Lisa Bodell: An interview by Bob Morris

lisa bodellA globally recognized innovation leader and futurist, Lisa Bodell founded futurethink in 2003 to provide a simple approach to the otherwise complicated topic of innovation. Working with leading brands such as Starwood, Merck, and Sprint, futurethink has become the largest source of innovation research, tools, and training curricula in the world. She is also the author of the provocative culture-change book, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution. A respected thought-leader on innovation topics, Lisa has appeared on FOX News, and in publications such as Fast Company, Forbes, The New York Times, WIRED, Harvard Business Review, and The Futurist. In addition to Kill the Company, Lisa co-wrote Success Simplified (Insight, 2011), a collection of result-driven strategies for business and life. Lisa currently serves as an adviser on the boards of the Institute of Direct Marketing in London; the Association of Professional Futurists; the Institute for Triple Helix Innovation; and Novartis’ Diversity and Inclusion Board in Basel, Switzerland. Among her many academic activities, Lisa has taught innovation and creativity at both American University and Fordham Universities.

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Morris: Before discussing Kill the Company, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Bodell: My children. They are creative beings that see potential, that try new things, that laugh when something is unexpected or didn’t work, and understand things in simple ways. Their energy and fresh eyes towards everything they do makes me focus on what’s possible vs. what’s difficult, which is something I think we all could spend more time doing.

Morris: Did you always want to own a company around innovation? What led you to where you are today?

Bodell: I’ve always been creative, independent, and entrepreneurial. When I was young, I liked to invent new games and toys. My first business was when I was 7, when I decided to – don’t laugh – paint rocks and sell them door-to-door to my neighbors for a dime; and they were kind enough to spur my ‘creative’ business dreams along. I think I even made a few dollars that summer. As I got older, I realized I also liked to coach and teach – from coaching kids’ tennis teams, to supporting my college professors, and eventually teaching graduate level courses. I’ve always been drawn to work that involves a high level of creativity and strategy.

So, after college, when I started my career in advertising, it seemed like the perfect fit. I discovered that I had a knack for ideas; not just creative ideas – but unique business ideas. I could easily take ads or product ideas and transform them into business concepts for my clients. And they loved me for it. However, I found that most agency management preferred that the ideas come from the creative department, not the account services department, where I sat. The clear signal was that ideas outside the creative department weren’t as valuable. I found this ridiculous. I believe that everyone is creative, and can – and should – be allowed to come up with innovative ways to solve problems and transform businesses. So, I left the agency world to start my own business to teach people just that – how to be more creative and innovative to solve problems better, and reach their potential. I started offering innovation training to help people embrace creativity and change, which is a natural extension of my teaching experience.

But while I taught, I noticed that people have many barriers to being more innovative and embracing change, so I started doing a lot of research around corporate culture and change to find out ‘why’? This research led me to many experiences with executives, trying to get them to embrace change – and man, was that hard. What I found was that in order to get people to start thinking differently, we first have to get rid of the barriers and day-to-day complexities that hold them back from being more effective in the first place. Only then can we have the space for thinking differently. This was the genesis of our Killer exercises that we feature in Kill the Company – killing rules, killing meetings, killing processes, etc.

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

Bodell: Business is about people – getting along with people, being able to communicate with people, empathize with people, persuading people. For all the focus we have in business school on subject matter expertise, I think all students should be required to take a course(s) in psychology so they don’t just understand how business works, but how people work. My business is all about people – helping them, training them, supporting them to reach their potential.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’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.”

Bodell: Here, here! I love this quote as it relates to leading innovation – collaboration and inclusion are key. No single person has the best (or only) answer to a problem, and often the leader is furthest away from understanding the day-to-day workings of an organization. Involving others is critical. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know!

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Bodell: It reminds me of another quote: “When we all think alike, no one is thinking.” Daring to be different, to trust in your ideas and think differently is key to innovation. The issue today is that with so much change happening, people find it easier to stick with the status quo, not rock the boat within their company; essentially, to NOT be themselves. These are companies where complacency among employees runs rampant. Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Bodell: The first step to innovating is often to STOP doing things that aren’t necessary. We are so focused on efficiency within corporations right now that we value the wrong things. If we only focus on efficiency, we only focus on managing or eliminating risk. With innovation, we need to focus on taking a risk in the first place.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Bodell: Risk-taking is central to innovation. The key is defining what a good risk is within your company so people know HOW MUCH risk they are allowed to take. There are smart risks, and there are stupid risks – the key is articulating and communicating these risks so people know the boundaries they can feel comfortable innovating within.

