Innovation Blog

The Leader of Innovation Paints a Vision of a Better Future
January 13, 2016

When Anne Mulcahy was appointed CEO of Xerox Corp. in 2001, many people were surprised, including Mulcahy herself. She had never run a company before and had little financial experience, having worked mainly in sales and human resources functions. Xerox faced huge financial problems and the stock price fell 15 percent on news of her appointment. The financial market had little confidence in her ability to turn around the stumbling giant.

She took over the reins of a company that was close to bankruptcy. Xerox had made losses for the previous six years and its debts amounted to over $17 billion. Its credit rating had been slashed. Expenses were running out of control. The company was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for financial irregularities. Customers and shareholders were unhappy.

She started by talking and listening to employees and customers. She said in a talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, “When I became CEO, I spent the first 90 days on planes traveling to various offices and listening to anyone who had a perspective on what was wrong with the company. I think if you spend as much time listening as talking, that’s time well spent.”

Her advisers urged her to declare bankruptcy because of the mountain of debt. But instead she implemented a dramatic recovery plan. Capital spending was cut by half and general expenses by one-third. But she ignored advice to cut research and development. She invested in innovation. She sold unprofitable units, eliminated 28,000 jobs and slashed administrative expenses while protecting sales and R&D. She saved the company.

During the whole painful process, she placed great emphasis on communication. In order to promote her vision for the future of Xerox, she created a fictitious Wall Street Journal article describing Xerox in the year 2005. “We outlined the things we hoped to accomplish as though we had already achieved them,” said Mulcahy. “We included performance metrics, even quotes from Wall Street analysts. It was really our vision of what we wanted the company to become.” The article was sent to every employee and people understood where the company was headed.

The company’s turnaround was built on restructuring and the introduction of innovative products and services. In 2008 Mulcahy was named "CEO of the Year" by Chief Executive Magazine.

Anne Mulcahy was born in 1952. She joined Xerox as a field sales representative in 1976 and rose through the ranks. In 2009 she retired from her position as CEO having accomplished what Money magazine described as "the great turnaround story of the post-crash era."

If you want to lead change you have to communicate your vision. Mulcahy devoted time to talking to people and listening. "Good leaders listen," she said. She painted a different and better future for the company and communicated it with a mock-up of a future Wall Street Journal article. She changed the culture and processes in a huge organization with the power of communication and with clear and decisive actions.

Thanks to Paul Sloane for this guest blog post! Paul is the author of some 30 books on lateral thinking, creativity and innovation, including The Innovative Leader and How to Be a Brilliant Thinker. This article originally appeared on Destination Innovation and is republished with permission.

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Tags: Anne MulcahyXeroxvisionrestructuringcommunicationSection: Culture & Teams
Favorite Reads of the BMGI Innovation Team on Creativity, Inventiveness, Collaboration and Leadership
January 8, 2016

We recently asked the BMGI innovation team: What are you favorite innovation books? While not an all-inclusive list by any means, here are a few favorites they shared. 


Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention

By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Some people distinguish between creativity and innovation, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi embraces the broadest definition of creativity as the “… interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context. It is a systemic rather than an individual phenomenon.” Creativity is to “bring into existence something genuinely new that is valued enough to be added to the culture.” This book is a recommended read because it’s based on extensive research, full of stories, and ties into his concept of flow, covered in Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience.


The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business

By Rita Gunther McGrath

Rita Gunther McGrath is one of today’s foremost thinkers on strategy, and in this book she takes on Michael Porter head-to-head. When it comes to strategy, nothing can be grounded purely in research because strategy evolves every day. If we wait for the longitudinal studies to prove what works and what doesn’t, whatever is proven will be so commonplace by the time you’re ready to use it that it will be worthless. Instead we need to turn to bright, articulate super thinkers like McGrath to gain the insights we need now.


The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature Is Inspiring Innovation

By Jay Harman

Instead of using lots of energy and forcing materials, what if we looked to nature’s elegant designs? Nothing in nature is accidental. Biomimicry is the inspiring science of employing nature to find creative, efficient solutions. This book offers a look at pioneering engineers who are applying biomimicry in a variety of businesses.



The Innovator’s Toolkit

By David Silverstein, Phil Samuel and Neil DeCarlo

Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without The Innovator’s Toolkit, written by BMGI’s innovation team. The 50-plus tools and techniques are organized around a framework for identifying innovation opportunities, generating new and unusual ideas, selecting the best ideas for further refinement, and implementing new solutions that better meet customer expectations.


Think Like a Freak

By Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

This is a fun read that gives us great tools and techniques woven through a story that helps us to think differently and better. It helps us “rethink the way we think.” The intro sums up what the book is about: “The modern world demands that we all think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally; that we think from a different angle, with a different set of muscles, with a different set of expectations; that we think with neither fear nor favor, with neither blind optimism nor sour skepticism.”


