. This is an example of a time when it would not be a good thing for me to try to be "innovative." It's not a time for me to "think out loud," brainstorm, take risks, and toss around some crazy ideas.
BILL: That might actually scare the analysts, not to mention Autodesk employees, if you did that!
CARL: I'm being a little facetious but, look, earnings is a time in which we've decided what our message to the financial community is going to be, and I'm going out there to deliver that message. No more and no less. But the day after that, it might be the perfect time for me to try to think about the company in a different way, or challenge a product manager to come up with something completely new, or question the way something is done. So to me, the question of "who should be innovating" boils down to two answers: first, you should be trying to get better at innovation if it's something you're interested in; and second, don't assume your job should always be about innovation; some days it's going to be about execution, or efficiency, or discipline, or streamlining an existing system.
BILL: In the past you've said that innovation is about breaking the rules, which is kind of cool to hear from a CEO, whose job it is to run a large company. But how do you reconcile the need to have innovators going around breaking the rules with the equally important need to run an effective, efficient, and successful company?
CARL: There is a certain amount of tension between those two things - we could call them innovation vs. execution - and I think the key is finding the right balance between them. In a fast-changing world, you have to be innovating - creating both new things and new ways of doing things - and you also have to be executing, in terms of the plans and products you've already committed to.
BILL: When Jack Welch was running GE he called this kind of balancing act "changing the tires while the car's still running," and it's definitely not easy to do.
CARL: He was able to do a good deal of that when he ran GE; and we're doing the same thing at Autodesk right now, when you think about what we're doing with the cloud. We're still selling boxed software, of course, and that's how we run the business today; but we're also migrating those capabilities into Autodesk 360, because we know in the cloud we can offer much greater value to our customers. There's this kind of "left-brain/right-brain" thing that you have to get right if you want to be a large, successful company and an innovative organization - and at Autodesk we're going to have to get that balance just right as we move into the cloud.
BILL: I want to wrap up here with a few of your own thoughts about innovation, not from the vantage point of a CEO, but on a more personal note--drawing on your 30+ years of experience as a maker, and as someone who seems to be fascinated with the process of making things. So what does Carl Bass the Maker have to say about innovation?
CARL: For me, it's kind of an intuitive process. I'll be making something, trying to solve a problem with a shape, or a material, or some functional issue. It could be a bowl, a bench, a crazy pitching machine for the backyard, or even a rocket ship for my kids. And sometimes I'll look at where I am with the project, and how other people have solved the problems I'm working on, and I'll just improvise a little. I'll do something a little different, maybe based on some material I have, or don't have, or some capability or limitation of a tool I'm using.
BILL: So you're trying to focus on the task at hand, the problem you're trying to solve...
CARL: Right, I'm just trying to solve the problem the best way I can. And sometimes I'll come up with a result that's really kind of different, because I went about it a different way. And if I were to think of it as "innovative" at all, it would really only be after the fact, because who has time to think about "innovation" when you're busy having fun trying to solve a problem in whatever way seems to work best?
BILL: So you don't sit down to work and say, "I will now...design think!"
CARL: No! I didn't design think, and I didn't sit down and say, "Now is my time to do innovation."
BILL: That's the other question I was going to ask you: I'm sure that when you sit down and create something - for example, that cool metal bowl you recently made - you don't call in to your wife and say, "Honey...I'm out here...I'm being innovative again..."
CARL: "I'll be back in there as soon as I'm done innovating!" And I didn't look in my Outlook calendar and say, "Ooh, 11-11:45 is my Innovation Time!"
BILL: Because of course that would cause you to vomit on your computer.
CARL: Exactly! And I wouldn't have any realistic expectation that I could sit down at 11 o'clock and start innovating. I think generations of scientists, artists, mathematicians, and all kinds of creative people have said that there's just an element that's uncontrollable about this whole process.
BILL: You can't force it--and you can't just hang a sign on the wall saying "INNOVATION LAB" and expect people to become instantly innovative!
CARL: That's such an artificial way to go about it; and I don't think that's the right motivation. It's like if I were a writer, which I'm not, but if I were a writer and I put up a sign in my writing room that says "PULITZER PRIZE WINNING ACTIVITY..."
CARL: Okay, I go into that room, and I'm supposed to create something that will win me the Pulitzer, or the Booker prize, or whatever. And I know I can't do that, that's a crazy way to look at it; and sitting in that room with that stupid sign on the door just makes it that much harder. Thinking of it that way means you're focused on the wrong thing: you should be thinking about expressing yourself; or solving the problem; or pursuing some solution that works, that's particularly elegant, or that just makes you feel good.
BILL: It's like in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: You get immersed in the work, you try things, you follow your instincts, and you don't have to wait for anyone else to tell you what's good and what's not - you just kind of know.
CARL: And actually, that's where Autodesk's tools come in: you're in this immersive process, trying this and that, noodling over ideas, trying not to get stuck, and our tools (and other tools, of course), just help you in that process, help you with the process of exploration.
BILL: So innovation, if it comes into the picture at all, is a word you can use after the fact to describe what you did - not while you're doing it, and certainly not before, but after all the immersion, exploration, decisions, and making of stuff is over and done with?
CARL: Sure, I think that's more what the process is really like--for me, anyway--than some abstract concept like "design thinking" or even "innovation," in the theoretical sense.
BILL: Well, Carl, on that note, I'd like to thank you for your time today, and also to say that as CEO, I hope when you walk out that door you're going to start innovating, right away...
CARL: I will.
BILL: At least for the next hour.
CARL: It's on my schedule.
Thanks Carl. Thanks Bill.
I mean it when I say innovation is alive in the lab.