Innovation may look casual. But behind every creative leap, there’s a real process at work.
By Samar Farah
In his office on the top floor of the Boston Design Center, Antonio Bertone fiddles with a sailors’ knot. Puma AG’s 32-year-old global director of brand management would rather unravel rope than the process by which he comes up with his innovative marketing ideas—ideas that helped transform Puma from a staid, financially troubled sneaker manufacturer into a sports brand synonymous with hipster fashion.
Bertone sits behind a work-scarred wooden table. Long, narrow and unpolished, it resembles an artist’s workbench. But asking Bertone to explain where his ideas come from—like the time he showcased Puma’s soccer cleats on tables in sushi restaurants during the 2002 World Cup in Japan—is a bit like asking an artist to deconstruct his brush strokes.
“I might be really sarcastic,” he teases, straight off.
Maybe. Bertone is your archetypical innovator. He is profoundly driven. (As an 8-year-old cycling fan, he dreamed of opening his own bike shop.) He’s a hustler—his word. (At 16, he was promoting nightclubs in Boston, and by 19, he had bought and sold a record store.) And he likes to break rules. (“I prioritize in a way that doesn’t seem rational to other people,” he admits.)
Mostly though, Bertone shrugs at his own creativity. When asked, for instance, how he made the leap from food to footware for Mongolian Shoe BBQ, Puma’s latest product initiative in which consumers “cook up” custom sneakers from precut fabrics, Bertone’s response is typically opaque. “I’m sorry,” he says with a wry smile. “But to me it was an obvious idea.”
What could be more infuriating than such smug brilliance? He seems to draw inspiration out of thin air.
It’s no wonder we cloak innovators in awe. There’s a serendipity to their brainstorms that defies investigation. But investigate we must, for the need to master the dynamics of this process—and it is a process—has rarely been more urgent.
In today’s fiercely competitive business environment, where organizations can gain an important edge by being innovative, plenty of companies devote time and money to hire coaches who will help break down barriers to innovation (such as corporate hierarchy and the fear of risk) and flex employees’ creative muscles.
Yet few are truly able to steer the conversation toward what drives the most innovative thinkers, what actually fires their synapses and gets their neurotransmitters humming.
To some degree, the mystery of creativity is real. While pop culture has co-opted theories about the left brain as the domain of linear, logical ideas and the right brain as the stage for more visual and abstract thoughts, researchers have yet to isolate a specific locale for creativity. In Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors, Evan I. Schwartz traces the creative compulsion to imaginative childhood play—such as taking apart a TV set and rearranging its parts. But that merely raises the question: Why are some of us more creative? “It’s always been mysterious,” admits Schwartz. “And mostly it still is.”
Yet after probing Bertone and other innovators—from the medical inventor Dr. Thomas Fogarty to the celebrated product firm IDEO—it is possible to unravel breakthrough insight. Behind those coveted and trumpeted eureka moments is a long and often arduous course, one that others can follow.
“Anyone can be an [innovator], just as you can learn to be a sailor or a painter,” says Schwartz. “There are different creativity patterns that drive [innovators] and all these can be learned and practiced.”
These patterns are less cerebral than pop culture would have us believe. Empathy and passion often precede the really big cognitive leaps. And down-to-earth, practical motivations often account for the final product, whether it’s a lifesaving medical device, a brand-new business model or a cutting-edge marketing campaign.
In Lexington, Mass., the offices of IDEO, whose long list of innovations includes the Neat Squeeze tube and the first mouse for Apple, team members Ela Ben-Ur, Dan Schwartz and Jim Collins peel back lids, tear plastic bags and pry open boxes, occasionally bending for a whiff of preprocessed food. They are deep in a “synthesis” on the subject of food and convenience. The team’s task is to understand the existing market, evaluate why some products and approaches are successful, and then identify unmet needs and new opportunities.