Teach Your Child How to Think

By Edward de Bono

Another great “thinker” on how we can all become better “thinkers,” Edward de Bono gives us several practice techniques to help us improve our thinking. His other books are also recommended reads!





The Wright Brothers

By David McCullough

This book was listed as a favorite as it unveils the meticulous and methodic approach behind a revolutionary solution and takes us down to the very essence of innovating: observation, inspiration, hard work and determination.




The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

By Walter Isaacson

Successful innovators are also explorers. This book explores the traits of those responsible for the digital revolution, and shows how innovators continuously look for other innovators’ contributions to the existing body of knowledge—and then build on it.




The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

By Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Looking at the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy, this book shows the power of envisioning in coming up with a breakthrough innovation.




The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation

By Matthew E. May

From a section titled “elegant solutions often come from the customers—get out more and live in their world,” comes this quote from Toyota: “We practice Genchi Genbutsu…go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, build consensus and achieve goals at our best speed.” Data is good, yet the best observation for solutions is watching the process and looking for a better way.



Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology

By Henry William Chesbrough

This book emphasizes the importance of piloting or beta testing an incomplete design with the customer, learning with the customer, and then applying those lessons learned to future solutions.




Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results

By Mike Rother

Author Mike Rother explains why Toyota has become so successful and good at building not only empowered workers, but also critical thinkers who coach and teach daily experimentation and creativity through the use of coaching and learning kata routines. He helps us to see how this is a daily effort for all involved and that we should not stop innovating just because we’ve solved a problem or reached a milestone, but rather continue the journey by habitually developing traits of human ingenuity.


Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter

By Liz Wiseman

Author Liz Wiseman demonstrates what it takes to be successful not from an execution standpoint, but from the perspective of how to make other leaders by creating an environment where people are rewarded for their contributions and innovative creativity. This books shows us how leaders change through the work of others and how we can multiply our efforts by engaging with and encouraging those who have the intelligence and capability to innovate solutions that add value.


The Secret Life of the Brain

By Thirteen/WNET New York and David Grubin Productions

This one isn’t a book, but a great video series that explains how the brain works and cites recent research. To be a good thinker means to understand how the logical and emotional parts of the brain work together. A favorite quote from this series: “We are not thinking machines; we are feeling machines that think,” from neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio.


Thanks to Dr. Phil SamuelDon Wood, Dana Ginn, Eric Zink and Tevfik Durmusoglu for sharing some of their favorites!

Which books (or videos) would you add to the list?

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Tags: innovation bookcreativityflowtoyotainnovatorsopen innovationde bonoSection: Culture & TeamsStructure & Methods
Complete Confidence: How Innovation Inspires Us
December 3, 2015

Recently I was talking with a customer service rep on one of my Fortune 500 innovation teams. When she first joined the team, she had questioned the value she could add. “I’m just a processor. Why am I here with all of these smart people? I am insignificant,” she had said. But now, “I feel part of something much bigger. I know my experience matters, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. I realized I was limiting my own career, but now I feel like I can do anything. I even carry myself differently around my daughter and am passing on my new-found confidence to her.”

As change leaders, we know that when someone accomplishes something in an organization, they not only change the way things are done, but they also change themselves, literally. New behaviors linked to results can change the neural pathways in the brain, which literally translate into “a change in thinking.”

This starts in childhood when our brains are developing through a series of “serve and return” interactions between children and their parents. It continues in our adult lives as our brains are continually built over time—new neural pathways are always being formed and unused connections “pruned in a dynamic process.”

One of my team members at another organization said, “I am a little older than the rest of the workforce, and I don’t think I process things as quickly or as well as the others. I am not sure what I can add to this team.” This quiet reserved man, after participating in the innovation team, now presents to senior executives with a newfound spirit of joy and definitely exudes more confidence.

The concept of neuroplasticity supports this never-ending process of brain development. Our brains can change; we are not simply victims of our existing brain function or our genes. Part of our brain changing seems to be related to confidence. Scientists are exploring the idea that confidence “might be a measurable brain activity.” When an individual accomplishes a far-reaching, sometimes even audacious and seemingly impossible goal, when they take on activities outside their comfort zone and succeed, they see a glimpse of what their true potential really is, and this can build confidence.

How can you help your associates build more confidence? Here are three ways that I’ve found to be successful:

  1. Enable experimentation and innovation
  2. Provide purpose and meaning
  3. Build a sense of community and connection
Support Structured Experimentation Coupled with Innovation

Dr. Suzanne Roff, Ph.D., believes confidence is “largely built through our experiences with the world.” “When a goal is identified and accomplished well, confidence can increase,” said Roff in this Forbes article on “Where Does Self-Confidence Come From.”

