Bernhard Schroeder on “Simply Brilliant”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris


Bernhard Schroeder is Director of the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center Programs and oversees all of the center’s undergraduate and graduate internship programs. He is a part-time Clinical Faculty, Entrepreneurship within the College of Business Administration at San Diego State University. Bern brings over 20 years of marketing and entrepreneurial experience both as a Senior Partner in a leading global marketing agency and as a former Chief Marketing Officer on the client side.

Prior to moving to San Diego, Bern was a Senior Partner in the worlds’ largest integrated marketing communications agency, CKS Partners, which in 1998 had offices in over 30 countries, more than 10,000 employees and over $1 billion in revenue. He had joined CKS in 1993 as a partner when the agency had only $3 million in revenue. In 1995, CKS Partners had its IPO (initial Public Offering) at approximately $40 million in revenue.

He has experience working with Fortune 100 firms like Apple, Nike, General Motors, American Express, Mercedes Benz ,Nikon, Kellogg’s and others as well as start-up companies. He was involved in the initial branding and marketing launches for companies like Yahoo!, Amazon, Corbis, ESPN and Travelocity. Today, he mentors more than 20 founders of companies in San Diego, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas.

His latest book, Simply Brilliant: Powerful Techniques to Unlock Your Creativity and Spark New Idea, was published by AMACOM (October 2016).

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Morris: For those who have not as yet read Simply Brilliant, 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 decided to write it?

Schroeder: I did about 14 months of research in order to craft a syllabus for a new course I would teach on Creativity and Innovation. Once I started teaching the class, and during the time I wrote Fail Fast or Win Big, my publisher asked if I was doing anything interesting. I told him about my course and the crazy good things I had students doing and he said, “That’s a book.” So, I wrote it. Not just to write a book but I discovered that I actually needed a book to center the class around and Simply Brilliant could help me do that.

Please explain what prompted this rather unique dedication: “For all the people who were told that were never creative, this book is for you. Create away.”

Schroeder: I knew that my course was solid but never imagined that I would change students’ lives. I had one student come up to at the end of a semester and she stated that all her life she had been told she was not creative. After taking the course, she realized that was simply not true. And she told me that she would have a renewed sense of self-worth and purpose knowing that was creative. Very humbling.

Morris: As you reflect on what you have learned from Steve Jobs, is there an “insanely great” insight or two that has proven to be of great value to you and your work? Please explain.

One, establish a high standard. Two, to look forward, look backward and connect the dots to see what might happen in the future.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most problematic myths about creativity and innovation? What, in fact, is true?

Schroeder: First myth, that only artists are creative. Everyone is creative. Just watch any child when they are between three and five years old. Second myth, exactly how innovation happens. Innovation is not just about new ideas, it’s about solving problems. In fact most innovation occurs from gently iterating something that already exists.

Morris: What are the essential components of the CreativeWorks Framework? In your opinion, which (if any) is more important than the others? Please explain.

Schroeder: Mindset, Environment, Habitat, and Brainstorming Tools. Mindset is the most important. Without a growth mindset (one that believes you can constantly acquire new knowledge and experience), you will not really have the fullest potential in your career. You will settle.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of the Growth Mindset?

Schroeder: One, you have to believe you were not just born with a certain amount of knowledge or creativity; you can acquire and hone your creativity skills and become smarter with more knowledge or by learning new things. Two, you really have to have a high degree of curiosity. Curiosity fuels so many different things, knowledge, experience, networks, education, etc.

Morris: Which of these seems to be most difficult to master? Why?

Schroeder: I think it’s somewhat easy or understandable on why you should have a growth mindset. I think it’s harder to be constantly and purposely or not, be curious. I am still curious. I walk into stores I have never been in before. I will talk to random service providers to hear what they will say. I read about things that have no apparent value to my current life (currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). I just have this firm belief that curiosity drives everything. It has certainly driven my career.

Morris: I agree with you that those who aspire to become more creative should focus on solving problems. How to determine what are symptoms and what are root causes?

Schroeder: Keep asking simple questions. Let’s assume the following conversation. Assume you are the CEO and you are talking to the VP of Sales. VP of Sales says sales are down. Rather than assume you have a sales problem, you ask why? They say they ran out of inventory at the end of the quarter. You ask why? They say that decision was made to centralize certain product with one vendor. You ask why? They say it was to save time or money. The problem is not in sales. It’s the fact you now have only one vendor who is providing a critical part. The real problem is not having multiple vendors. That’s the problem.

Morris: I’m all for connecting dots but remain convinced that the challenge is to connect the” right” dots. Your own thoughts about this?

Schroeder: I agree. The dots have to matter and be relevant. I think Steve Jobs saw the “iTunes” dot by looking backwards at the evolution of music media…album, 8-Track, cassette, CD, DVD, MP3 format, Napster…what’s next? iPod and iTunes. I believe if I put five people in a room seven years ago, we could have looked at cars, taxi’s, ZipCar, Car2Go and logically come up with Uber.

Morris: What exactly is “customer truth”? How can it drive innovation? Please explain.

Schroeder: I love customer truth. My quote is, “Customers are not always right but they are never wrong.” Most executives somehow remove themselves from actual customers. They begin to believe they know more than actual customers about what customers really want or need. I believe this is exactly where McDonalds is today. If I were CEO of McDonalds, I would send all my executives to In & Out and figure out a way to make quality, fresh food at a reasonable price. Because that is obviously what customers want. Not enough executives today actually spend most of their time with real customers. I see the show “Undercover Boss” and I think it is a joke. All CEO’s or leaders should be doing that every week to better understand their business and their customers. Customer truth is simply the reality of what the customer (and your employees) believes to be true. Know that and you can figure out a way to address their needs.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the greatest barrier to unleashing creativity and innovation?