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

Bodell: People rarely get motived by efficiency and strategy. They are motivated by vision, to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to create something lasting that makes a difference. They want to be inspired, and that’s what storytellers do. They don’t just tell you their vision, they help you see it, and become a part of it.

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

Bodell: IBM’s Global CEO Study cited “creativity” as the most important leadership quality for the future. This is one of many signals that the business world is evolving out of the “Information Age,” where left-brain technical skills, knowledge and expertise were king. In A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink asserts that current global conditions – abundance, Asian outsourcing, and automation – are setting the stage for a brand new era: the “Conceptual Age.” In the Conceptual Age, right-brain skills will be key. Given the velocity of change and the complexity that results from this, we need to go beyond just knowledge or expertise. The best employees of the future will excel at creative problem solving and different ways of thinking — synthesizing seemingly diverse things together for better solutions, using metaphors to explain new ideas for which no context yet might exist. This is partly because the amount of new information about any given subject is constantly increasing. Tomorrow’s companies will need to take a creative-thinking approach to the sea of knowledge, bridging the gap between analytical, left-brain functions and creative, right-brain capabilities. Kill the Company identifies the most critical skills of the Conceptual Age — and simple ways to cultivate them before it’s too late such as strategic imagination, creative problem-solving, provocative inquiry, agility, and resilience.

Morris: With regard to futurethink, when and why did you found it?

Bodell: I founded it in 2003 on the premise that EVERYBODY can be innovative, they just need to know how. I wanted to give people the tools to help them better create change on their own and enable them to reach their potential – both in their work and in their lives.

Morris: What was its original mission?

Bodell: I originally wanted to give people tools for change. That’s it. It was a business where I essentially gave people the approach and let them go on their own.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has that mission changed significantly? Please explain.

Bodell: It changed quite a bit! That’s innovation, right? People are busy, so they aren’t able to self-start around new, often amorphous topics like innovation on their own. And that’s how my training business took off. We teach people how to fish, and then they can best use our tools to teach it to their own teams. It’s a great business model, and we love it.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Kill the Company. When and why did you decide to write it?

Bodell: I decided to write the book because of two things: how people are approaching innovation is wrong, and how they’re approaching change is wrong. And since innovation is about change, those are two pretty fundamental things we have to take care of. We’re a training company, and we train people from all levels in companies to think differently and teach them how to solve the big problems better. A particular incident started the premise of the book. We were once brought in to a group of executives at one of our clients and the CEO said, “Come on in. I want you to teach me and my team how to innovate, because it’s one of our four strategy pillars, and it’s on our annual report”. I got there, and basically none of them participated. None of them — and this is a major manufacturing company.

I thought, what is going on? And when we ran through experiential exercises to prepare them for the future, two things were happening: one, these leaders had become professional skeptics; they did not want to do change and wanted to just be able to eliminate risk. The second thing was that the other group wanted to speak up and create change, but they no longer believed they had the power to do it. I took a break at lunch and said, “What am I going to do?”. I then came back and told them to throw out their agenda. I said, “We’re going to do an exercise, and it’s called Kill the Company. I want you to pretend that you’re the number one competitor, and I want you to figure out what you’re going to do in the next half hour to put yourself out of business.” You would have thought I was lighting the room on fire. They started really talking.

I basically gave them permission to attack the problems and not be political. They got an out-of-company experience. And basically what that said to me was that they needed permission to really attack the hard things, and they needed the tools to actually simplify. We have to create the space for growth, and the first thing we need to do is eliminate, not create. And through this, I realized that there are many more people out there that could benefit from killing their company, hence the inspiration for the book.

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

Bodell: It’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference. One part of the book focuses on Little BIGS® – little things that you can do to create change right away. See, we had spent so much time creating big tools for people, but simple things like running better meetings or managing email were what turned people on. For example – people love NNTR. This is where you type NNTR in the subject line of your email – which stands for ‘No Need To Respond’. This informs the recipient that this is not just an FYI, but there’s no need to reply all and flood your inbox. I’ve heard people report to me a reduction in email traffic by 10%+ using this simple Little BIG. And the result? More time to think and focus on what’s important – like innovation.