One way to increase experiences is to support a process of experimentation. I like enabling experimentation through the explicit use of Plan-Do-Study-Act—the cycle of experimentation popularized by Dr. W. Edwards Deming. It represents the scientific method, beginning with a hypothesis and the design of the experiment (Plan), followed by conducting the experiment and observing and measuring the results (Do). The results are then studied in practical, graphical, and analytical terms (Study), followed by acting on the insights (Act) and the continuation of the cycle. (Read my recent post on “The Marriage of Innovation and Strategy” for more on PDSA and embodying an experimental mind-set.)

When we couple PDSA thinking with innovation, we also ask participants to aspire to and anchor on breakthrough and audacious goals. Then we give them tools to stretch their thinking beyond normal and expected patterns. We work to remove any psychological inertia in the organization and create energy and motivation.

If we then recognize the achievements of the cycle of innovation and experimentation, we are using the same “serve and return” feedback process that forms new neural pathways. Even if the experiment did not work out as expected, something was learned. Recognize and celebrate the learning regardless of the outcome. As Ben Zander, director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra states, if we live in a world of vision and possibility, and if we don’t achieve our goal, instead of being disappointed, we should say “how fascinating!”

This is how we build and strengthen neural pathways, which can lead to confidence.

Provide Purpose and Meaning

As I write about in an upcoming article in Quality Progress, there are six interrelated emotional drivers that allow teams to discover a shared emotional connection and inspire action.

Two of these drivers are Purpose and Connection.

Dan Ariely, an Israeli American professor of psychology and behavioral economics has researched what inspires people to work. People perform better when they care about reaching some meaningful end.

He tested two groups performing the same task—one group was given a meaningful purpose, one was not. Which group performed better? The group given a sense of purpose and meaning. Not only did this group perform better, but it also performed significantly better. Even a small meaning seems to make a difference. (Watch his TED talk on “What makes us feel good about our work.”)

This is part of what inspired my team member at the Fortune 500 firm. She was working on an innovation project that would completely overhaul the experience of the customers and make their lives easier—and that made a difference for her. If an experience is tied to a sense of purpose and meaning and it makes a difference for the entire team, it can also change the culture.

Build a Sense of Community and Connection

Another factor that contributes to confidence is connection, or a sense of community and belonging. As quoted by Dr. John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience in this article: “The need for social connection is so fundamental in humans that without it we fall apart, down to the cellular level.” And, it seems, the more connected we are in pursuit of a meaningful task, the more confident we can become.

This happened to another one of my innovation team members at a different company. The team had aligned and agreed to completely transform the core operations of the organization. They had brought their collective experience to bear, honoring each person’s contribution, and built something bigger than themselves. Not only did they gain confidence through their sense of connection, but also through finding meaning in their work and through experimentation in planning and execution. It was a triple win.

Can innovation inspire confidence in your team? Share your thoughts below or send me a message.

Dana Ginn is a senior client partner with BMGI. This article was originally published on LinkedIn. You can follow Dana on LinkedIn here.

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Tags: experimentationconfidence buildingpurposeSection: Structure & Methods
Biomimicry: The Best Ideas Might Already Have Been Invented
November 17, 2015

After 3.8 billion years of life on Earth, life has learned what works and what lasts. It’s possible that the best ideas might not be ours; they might already have been invented. That’s the premise of biomimicry and the start to this visually stunning, thoughtfully done new film on biomimicry. 

“Perhaps we should be looking at these mentors, at these biological elders, they have figured out how to create a sustainable world. So rather than invent from scratch, why don’t we take our cues from them?”

Featuring Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute, the film covers how mimicking nature solves some of our most pressing problems, from reducing carbon emissions to saving water.

Recommended by BMGI’s Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Phil Samuel, this is a video that everyone should watch!


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Tags: biomimicryJanine BenyusBiomimcry InstituteSection: Structure & Methods
Embrace Ethics as a Key Driver for Innovation
November 3, 2015

At a recent business breakfast meeting, attended by vice-president level participants across several industries, we asked which key driving forces leaders saw as having a major influence on their organizations’ strategies. Across a range of others (social, technological, economic, environmental and political), we converged fast on discussing the implications of ethical constraints when going after innovation opportunities.

Big opportunity doesn’t need to be a big gamble

“Big data” emerged as the first bone of contention. You may have nothing to hide and be happy with insurance companies reading your driving data in order to grant you a better deal. Yet, would you also be okay with them analyzing your genes to tailor your health insurance?

The omnipresence of highly granular data allows formulating and answering surprising questions. Uber analyzed (probably in a more playful rather than ill-intentioned way) their users’ mobility patterns in order to identify one-night stand “hot spots” in major cities. Thanks to her purchasing behavior, Target figured out before the father did that a teen-girl was pregnant. Examples abound for people feeling exposed. Eventually they take action against what they consider “big brother.”

