Lisa Bodell, the CEO of futurethink, is the best-selling author of two groundbreaking books: Kill the Company, and Why Simple Wins – How to Escape the Complexity Trap and Get to the Work that Matters. We recently caught up with Lisa to learn more about “killing” companies and “stupid” rules while finding ways for a company to become more innovative and disruptive.
Tell us a bit About Your Background. Why did you Decide to Create Futurethink?
I started futurethink 20 years ago. I saw that many of my clients had the desire to innovate, but they just didn’t know how. There were already many consultants that offered innovation services, but those consultants wanted to input big solutions that required them to stay with a client over time to maintain the system they created. I felt this was inefficient and didn’t enable clients to stand on their own capabilities.
I wanted to take an entirely different approach. I created the largest library of innovation tools in the world and offered them online, on demand, and designed as micro-learning modules that people could learn to use in little as 90 seconds. Using our resources was like having an innovation trainer or consultant at your own desk giving you the framework and techniques you need to get disruptive ideas quickly and build a culture that enables smart risk taking.
We also launched rapid learning workshops that build critical innovation skills in the organization so everyone could be innovative (not just a small group of people), and reduced the dependence on expensive consultants that you had to pay a million dollars to so you could “be innovative.” That’s just not right, nor is it sustainable. We’ve seen companies dramatically change their culture as a result of our tools and programs, and we’re incredibly proud of that.
Since you Identify Yourself as a “Futurist,” Could you Tell us Exactly What That Means, Especially as it Applies to the World of Business?
Futurists teach teams how to make strategic planning more successful by looking at alternative futures – exploring the possible, probable, and preferable scenarios for your business. For example, what are the trends and partnerships that car companies should be exploring for success? In the future, what will car companies do? Given the incredible pace of change happening in our world, they need to think quite differently than ever before. Will they partner with cities to make self-driving car lanes a priority? Will they partner with energy companies so “green” cars can sell energy back to the grid? Will they shift entirely to mobility services such as ride-sharing and similar ideas to compete with Uber? The point is that their scope of vision must change dramatically, and futurists help companies seize the opportunities on the horizon.
Your first book, Kill the Company, discusses “how a rival or disruptor could destroy [a] company.” Could you tell us how an executive can convince his or her colleagues that this could actually happen to their company? Kill The Company is an original concept and exercise we created to help leaders practice “proactive obsolescence.” The idea is this: pretend you are your #1 competitor. How would you put yourself out of business? This exercise gives people an “out of company” experience, where politics get thrown aside to make space for people to be honest about the company’s current weaknesses. It’s an exercise that enables all levels of the business to get involved and be honest about where they could lose ground. There’s also a bit of magic, too, when people discover they can turn around some of their weaknesses quickly and stay ahead of their competition better as a result. Executives often use this powerful exercise as a way to get leaders to be honest about what’s happening with the business, and to be more proactive and creative about the ways these issues can be fixed.
Since one of your idea generation tools is called “Kill a Stupid Rule,” could you reveal some of the common “stupid” company rules that your clients have gotten rid of using this tool? This is by far one of the most popular tools we have. Why? Companies often have rules that were originally purposeful but have since outlived their time. Why not eliminate them? Over the years, our clients have eliminated thousands of rules and even institutionalized this exercise across their organization as an ongoing way to simplify how they work.
Here’s an example: with one of our clients, every quarter the entire company engages in what they call a “financial exercise” with budget explanations, proposals, defenses, etc. Typically, they involve hours of preparation, dense PowerPoint presentations and long meetings, post-meeting assessments, and decisions about budgets. They announced a new format to each exercise with a 1-2 PowerPoint slide template and significantly fewer requirements for the approval and defense process. These changes saved the organization hundreds of hours in preparation each quarter, and it touched almost every person on staff.
Give us one Technique That a Leader can use to Help Foster new Idea Generation in his/her Group or Company
Within, Adjacent, Beyond. This is a tool to stretch people’s thinking around who they could partner with to get groundbreaking solutions. Typically, people only think of organizations in their own industry. But that’s not going to result in bigger thinking that disrupts the industry. Within lets people generate partners in their industry, then Adjacent stretches them to similar companies in other industries, and Beyond forces people to brainstorm how to partner with companies that have nothing to do with their business. It’s uncomfortable things like this that result in disruptions like Nike and Bausch+Lomb partnering to create contact lens for athletes.
What Steps can an Organization Take to Ensure That new Ideas Aren’t Unheard and/or Forgotten due to a Lack of Follow-up?
This is important. Many organizations use idea management systems that inform people where their ideas are in the development process. Others let the original idea generator work on the idea throughout development so they play an active role in seeing it through. Both these approaches are good because they communicate and involve people continually – ass opposed to the typical “black box” phenomenon that happens after brainstorming.
Other than innovative thinking and open-mindedness, what skills are important for a leader to learn and master if the goal is to foster innovation and new ideas in his or her company? First, resilience. This is key. We assume that all the successful companies today got it right the first time. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We need an attitude of “stick-to-it”-ness to encourage people to retry and refine their ideas. Second, focus. We need leaders that don’t get distracted by every little trend and instead commit to a few key “hunting grounds” they want to explore. This allows them to direct limited resources into key areas and not get scattered. Finally, risk taking. It’s not about taking wild risks, but understanding that innovation involves some level of risk to be bold and do something new. After all, do you want to shape your future, or have someone do it for you?
Finally, could you put on your “futurist” cap and finish this sentence? “In the future, the companies that are going to be consistently successful will be…” More diverse and inclusive. And I mean this in terms of both types of people and thinking styles. Innovation is about creative problem-solving. To get the best solutions, you need diverse perspectives. Companies that ensure their teams have a mix of ages, sexes, races, cultures, and thinking styles will get better ideas. It’s interesting examples like having female designers and engineers working on traditionally male teams at automobile companies; together, they take a different view of the driving experience, and in the process create features that might generate more revenue.