Morris: The book’s title certainly attracts attention. Please explain what, specifically, it means to “kill” a company?

Bodell: Kill the Company is about having an out-of-company experience. It’s about examining your weaknesses so that you can make them your strengths. Here’s how it works: Pretend you are your number-one competitor, You have 30 minutes: How will you put yourself out of business? Employees at all levels are given permission to really look at what’s wrong about their company, and then ideally, find out where they are really weak. What can you do about it? Who can you partner with? Even better, how can you then turn that back onto your competitors? It’s a neat way to look at what your weaknesses are, and turn them into opportunities instead.

Morris: To what extent (if any) is your own firm, futurethink, the cobbler’s barefoot child? That is, to what extent is it subjected to the same rigorous “kill the company” scrutiny that you so passionately and eloquently advocate? Please explain.

Bodell: Every year with my team, we have our Future of Futurethink. It involves everyone in the strategic planning process. The head of each group has to present their plan, and then present their ‘Big Hairy Question’ for the year. We then use one of our own tools to help us solve the challenge – we use our tools on ourselves. Then, we Kill Stupid Rules, and finally, we Kill our Own Company. As the CEO, I love it. I learn something new that I need to fix every year!

Morris: As I indicate in my review for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of several passages. First, The futurethink INNOVATION DIAGNOSTIC (10-12)

Bodell: Before you can start to work on your innovation culture, you need to understand where best to focus your efforts. Too often, people look at culture as black and white – it’s either a “good” culture or “bad” culture. My bet is that at most companies, there are elements of both, and the key to innovation success is pinpointing which parts you need to work on and which behaviors you want to focus on most. This diagnostic is quick, simple, helps you get focused quickly, AND tells you which tools will get you there faster.

Morris: An Unhealthy Obsession (28-31)

Bodell: Within corporations today, we are so focused on getting an ROI quickly, that we tend to focus on the easy vs. the innovative. The result is that many companies are becoming more risk-adverse and impatient with the gray areas of innovation. It’s very hard to come up with a game-changer by next quarter. It’s also entirely unrealistic.

Morris: Positive vs. Negative vs. Complacent Cultures (44-46)

Bodell: We too often think of corporate culture in terms of black or white – positive or negative. But I think this is too simple. It’s easy to tell a positive culture, and even a negative culture. But the most pervasive one is the complacent one, and while you can spot it, it’s easy to miss because it’s deceiving. In a complacent culture, everything is seemingly just fine, you can tolerate risk aversion because you have a cash cow or strong brand that keeps the money pouring in. But this is the type of company disruptive start-ups love, because they can catch them off-guard. The egos of many of these complacent companies make them feel impervious to these underdogs, thinking that no innovative start-up could ever knock them down. Until it happens!

Morris: Ask Killer Queries (56-60)

Bodell: Many people complain that brainstorming is ineffective – and they are right. Often we get into a room and someone says: “OK, whose got an idea to solve problem X?” Well, that’s not very inspiring, is it? In fact, it makes it sound like a chore, or another thing on the to-do list to get done. If you want people to get better answers, we need to ask better questions. Killer Queries shows you how and offers dozens of examples to get your brain ready to come up with killer ideas.

Morris: Kill a Stupid Rule (71-74)

Bodell: This is everyone’s favorite tool. Who doesn’t want to get rid of a stupid rule at the office? Everyone’s got one, and often, they have 10! The take-away here is that sometimes the best way to start innovating, is by STOPPING doing things that get in the way. Only then can you clear some space for real innovation to happen.

Morris: What are the great obstacles to innovative thinking? How best to avoid or overcome them?

Bodell: Because we have to spend so much time doing, thinking has become a daring act. When did thinking become the opposite of being productive? I always use this analogy when I’m talking about the book: You’re a busy guy. Imagine you walk into someone’s office and the guy’s either staring at the wall or looking out the window, and you say, “Hey Bob, what are you doing?” And he says, “Well you know, just thinking.” What’s the first thing that pops in your head? It’s, “Get back to work.” We’ve got to change that paradigm, and frankly I think people do a lot better thinking when they’re alone, when they can quiet their brain a bit. You ask them where they do their best thinking and it’s typically tasks where they’re working out, driving a car, or going for a walk, when they step away from their desk. It’s not necessarily group activities.

