George E.L. Barbee: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

BarbeeGeorge 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.

Barbee 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.

Barbee 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: Before discussing 63 Innovation Nuggets, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Barbee: When I think about the many mentors I have had in my 45 year business career, especially while learning about different cultures in over 40 countries, there are well over several dozen powerful influencers. I felt so strongly about them—and what I have learned from them, or have been inspired by—that I credited them in 63 Innovation Nuggets as part of the stimulus to write the book.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Barbee: Often it would be my toughest critics with candid, constructive advice. I could start with my wife, Molly, and then most of the others are mentioned in the book.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Barbee: Here it is very clear. When I went to Wilkinson Sword, they had just developed the technology to revolutionize the shaving industry. I had a chance to be a part of that innovation and invention and bring it to the market place.

Gillette was caught flat-footed—initially. I saw first hand the need for team work, across international borders and across functional cooperation, as well as the fundamental excitement of “true customer need fulfillment” in the market place. A superior, differentiated product.

We took nearly 50% of the market share in 10% of the USA. Gillette could not let that continue, so it came out with the Trac II razor in record time and crushed us in the remainder of the US.

That was an equally powerful lesson—respect for the resources of large competitors while appreciating the speed and agility of the smaller companies. This balance and trade-off around size has played out many times in my career—having now been on both sides. The grass always seems greener from the other side.

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

Barbee: Pure and simple: UVa’s Darden School of Business taught me to think ACROSS the enterprise and appreciate the complexities, and how to instill teamwork. It nicely built on my liberal arts background at Brown University which also helped me see trends across disciplines. And finally as a global partner with PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

My international education was augmented by the many hundreds of partners I learned with as we worked together with clients across 40 countries, cultures and languages.

This “on the job,” practical education was furthered by the confidence many of our Fortune 100 clients bestowed on us. They entrusted to us many of their toughest challenges as we were all learning together at a time when the world was changing very fast and we had an opportunity to forge relationships across borders that were historical.

The world was truly becoming integrated in an unprecedented way with the opening up of cross border commerce and the overlay of the new internet/world wide web technology.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Barbee: It’s not just my ideas, it’s encouraging, inspiring, and mentoring others and building their confidence in innovation. Most people way underestimate their own ability to be innovative, but it is teachable and learnable. It is extremely satisfying to give back and see individuals and even companies build their innovative self-confidence.

Yes, companies need to build their confidence in order to innovate, too. I suppose this is why I have enjoyed teaching this to graduate students the last 15 years, and now, writing the book. It is a form of a “give back,” but it’s also very rewarding to see others advance and build their own confidence.

I am now fond of saying there is a way to overcome individual “thinkers cramp.” And in many ways it manifests itself as “organization cramp.” These can be overcome as we discuss further in the book.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Barbee: Well, the first thing that pops into my mind is not a public, Oscar winning film, but instead, a business training video based on the book Fish Tales by Lunden, Paul, and Christensen. I have used it the last 13 years while teaching graduate business students.

Fish Tales builds on Seattle’s famous Pike Place Fish Market. “Have fun” in business. “Be there and be present” when talking with someone. “Make their day” by doing something nice to brighten someone’s day. Some of these thoughts worked their way into my book as they hit and reinforced beliefs I had, but had not always verbalized effectively. I thought it has innovation impact as well.

This is not only a path to superior customer service, it is one of the keys to innovation. A good sense of humor and laughter are terribly important to successful innovation. It loosens people up. I am hard put to think of a consistently innovative environment that doesn’t involve people smiling, laughing, having fun, and at times even being a bit silly.

Morris: From which non- business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Barbee: I have a host of business and non-business books that have had impact on me. Many are self-help. I’ve come to observe that most innovative leaders are always trying to improve themselves, often times self-starting. That in part inspired my book, which can be self-coaching, or used in conjunction with “group discovery.” Group discussion magnifies the impact.

One of my perennial favorite books is What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles because it helped me reassess where I was year after year. I completed exercises in it regularly over a 30 year span. And Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. He chronicled what I had actually done in my career, but in the midst of it, I had not risen up to 30,000 feet to see it taking place. And Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control Your Time and Your Life … so much insight as to setting priorities that are important to YOU, and to bring balance to all of our busy lives. Many others are listed in the book, but these are a few I feel offer valuable lessons.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Barbee: Helping people to self-discover is one of the great satisfactions of teaching and now writing this book. It is key to the Socratic method of teaching. The ART of asking the provocative question. One of my great experiences at Darden was learning from colleagues the art of asking questions. NOT “show up and throw up,” which is traditional lecture teaching, and what most consultants and business people do.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Barbee: I have a similar concept and nugget in the book about “Respecting the Absurd Idea.” What may at first appear absurd can be adapted and rapidly made familiar. Act quickly on it, be willing to experiment in the market place, or it may pass you by. And if you follow (instead of lead), a product or service can be undifferentiated or cliché.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Barbee: “Odd” can be another word for ‘“absurd.” Learn to embrace it and enjoy the uncomfortable feeling. If you are comfortable, chances are it’s NOT truly new and different.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Barbee: I harken to two nuggets. First, “experiment” as soon as you can in the market place with your innovation. Second, it will take “iterations” to perfect it, so get to the market place as soon as possible to refine your innovations. We always learn with the new and different. We simply don’t know what we don’t know. Get to the market place to learn from actual users.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Barbee: I’d like to refer to four key points in the Epilogue of 63 Innovation Nuggets: Is there a real or imagined NEED to be filled? Can it be communicated? Can the product or services (or Experience in the Experience Economy) fulfill it? Can it be done profitably? This is one of my personal mantra “check lists” for a successful product or service. Ask yourself this early on and save a lot of headaches!

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Barbee: True innovative leadership in today’s complex global world is not command and control, but instead, “Leadership by Vision” (which is the first innovative nugget in the book).

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Barbee: People love stories. Stories make theoretical statements come alive. Interestingly, this is the spirit I tried to incorporate in the book by presenting a “nugget” followed by a “story” … so you know I am a believer in the power of a good story, and the effectiveness of a good storyteller.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Barbee: Take a look at nugget #40. You can’t change all the culture at one time. Start with the 1/3 early adapters who see the need and burning platform. It’s what we did at PwC.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Barbee: Finding ways to “see around corners into the future” in a rapidly changing world, not just the United States. Surround yourself with diverse, future thinkers—both within and outside the company.

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George cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

63 Innovation Nuggets link

Amazon link to 63 Innovation Nuggets

Facebook link

Twitter link

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