George E. L. Barbee is one of the original Batten Fellow faculty members (along with Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell and Jim Gilmore) at top-ranked University of Virginia Darden School of Business, and has been teaching innovation for the past 15 years to over 500 MBA students and senior executives.
Barbee’s 45-year business career has taken him to over 40 different countries over four continents. He has founded three successful entrepreneurial companies and has led innovation with several Fortune 100 companies including Gillette, General Electric, PepsiCo, IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
He received Darden’s highest alumni honor, the Charles C. Abbott Award, in 2000 and has been recognized in “Who’s Who in the World” as a global business leader. He has written and originated numerous articles, and has appeared multiple times on NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s Good Morning America, PBS and CNN. He has also been quoted widely in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times throughout his career.
George and his wife, Molly, travel extensively and live on Captiva Island, Florida, during the winter months, and in beautiful Leland, Michigan, during the summer. Their four sons have all lived in foreign countries and are now scattered across the U.S. from Atlanta, to D.C., to Montana.
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Morris: When and why did you decide to write 63 Innovation Nuggets?
Barbee: Actually, I was a voracious note taker throughout my career. If I came across something innovative, I’d jot it down and put it in a folder. I vaguely thought I might put it together in a book someday.
Over the course of teaching for 15 years, I found myself digging out these notes to use as examples and stories. I also found I was making more notes with the learning I experienced with these bright, 30-year-old students who thought quite differently than I did. And they were in the midst of new trends around technology, social media, habits, and outlooks.
Two years ago, I thought I would begin to seriously organize all these notes and documents. And did the writing and editing in 1 1/2 years, thanks to a marvelous free lance editor I found in Susan Carlson.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Barbee: Two “head snappers” come to mind right away. I noticed that early reviewers of the book seemed to like the short, pithy format of the nugget: an insightful “morsel” on less than one page. And then a brief story to support it or make it come alive on the next page.
While I personally liked the format and found it easy to write to, the first “head snapper” was how many other busy executives and reviewers emphatically liked it—almost universally given the limited amount of time at one sitting that we can make time to read a book these days.
The second “head snapper” was the use of technology in the writing and editing process itself. Carlson and I would meet, discuss tactics, and then sometimes we were months apart geographically, but connected almost every day through online writing, interactive feedback, quick resolutions, and improved real-time manuscripts. It was truly amazing to me how efficient today’s technology has made writing and editing a book.
Morris: In your opinion, what are the most common misconceptions about innovation? What, in fact, is true?
Barbee: There are two misconceptions. First, there is a difference between invention and innovation. Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford were masters of invention. They were invention geniuses, as distinct from innovative. So, the invention of a “product” is different from innovation—the first misconception.
The second misconception is that someone has to be uniquely born to be an innovative genius—like Steve Jobs. But what about the rest of us? I often like to ask. The reality is that most of us are much more innovative than we give ourselves credit for. Or that our boss might give us credit for. And innovation is both a learnable skill and teachable. The second misconception is debunked by the fact that innovation is both learnable and teachable.
This is what inspired me to write the book. I saw that innovation was learnable during my business career across many different industries and many different cultures. And I could see, first hand, that innovation could be taught as I worked with over 500 students over the years at Darden.
Morris: What is the single greatest barrier to establishing a workplace culture within which innovation is most likely to thrive?
Barbee: There are a host of “shut down” words and expressions—maybe 20 or more ranging from ‘we’ve tried that before’ to ‘that could impact our current business negatively’.
There a variety of nuggets in the book dealing with this “organization cramp” issue. Suffice to say, organize a like- minded network in the organization, focus on future key customer needs, and earn top executive leadership air cover. There are many examples of this being done successfully. Don’t despair.
Morris: Of all the breakthrough innovations (not creations) throughout history, which – in your opinion – has had the most beneficial impact on the human race? Please explain.
Barbee: In recent history, the combination of the global network and smartphones. It has enabled a globally-connected exchange of information almost instantaneously. News and innovations can transfer at almost warp speed. The recent troublesome discoveries and short-comings in China’s economy, and it’s almost instantaneous effect on world-wide stock markets is a recent example.
Morris: These are among the several dozen subjects of greatest interest and value to me. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away from the passage in which it is discussed.
First, challenging a dominant competitor
Barbee: If you are dominant today, you still need to be watching your flanks for tomorrow. If you are a challenger, there may be easy pickings due to too much hubris or fear of self-cannibalization within the dominant player.
Morris: Reconstructing an enterprise
Barbee: Almost every industry is in a process of deconstructing (splintering) and reconstructing (reassembling). Seeing these patterns, thinking about them, and imagining the future is almost a certain path to innovation.
Morris: Focusing on heavy users
Barbee: This could be one of the most overlooked Innovation Nuggets. Heavy users are gold! For example, a woman with long, straight hair is worth almost 10 times the shampoo usage of a man with short hair. Pay attention to heavy users.
Morris: Capitalizing on satisfaction gaps
Barbee: Most industries and categories within them have enormous satisfaction gaps—the pay off is taking the time to observe and act on them.
Morris: Making an impressive presentation of an idea
Barbee: Innovators are always presenting and convincing. There are some simple insights to capture and engage your audience. Finding a way to connect to your audience is key.
