Amy Radin on Disruptive Innovation: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Amy Radin is a recognized Fortune 100 Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer, adviser and investor, board member, and thought leader on how to deliver innovation for sustainable, business-changing impact. She has been at the forefront of rewiring brands for growth and now applies her expertise when working with executives to reduce the uncertainty and realize the benefits of innovation.

The Change Maker’s Playbook: How to Seek, Seed and Scale Innovation In Any Company (City Point Press, 2018), Amy’s first book, captures her field-tested experience as the top executive accountable for achieving innovation results under varied, complex and rapidly changing conditions.

Amy is a graduate of The Wharton School and Wesleyan University. She serves on the global board of the AICPA where she is advising on marketing strategy and the impact of technology and workforce disruption on accounting and financial advisory services. She established and sponsors an annual social impact fellowship at the NYU Stern Graduate School of Business, benefitting students, not-for-profits and government agencies in the New York City metro community for over a decade.

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Before discussing The Change Maker’s Playbook, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Many people have influenced me. For sure, my family and my dad’s business played a big role in setting the foundation for choices I have made.

I am the third of five children, with just a six-year age difference from oldest to youngest. Growing up in a large household, which also included my grandmother, definitely had an affect on me! My mother likes to attribute my personality to my birth order position, and she probably has a good point.

My dad owned an old-fashioned corner drugstore surrounded by diverse neighborhoods each with their own ethnic populations. He served them all, cared about customer experience, and set high standards for service. While earning a MBA was an important step in my education, working behind the counter in my dad’s store was where I really learned about understanding and meeting people’s needs, and the connection between doing right by your customers and community, and having money in the cash register at the end of the day.

My parents would not accept barriers to our educations, and they set high standards for both sons and daughters – we were not channeled towards a particular future based on gender.

More specifically, who and/or what have have had the greatest influence on your thoughts about disruptive innovation? Please explain.

I started on the innovation path in 2000 when the CEO at Citi Cards told me I had to “make the business more innovative.” Looking back, I honestly don’t know — had I not had that conversation with him — whether I would have landed here. Leaving his office after that conversation, I wasn’t sure if I had drawn the short straw or been singled out for a special assignment. I started to solicit advice from colleagues, and was introduced eventually to Larry Keeley. Larry was the co-founder of The Doblin Group (now part of Deloitte). He was and is one of the foremost global authorities on how to approach innovation as a discipline, versus as “cool stuff.” He was at that time the only external faculty member in Citi’s executive development program, which is why he was known within the Company.

We engaged Larry to kick-start our innovation efforts through a project that brought together the division’s summer interns to brainstorm ideas, then develop prototypes of concepts that had innovation potential, and pitch recommendations to the leadership team of the business.

Larry became a mentor to me, and an inspiration. I am very grateful for my CEO handing me that challenge, and for my nearly two-decade plus connection to Larry Keeley.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Different aspects of my education contributed different pieces, but there was no grand plan. 

I attended John Dewey High School, a progressive NYC public school with a program that brought to life many of Dewey’s philosophies all related to education reform. Notably, the school had a Pass/Fail grading system. Unlike other schools that were narrowly zoned to the surrounding neighborhood, Dewey drew from the entire borough of Brooklyn, so the student population was ethnically, racially, and economically diverse.

Because grading was Pass/Fail, I took risks and tried subjects I probably would have been afraid to try in a more traditional school. There were no GPAs (grade point averages).

At Wesleyan I majored in College of Letters, one of the first integrated majors to be offered at any university. It focused on the study of literature in its historical and philosophical context. You learn a lot about people and what makes them tick through this kind of program. A semester of overseas study was one of the requirements. I went to Spain, lived with a family in Madrid, became fluent in Spanish, and experienced a very different culture.

All of this influenced my decision to study marketing at Wharton. Nowadays, marketing has many unfortunate connotations. People sometimes think it is about manipulation and deception, and some people have definitely deployed marketing tools to nefarious ends. Classical marketing, practiced morally and ethically, is all about understanding people and their needs, and delivering on those needs better than anyone else to earn customer loyalty and commitment.

Marketing was a great foundation for the work I have come to do. Innovation requires an intense application of marketing principles to stay constantly in touch with fast changing market needs, and fast moving, unpredictable trends. The best innovations are grounded in understanding people and having empathy for their challenges.

Now please shift your attention to The Change Maker’s Playbook. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

In 2010 I was introduced to a writer, Kevin McDermott, by one of my colleagues. It started as just a networking request, “Here’s a friend of mine, would you have a cup of coffee with him?”  Kevin came by my office one day, and we talked about innovation. He started to record our conversation, and after about 20 minutes he said, “You should write a book.” I parked that thought, and came back to it in 2014, when I left the corporate world and was trying to figure out what I would do next. I started talking to people who had written business books to understand what it would really mean, how to go about it, to figure out if I had it in me to write a book that would matter.