A tall metal shelf nearby displays convenience foods, from packets of Quaker Instant Oatmeal to Yoplait’s Go-Gurt, the latest iteration of on-the-go sustenance. But the team’s discussion, densely analytical at times, is not concerned with the mechanics of manufacturing or packaging these goods—although the group includes two engineers and a physicist. Instead, they talk about a coworker “tormented” by her reliance on lunch meals swathed in layers of packaging, and parents who feel “lazy” buying peanut butter and jelly swirled in a single jar, an observation gleaned during team leader Ben-Ur’s field research at school sports practices.
It’s easy to imagine the solitary innovator, holed up in a lab or office, poring over notes and scratching her head as if to kindle an intellectual fire. But the act of empathy is what really drives the early phase of innovation.
Business coaches and professors of creativity sometimes talk about innovators having a quality of “openness,” or an eye for the minutiae of human experience. IDEO General Manager Tom Kelley defines this attribute as an “empathy for consumers’ needs, even if those consumers are very different from yourself.”
For Josh Kopelman, that meant putting himself in the shoes of a spammer. Kopelman is a serial entrepreneur whose profit-turning ventures include Half.com, the first online fixed-price marketplace where people could sell used books, music, movies and video games. Last year, he launched TurnTide, a company that produced the first antispam router to stop unwanted e-mails before they enter a network. Security software giant Symantec bought TurnTide six months after its launch.
In developing the software, Kopelman says, he had to “understand the motivators and drivers of all the people in that ecosystem. What are the economics of a spammer? What are the challenges of a CEO? Trying to understand people is important in the idea generation process.”
But empathy can take you only so far. Those who innovate for a living also use casual but carefully calibrated questions to drill for emotional insight. “When we go into a field,” says IDEO’s Kelley, “it’s common for us to start with something like, ‘Tell me a story about the time your cell phone let you down. Or, ‘Tell me about a time you were annoyed with someone else’s cell phone.'”
How does Kelley know when he’s struck gold? “The more emotion involved in the answer, the better,” he says.
The drive to innovate may also stem directly from personal frustration. Unhappy with a local bike store, Puma’s Bertone yearned to open his own. Explaining this childhood dream, he says, “I was obsessed with BMX, and I hated the shop in town.” Unwittingly, he confirms a pattern among innovators. Where someone else might assume a personal frustration is just that—individual and quirky—innovators assume that if they feel that way, then others must too. Recognizing this—and then acting on it—is part of the innovative impulse.
Thomas Ward, professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, sometimes strains to get this point across to his students. “If you’ve had a problem with an everyday situation, it’s likely that other people have had that problem. You’re well on the way to have an idea for an invention if you can realize that.”
Say the word “innovator” and what picture springs to mind? Einstein? Back to the Future’s Doc Brown, with his riotous white hair and a string tied to his finger? It’s an enduring image: the rumpled, disorganized genius with a glint of madness in his eye. But like many idées fixes about innovation, it doesn’t quite stick.
Puma’s Bertone seems to fit the Doc Brown stereotype—although his own hair is neatly pulled back in a ponytail. Asked about his reputation in the office, he laughs. “Chaotic,” he says, shooting a coworker a glance for confirmation. But his self-deprecation belies an orderly streak: He does, in fact, prioritize. “I try not to have all these ideas that don’t amount to anything,” he says.
That’s what differentiates a successful innovator from someone with a lot of unrealized what-ifs: the ability to produce a single, well-defined opportunity from a lot of cool, snazzy ideas. To do so requires discipline, pragmatism and goal-setting.
“Many creative people really do frame their work and insight around a real problem,” says Gary Miller, chief development officer at Herman Miller, the furniture designer company responsible for the Aeron chair, which brought together style and ergonomics. “And in their own mind and their own process, they lay that up against what they think is a business initiative. They might not articulate it the same way, but it doesn’t mean insightful, creative people don’t have a practical goal.”
Ben-Ur keeps her goal in sight during the IDEO synthesis session. Midway through it, she pulls her team back from the creative edge. “How can we actually capture all this as a tool?” she asks, gesturing at a large board festooned with Post-it notes, each describing individual personal issues surrounding food, from the decline of the family meal to recycling.