Morris: Respecting what may seem to be an “absurd” idea
Barbee: An “absurd” idea is so very important to protect, and it bears re-emphasizing a few thoughts. If we have the courage to put forth an out-of-the-box or absurd idea, we have made ourselves vulnerable. We have often laid ourselves bare for criticism and teasing. So often these ideas can be shut down and ridiculed.
Not only do we run the risk of losing a good idea, or the seed of a good idea, we may more permanently shut that person down for future absurd ideas or connections.
I feel this ridicule at an early age is what we have to overcome in our education system and in many of our business environments where there are points to be gained from deriving the one “right answer.” Seldom is there just ONE right answer.
Stay open. Encourage the absurd idea. At least write it down and don’t lose it. Protecting it will build confidences in the team and open up imaginative thinking.
Morris: Innovating through iterations
Barbee: Again at the risk of over-emphasizing a point, seldom do we get it right the first time. And seldom in the laboratory or away from the end customer or client.
As soon as the quality of a product or service is at “acceptable quality levels,’ try to get it to the market as soon as possible. Learn from real market experiences and feedback. Use the ultimate end users to gain constructive feedback. Make changes. Take it back out to the market. These are the important iterations that can perfect successful new products and services.
Morris: Diversifying one or more teams
Barbee: Diversity encompasses much more than traditional race, religion, and sex. Consider cultural background, foreign country, analytical versus free associative mind, etc. This is essential to forming solid teams and to innovative thinking.
Morris: Creating access to all levels and in all areas throughout the given enterprise
Barbee: Keeping it simple: the top dogs (officers) need innovation internally as acquisitions are not historically reliable for sustainable growth. So they are looking down into the organization.
And down in the middle of the organization, particularly those closest to the customers? These people hear and listen to what the customer needs and wants now, and in the future, and benefit from the top executive’s “air cover” to encourage ideas and bring them to fruition.
Hence access and exchange are key issues among senior executive leadership and innovators on the line with key customers.
Morris: Building and strengthening mutual trust and respect
Barbee: The successful innovator often builds internal and external TRUST.
Externally with clients, a long term business relationship is based on candid, objective exchange and not trying to sell clients something they don’t need. Instead, assemble an innovative solution that is really needed and anticipates the real problems facing clients.
Internally, the credibility of the innovative team leader is based on the objective assessment as to when to move forward with a project, or reassess it, or “kill” it. I found it is best to have a portfolio of projects (not wedded to any one in particular) and in this way it is easier to kill an unsuccessful project, and go on to the more likely successes.
Morris: Learning from failure
Barbee: The key is not making the same mistakes twice. And having the discipline to really dissect a failure. Most of us don’t take the time—and most organizations don’t—as everyone is running away not wanting to be associated with the failures. This is a mistake. Great learning and progress can result from examining failures.
Morris: Setting/adjusting priorities
Barbee: This is a key exercise to help in balancing one’s personal and business life. There is not a quick solution to this and thinking about it without taking some time out, self thought, and making some notes which is what we take readers through in the book.
Morris: Investing in yourself
Barbee: This is actually one of my personal favorites. Think about what you like to do and begin a personal business around that—even if you are working for a larger company. Take courses, test, experiment, and take initiatives to confirm or deny your gut feel.
Putting money in this way “into yourself” beats the stock market which you really can’t control anyway. Like any smart investment, stay diversified and don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Morris: Avoiding/overcoming inertia, complacency, despair, etc.
Barbee: I like overcoming “thinkers cramp” and many organizations have “organization cramp.” The book has many exercises and nuggets to aide this, but when in doubt, start with #19, “Observing as an Art.”
Morris: Becoming an innovative rainmaker
Barbee: Focus objectively on your key customers, listen to their needs into the future, and be a reliable, trusted sparring partner. The business will follow along with a long-term relationship.
Morris: Determining how you wish to be regarded
Barbee: Think and imagine and act in a way you want to be regarded, and this nugget will help get you there.
Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in 63 Innovation Nuggets, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.
Barbee: Innovation can be learned and taught—at many levels down in the organization, and in many other surprising places. Believe in that. And practice providing that learning and vision.
This stimulates good people to stay for the long term, and it keeps you ahead of your toughest competitors. Focus this innovation on your key customers. It starts by believing in yourself, and from there, it can be taught and spread throughout the organization.
Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?
“How about companies out there, what are they doing to re-energize an innovative spirit?”
Barbee: Bob, you mentioned the many hundreds of medium to small companies you have worked with over the years. We have been hearing from many like that, as well as the Fortune 500. It seems as though large and smalls are both interested in finding creative ways to stimulate improved innovation in their organizations.
In our introductory months with the book, we’ve had over 50 senior executives from a wide range of companies and organizations reviewing the book with the idea of offering it to employees, or in tandem with facilitated discussion, to a select group of executives.
Almost universally, there appears to be a recognition that acquisitions themselves are no longer the answer for growth, but that internally developed innovation is key.
Senior executives are trying to encourage “leading innovation from the middle.” This is, of course, very exciting to us.
Like you, Bob, I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed first hand to both the small, entrepreneurial mindset, and the large Fortune 500 mindset. Often they are far apart, but when it comes to the need to inspire innovation, they are surprising similar.
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Please click here to check out Part 1.
George cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
63 Innovation Nuggets link
Amazon link to 63 Innovation Nuggets
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