One of the authors I spoke to gave me the deciding piece of advice.  He said, “Write a book if you feel you have something to say.” I thought about that quite a bit as I tried to figure out what this new chapter in my life and career would be about. I realized that everyone seemed to be talking about innovation, but almost no one could make it real.

There are many titles on innovation written by academics or consultants. I realized I could bring additional, useful perspective, having been in the innovation “hot seat” as a practitioner in tough, financially driven businesses focused on short-term results.

My focus always came back to tackling the tough issues that derail even the best ideas in these complex environments. I felt I had something to offer that could be useful to a lot of people, so finding a way to share my experiences and those of other change makers was very motivating, and a challenge worth pursuing.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Chapter Two was originally going to be about positioning, focused on a fairly traditional set of assumptions about what it means to position a product or service and brand for success.  But when I began interviewing and researching, a colleague challenged me to consider the bigger role that purpose plays in setting a framework for a brand to innovate. He advocated that the conversation should really be about purpose, and why that mattered to delivering important innovations.

As a result, I began to explore the connection between having a sense of purpose and executing innovation, and reoriented the chapter and the thinking behind the Seek, Seed, Scale framework. 

Purpose is what informs the “WHY” that matters so much to defining an innovation aspiration and sticking to it. Purpose creates focus that can be translated into decisions on where to place resources, how to prioritize, whom to hire (or not). It’s not a touchy-feely tree-hugging concept.  It really can be the beacon that sets direction and clarity on a path that is otherwise loaded with ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability – yet where many choices will have to be made. Since innovation can be so difficult to achieve, purpose can be the fuel that keeps the change maker going through tough challenges – it’s what they believe in.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

At first I imagined that the book would be my great catharsis – that I would write down all of the advice I could offer on how to execute innovation, including where I turned out to be right when others in the corporate world rejected what my teams were pursuing. At some point I realized that would risk coming across as cynical. I wanted to offer something constructive and optimistic. I also figured that no one would want to read 200-plus pages about me, and being an introvert, I did not want to talk about myself for 200-plus pages either.  I realized that writing is very solitary, even lonely. So I decided that for each chapter I would interview a large handful of experts, to support, expand and challenge my hypotheses, and break up the solitary nature of writing.

I wanted to interview people from many sectors, and also from established as well as startup operations. Why? People love to dwell on differences.  Startups think legacy companies are full of dinosaurs.  Corporate executives think founders have it easy. My hunch was they could learn a lot from each other, and that there is a lot of common ground in terms of the challenges they face. That hunch turned out to be right, and because of this approach, the book ended up being filled with great stories and examples from nearly 50 change makers with very diverse backgrounds, businesses, and life experiences.

My one gating factor for interviewees is that I wouldn’t approach anyone who needed to get approval from within their company. I wanted to avoid bureaucracy. 

Why is it so important for change makers  to determine the WHY of change initiatives before the WHAT and HOW?

The WHY establishes the North Star.  Where do you want to head – what is the impact you want to have, and on what group(s) of people. How do you want to change their lives, or just make daily tasks easier and more delightful to accomplish. That’s the WHY.  Starting there allows you to rise above incremental action, be aspirational, and set up a challenge that requires innovation to solve.

Also, in my experience at least, being able to pursue action based on a clear and compelling “why” becomes a talent magnet. Most people appreciate context for their work, and high performers in innovation roles care more and more about knowing the “why.” They are intellectually curious and want to see meaning in their work.

How best to identify “real problems”?

Get into the environment of people who interest you, and see what they are struggling with.  You will see their reality, and have a much clearer picture of their needs and where you can add value.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A few years ago I went out on sales calls with a rep for one of the big insurance carriers, visiting financial advisors who were distributors for the carrier’s products. One advisor was at his desk, surrounded by stacks and stacks of brochures and other materials being dropped off by all of the other carriers and fund companies calling upon him to push their products.  Just being in his office and seeing how he was dealing with this mess made it much easier to understand advisors’ realities and their needs (certainly not for more products or collateral!) than had he attended a focus group or submitted a survey.

There is no substitute for getting into the environment of the people you want to serve, and seeing what is going on with your own eyes. Listening has to happen with all senses.

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Amy cordially invites you to check out the resources at www.AmyRadin.com where visitors can find these free resources:

An excerpt from The Change Maker’s Playbook

o The Seek, Seed, Scale infographic

o Sign up for my monthly e-newsletter

Visitors can also take the Change Maker’s Quiz and receive immediate feedback on their strengths and needs as innovators.

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2 Comments

  1. Rick Mueller on November 5, 2018 at 10:17 am

    From what I read here, I see Amy talking about innovation in the general sense and you’ve framed this as a discussion about Disruptive Innovation. Clickbait perhaps?

    • bobmorris on November 5, 2018 at 10:42 am

      As you no doubt know already, innovation worthy of the name is necessarily disruptive, to varying degree. Radin is far more specific than you apparently think. Let’s agree to disagree about that. Re “clickbait,” that’s a cheap shot. You disappoint me.

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