The notes track the team’s zigs and zags from one idea to another. But on closer inspection, it’s clear all the comments funnel into one central question: What needs are unmet?
And that’s the point: “Any trend monkey can come up with a bunch of ideas,” observes IDEO’s Schwartz. The key thing to ask, he says, is, “Are you solving the right problem?”
Curiouser and Curiouser
Innovations often come with a metaphor attached like an endnote. The iMac computer borrowed its luscious design from translucent hard candy. The Aeron chair, porous and flexible, was inspired by women’s panty hose. The balloon catheter, which revolutionized the treatment of clogged arteries, drew on the art of fly tying.
Aristotle calls metaphor a “mark of genius.” But as soon as the word “genius” enters the discussion, innovation seems to belong again to the gifted few.
The myth is quickly dispelled by Dr. Fogarty, inventor of the balloon catheter. “I don’t think to be a great innovator you need to be brilliant. You need to have a capacity to think differently. That’s not necessarily brilliant.”
Yet why does an innovative solution, in the retelling, often appear to emerge out of nowhere like a flashlight turned on suddenly in a dark cave? Many innovators and experts point to curiosity—not genius—as the reason innovators are able to make unlikely connections.
Herman Miller looks for this quality in its hires. “The people that Herman Miller finds itself attracted to are people with this big worldview,” says Miller. “They’re fun to sit around with and talk to about almost anything, and they speak with insight and eloquence about things well beyond their professional discipline.”
Innovators bring those outside experiences to bear on their work. For instance, Bertone’s extracurricular activities include interior design, sailing, food and travel. It was this last pursuit that inspired him to come up with 96 Hours, a coordinated range of footwear and apparel designed to outfit a traveler on a four-day business trip. Sold as a set with a custom Puma suitcase, it includes a complete wardrobe—including shoes—for meetings, exercise and evenings out.
Fogarty exemplifies how outside interests can be a wellspring of metaphor and innovative solutions. Fogarty is an avid fisherman and a professional vintner, in addition to being a surgical professor at Stanford University. Working as a scrub technician while in college, Fogarty spent many hours observing patients undergoing invasive surgery for blood clots. His experiences eventually led him to devise a simpler surgical system using a thin catheter and a small balloon. One problem: No glue existed to hold it all together. But Fogarty’s knowledge of fishing and fly tying helped him hit on the perfect solution to the problem.
Inspiration struck twice. Years later, as a semiretired surgeon and vintner, Fogarty improved on his own balloon catheter by drawing an analogy between catheters and corkscrews—one unplugs arteries and the other unplugs wine bottles.
“Would I have made that correlation if I hadn’t been in the winery? Probably not,” he declares.
Confident, Not Arrogant
Maybe it’s the way they challenge authority and embrace risk. But in the popular imagination, innovators always have a whiff of arrogance about them.
There’s no question it takes confidence—and a healthy shot of self-esteem—to stay the course when others doubt. However, that doesn’t mean innovators don’t suffer pangs of doubt and anxiety. The difference, perhaps, is that they are willing to embrace failure and to learn from it.
“I’ve had a few good outcomes,” Kopelman says. But he quickly adds, “I’m due for a failure. Accepting that is a natural part of the process.”
Innovators also don’t rest on their latest—or greatest—idea. They are always on the lookout for the next big thing. In Bertone’s case, the drive to innovate has led him to push Puma into an arena where sports brands have never played before: high fashion. Working with such top designers as Christy Turlington and Philippe Starck, he has created special lines and campaigns that redefined the brand in the minds of consumers. And he’s not done yet: “I think the world of sports fashion is still that small,” he says, pressing forefinger to thumb.
As successful as he’s been, Bertone knows that a good innovator always stays on his toes. Brand innovation, he says, works “like a relationship. How do you not become boring toyour partner?”
For all of Bertone’s casual confidence, his answer to the question is surprising. “You have to always have that insecurity,” he says. “You can’t get too confident with your ideas.”
From CMO magazine (a publication of CXO Media, Inc.), September 2005