Schroeder: There are lots of them, all self-imposed. Ourselves. It’s our collective mindsets. Somehow, regardless of the company we are in, we settle. Or we actually believe we are just not creative or that we really don’t need creativity to be successful in our careers.

Morris: How specifically does it suppress creativity?

Schroeder: When I ask students for a show of hands on who is creative, only four or five students of 50 raise their hands. The rest, whether they believe they are creative or not, just won’t claim they are creative. They won’t have the confidence to seek out and solve problems they see.

Morris: How best to avoid or overcome that barrier?

Schroeder: Well, if it were up to me, we would be increasing our focus on creativity for everyone in elementary school. For everyone else, understand and do the research on growth mindset. Read and study ways on how you can stoke your curiosity. Adjust patterns in your life in order to fuel the curiosity. Know that accurately identifying problems and then learning how to craft solutions will also drive more creativity. If all else fails, hang out with creative people. Learn from them.

Morris: In your own words, what is “the innovator’s dilemma”? How best to resolve it?

Schroeder: It’s doing what you did initially to be successful…forever. Think of Blockbuster. They rented DVDs from stores. They saw Netflix in the early 2000s. But they could not or at least would not deviate from what made them successful. So they were doomed to fail. Best way to not fail from an innovator’s dilemma, is to try and destroy yourself in a good way. If you see a shift in the marketplace or a new emerging trend, set up a separate company and try to become a new leader in that space. If it takes off, you know you are onto something. Because if you don’t innovate or shift to changing consumer needs, your competitor will take you out.

Morris: You assert in the book — and again I agree — that individuals start companies but teams build them. In your opinion, what do the most successful teams share in common?

Schroeder: Simply, they wholeheartedly agree on the given mission. When the four of us got together to build our company, we all agreed — without exception — that we wanted to be the best integrated marketing agency in the world. Not the biggest. Not the one with the most awards. Just the best. That simple agreement on mission guided us through an explosive growth trajectory. Also, we allowed absolutely no back-stabbing or politics in our company. If you had a problem with someone, you have to deal with it like an adult. Also, we hired the best person for every job in the company. Even our interns were amazing. Lastly, we treated everyone with the same equal respect.

Morris: What is the “Phoenix list” and how specifically can it be helpful to efforts to unleash creativity and spark new ideas?

Schroeder: It’s actually a list of questions that was developed by the CIA to deal with cold cases. A new team would come in and they would start over. So, they would begin by asking questions. The Phoenix list is the list of actual questions. A new team asking these questions might uncover something new.

Please explain what SCAMPER is and why it is relevant to unleashing creativity and sparking new ideas.

Schroeder: SCAMPER is a mnemonic that stands for: Substitute. Combine. Adapt. Modify. Put to another use. Eliminate. Reverse. It’s a great tool that has you looking at something that exists today, then running it through SCAMPER to see what you can come up. Great tool for potentially modifying a product or service that you feel needs changing based on evolving customer needs.

Morris: What are “blue oceans” and why do they matter?

Schroeder: Blue Ocean Strategy is the book in which this concept was developed by by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, professors at INSEAD and co-directors of the INSEAD Blue Ocean Strategy Institute. It’s basically the assertion that most of the world’s companies operate in “red oceans, with their products or services defined ultimately by price. As an example, smart tvs today exist in red oceans, constantly competing on price no matter the technical evolution. On the flip side, smart watches, organic juices and organic pet food are in rapidly growing industries do not yet have an abundance of competition so their marketplace is characterized as a blue ocean. If you can meet the customers’ needs in an emerging blue ocean, you don’t really have to compete on price. Yet.

Morris: What is an Observation lab? Why have one?

Schroeder: An observation lab is simply going and observing an environment, the customers in the environment and the service providers, all interacting in real time. What you see, feel, smell, hear is the truth. I have students conduct observation labs as part of my course. One real time observation lab had a team of four students, two male, two female, at a Victoria Secrets store come to a very simple conclusion. Men needed a better form of service and the store could increase its revenue with men by offering an Apple-like “genius bar” to simply help men shop the store more effectively. So, take something that might be awkward and celebrate the fun of helping someone. Great idea. All from observing.

Morris: In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Simply Brilliant will be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Schroeder: To realize your creativity will drive your career. Acquire a growth mindset and never stop learning. Remind yourself to be curious. And learn to understand the difference between problems and symptoms.

Morris: To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

Schroeder: Learn how be acquire and grow your own confidence and then inspire the confidence of people working for you.

Morris: To C-level executives? Please explain.

Schroeder: Your company’s success in the future will come from the creative core of your employee base. Hire, educate, train and support your employees to be as creative as possible.

Morris: To owner /CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Schroeder: To understand that every single hire you make or approve, no matter the position, has to be the best person possible. And make sure everyone understands the company’s purpose and mission.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Schroeder: Here is the question: “Are you creative?” I know I believe I am creative. Not in an artistic sense but in a problem-solving sense. That is something I always seemed to have: a common-sense understanding of finding and solving problems. As I began my professional career, I found that new knowledge fueled my confidence and with that confidence, I became a problem solver.

As my career grew, I became better at looking into future scenarios by connecting dots. I also nurtured a skill that I believed in. The idea that I could “see” a potential solution so well that I could explain it to someone else. This actually drove my wife crazy. I would tell her exactly what a room should like before we built the house. I felt I could really see the room, in color with detail.

The same thing happened with clients. I could look into a marketplace and “see” exactly where the brand had to go. This kind of belief guided me into making tough decisions with a lot on the line. I had no problem telling Jeff Bezos exactly why we were initially doing print advertising to launch and eCommerce brand. Good thing it worked!

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

Bern invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link.

His LinkedIn link.

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