We agreed that over time adequate rules and laws are needed. Yet, while politicians craft and vote on those, it falls on businesses to shape them through their behavior while exploring novelty. As one participant remarked: Ethical behavior allows for grasping a big opportunity in a controlled manner and without a publicity stunt. Grasping big opportunity doesn’t need to turn into a big gamble.

Ethics transcend cultures

How then do we seize big opportunities in a measured, respectable and ethical way? When you think about it, the question isn’t new so we can source insights from beyond business, go back in time and also look across cultures.

Let’s first investigate the root of the word “ethics.” It derives from the (Ancient) Greek word “ἦθος” for which the dictionary offers the following meanings: (a) common where-about, (b) habit, custom, convention and (c) character, mode of thought and disposition. Aren’t all those to be cared about when setting up a new venture?

People in the West may be familiar with the “Four Cardinal Virtues.” They were first named in Aischylos’ theater play “Seven against Thebes” (667 BC), elaborated upon by Plato in “The State” and “The Laws” (both about 350 BC) and later formulated by Cicero (44 BC) in “De Officiis” – On [the Stateman’s] Duties: 

  • Wisdom and prudence
  • Equitableness 
  • Temperance 
  • Braveness

Take braveness. It’s not about how bold your ambitions are. It’s about how great your mind is. Remarkably, Cicero dedicates an entire book to the leader’s duties—and not to her rights or characteristics. He describes “The Virtuous” as the one embracing and living all four of the Cardinal Virtues.

The concept of Cicero’s “virtuous leader” appears to transcend cultures. A central theme in the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC) is human order and how to achieve it. His guiding principle is the concept of “The Noble” which comprises five virtues:

  • Humaneness 
  • Knowledge 
  • Veracity 
  • Customs 
  • Justice.

Question: Where are today’s books on the “virtuous” or “noble” CEO and leader?

Answer: They are not needed. These books have been written more than 2,000 years ago. We conclude: Confucius and Cicero should then be read in the light of modern leadership.

I have not done the research but wouldn’t be surprised if ethical principles in other cultures arrived at similar concepts. Mores may differ. Yet, the foundations of ethics appear to transcend cultures.

Don’t “break things to create things”

Some hold this to be the most important mantra of innovation: “To create things you have to break things.” Let’s have a closer look: What do we have to break?

For sure, to create novelty, we need to break mental barriers in our brains. Most often they are formulated with an “it is impossible” statement. It is impossible, e.g., to lend money to the poor, to build a sexy electric car, to have an office building that doesn’t consume but produces energy. While we might need to break our mind blocks, Cicero and Confucius are very clear that, in order to create things, you don’t have to break the law or infringe ethical principles.

Were “credit default swaps” guided by prudence? 
Is it brave to gamble “leveraged” billions which are not yours? 
Am I temperate if I strive for “world domination” of whatever market? 
How equitable is it to fragment work that can only be picked up by an online army of “e-lancers”?

Surprisingly, when creating novelty, laws and ethics can turn from constraints into guidelines. You can brainstorm asking: “What if there were no laws hindering us?” If the resulting solution looks appealing, then focus all creativity on getting the same done by still complying with the law.

Let me illustrate that with an admittedly humble example. Working with the logistics company TNT we confronted a problem “impossible to solve.” The biggest perceived hurdle was to “respect all legal requirements.” We set out to break them on paper: What if logistics companies didn’t need to prove they were not smuggling stuff? The resulting process proofed very simple indeed. Yet, that concept only turned into a truly superior solution when we asked: How do we get the same done while still respecting the law?

Business is in the lead to create, commercialize and to drive acceptance

When we commute to work, what if we could turn that idle seat next to us into a useful resource while still respecting the laws around passenger transportation? Or when I leave for vacation, what if I could let my London-city apartment to someone else and still be in line with the legal framework of the hospitality industry?

This is not only a question about change driven by innovators such as Airbnb or Uber. People, interest groups and entire countries struggle with the “creative destruction” produced by concepts like “industry 4.0” or the application of genetic engineering to healthcare. Couldn’t the underlying great opportunities be reaped far better within an ethical framework of virtuous and noble leadership? Business is clearly in the lead to recognize those potentials—politicians or customers won’t do that for us. Shouldn’t then businesses also adopt a noble and virtuous framework to exploit these opportunities?

It is said that success in innovation depends on creativity, the ability to commercialize and to drive the acceptance of the resulting change. For the first two, “off the shelf” cookbooks are available. Aren’t ethical guidelines a key ingredient for what it takes to succeed in the third?

Dr. Michael Ohler is a principal with BMGI. This article was originally published on LinkedIn. You can follow Michael on LinkedIn here.

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Tags: ethicsbig dataairbnbuberindustry 4.0Section: Culture & Teams