Another obstacle is that people spend so much time on emails, meetings, reports, that it leaves very little time and space for them to be creative and think. To make more space for innovative-thinking and value-added work, there’s an exercise in my book called Kill a Stupid Rule. I would suggest starting with this exercise with your team to start getting rid of policies and procedures that don’t add value to your business. You should see how excited people get when they’re given the freedom to suggest the “stupid rules” that should be eliminated from their companies! Start by bringing employees together to brainstorm and identify all of the policies that are limiting their productivity or ability to provide the best possible service to clients.

People pair off first to record their thoughts on sticky notes, and then the whole group reconvenes to share input. From there, ideas are placed on a whiteboard using a two-by-two grid to prioritize them by impact and ease of implementation (see When everyone’s ideas are recorded, senior managers can then decide which rules can be killed immediately, and whether any can be altered to improve productivity. Some of our clients have gotten rid of redundant reports, changed travel policies, and made meetings last no longer than hour as a result of doing this exercise. Eliminating low-value tasks can make more space for innovative thinking.

Morris: What’s been the biggest surprise since writing the book?

Bodell: I did a lot of research for this book. We tested every tool a million different ways. And I still worried: “Will people like it? Will they get the results they want?” My biggest surprises have been two things: The amount of people that thanked me for being so provocative with the approach – to tell people to stop doing things that don’t matter. The second thing is the amount of people that randomly email me with stories of the stupid rules they’ve killed, assumptions they’ve reversed, and offsites where they have Killed the Company. I even have a spreadsheet of new Little BIGS based on ideas people have sent me that are so cool. I can’t wait to share them all with you in my next book.

Morris: Can you give us some practical advice on ways people can innovate in their daily work?

Bodell: A simple way is to change how you ask questions in meetings or with your colleagues. We have a tool called Killer Queries where it helps you ask different questions to get to better ideas. Very often, we get so wrapped up in focusing on getting answers that we don’t think about the questions. The best innovators know that if you want to find new and groundbreaking solutions, sometimes questions have to be framed in a different way. Below are tips:

1. Switch to open-ended questions: Instead of setting people up to give dull, one-word or “yes/no” answers, focus on open-ended questions where people have to elaborate. Questions that prompt more thoughtful responses tend to start with “how,” “what,” and “why.” Examples include: o How might we o What else should we o In what ways can we o Why can’t we Closed-ended questions typically start with: o Is o Can/could o Do/did o Should o Would o Where Here is an example of two different approaches to ask about improving customer service and the types of answers you can expect: Closed-ended Question: “Could we improve our customer service?” Answer: “Yes.” (That answer sure was quick and failed to yield any insightful information.) Open-ended Question: “In what ways can we improve our customer service so that it rivals the best in the industry?” Answer: “Well, I heard the best leader in the industry gives out dollar credits for each minute they make customers wait on hold. Perhaps to build on this idea …” (By reframing the question, you get better and more interesting answers).

2. Change up your questions: Provocative questions that push people out of their comfort zone encourage a new way of thinking. Example of a basic question: o How can we improve our products and services? Example of creative versions of the same question: o What would we need to do with our products/services to blow the minds of the top Silicon Valley venture capitalists? o If we were hosting a forum called “How Our Products and Services Suck,” what would be the main discussion topics? o How can we create an aura of exclusivity that will drive even greater demand? Which questions were more fun to answer? Questions that are creative and fun generally yield more interesting answers.

3. Change your audience: One reason why companies get stuck in a rut of coming up with the same answers to problems is because they have the same people thinking of the answers. If you ask different people, you will gain a new perspective and likely get a different answer. Try inviting people from other departments to your team’s brainstorming meeting to provoke a new way of thinking. For example, new-hires’ feedback can be surprisingly valuable in this type of situation. Since new employees aren’t jaded by company groupthink, it’s easier for them to view your company and its products more objectively, like a potential customer would. Take advantage of the opportunity to gain these employees’ insight before their newness wears off. Killer Queries is a tool a lot of my clients love. Asking questions differently can add new perspectives to old problems and help you get to new and novel ideas.

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

Creativity/Innovation Resources

Trends Resources

Futurist Resources




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