Innovation is a Conversation


Innovation. We love to talk about it, everyone wants it. Innovation is critical for people and organizations to grow. But we all mean different things when we say it.

Today I have a conversation about how innovation is a conversation with Brian Ardinger. He’s the director of Innovation at Nenet (which owns my student debt! Hi Nelnet!) and the host of, a community for innovators and entrepreneurs that produces a great podcast and a conference that brings together startup and enterprise organizations to talk innovation.

There are three key conversations worth designing that we discuss and I want you to have your ears perked up for each as you listen to this episode. Each conversation can help you navigate the innovation process inside or outside your organization. 

These three are the pre-conversation, the conversation about where to look for innovation and the conversation about patience. Brian specializes in a unique perspective on where to look for innovation. More on that in a moment.

The Pre-Innovation Conversation

Before you even start to talk about ideas or technology, it’s essential to start with the end in mind. What kind of innovation is the company really looking for? Skip the pre-conversation and you have no idea of where you’re heading. As Brian points out “without having that definition, then it's sometimes hard to know if you're playing the right game to begin with...the process itself of level setting... I don't think it takes a long time.”

Brian and I didn’t dive into tools to help with that conversation, so I put a few into the show notes. Mapping the innovation conversation can be done in lots of ways. One is thinking about evolutionary vs revolutionary change, another is about tangible vs intangible change, like rethinking policies or business models vs remaking product or space design. 

I *just* did a webinar on this topic with my partner in the Innovation Leadership Accelerator, Jay Melone, hosted by the amazing people at Mural. Templates of the two innovation leadership frameworks we outlined are there in Mural for you to download and use, along with the webinar video to help you along.

Also check out Mapping Innovation, by Greg Satell. You can download his playbook free here. 

Where to look for innovation

Brian’s Inside/outside perspective is that innovation can be a conversation between the inside of a company and the outside world. Some innovation will happen internally, and some innovation can be brought from the outside in: the exchange and acquisition of ideas and technology from outside your organization is an important conversation for enterprise organizations to be having.

When you’re trying to innovate, it can be tempting to look in familiar places. If you’re a financial technology firm, it can be tempting to look to fintech startups for what’s next and to try to innovate through acquisition. But you’ll also be looking were your competitors will be looking. Try an innovation approach based on Horizontal Evolution - look to the sides and edges of the landscape. Brian describes this approach as “playing a different ball game”. 

The conversation about patience

Innovation does not happen overnight. Real change takes time and that takes real patience. Brian also points out that organizations need to be having a bigger conversation, about what else needs to change to make real innovation flourish inside the organization. Hint: it's generally more than you bargained for. 

As he says “Corporations are doing exactly what they should be doing...They figured out a business model that works and they're executing and optimizing that particular business model...And to radically change that, the people, the resources, the compensation, all of that stuff has to kind of morph or change to play in a different environment. And so I think that's where the challenge really begins.”

Often people think innovation is about the idea, but it’s a much, much longer conversation. That is, in fact, the first “Myth of Innovation” from Scott Berkun’s excellent book: The Myth that innovation is about an epiphany, not hard work.

It was a real treat to have a conversation with Brian about some of these key issues...I hope you enjoy the episode and happy innovating!

Brian on the Web:

Innovation Leadership Models from the Mural Webinar

Mapping Innovation by Greg Satell

Download the Playbook for Free:

Horizontal Evolution

An amazing summary from Scott Berkun about his solid book, Myths of Innovation:

A few more gems from Greg Satell on the Rules and questions central to innovation:


Daniel: Welcome to the conversation factory. Brian, I'm glad we made the time to make this happen. Um, the reason I'm excited to talk to you is, is that not everybody is, is open or interested in the, the analogy that a company has to have a conversation with the outside world that they can't just, you know, put up some walls and just figure everything out inside those four walls that they have to go outside and have a dialogue with the world in lots of different ways. And the way you do that is, is through helping companies think about inside innovation versus outside innovation, which is my way of like teeing up the how you, how do you talk about what you do with people when you, when you meet people, like how do you contextualize what it is that you do?

Brian: Well, I think a lot of things, uh, Daniel around this particular topic, it's this whole inside/ outside innovation. It's kind of come to us over the years of working first on the outside with startups and trying to understand how do they develop new ideas and, and build things. And then, uh, you know, as I was having conversations with startups and helping them navigate that, I kept having conversations with corporations and bigger companies saying, you know, how are you doing this? How are you taking these early stage companies and through an accelerator program and that, and, and kind of getting them traction in that faster than we can do in our own walls. And so that started to have conversations with the corporations and the people inside organizations and saying, hey, how can we interact with the outside world and, and think and move and act more like a startup or, uh, become a little bit more adaptive in how we do that. So I think it was an evolution of just having conversations and figuring out what's working, what's not working in this world of change and disruption that we're living in.

Daniel: Yeah. So like there's two layers here, which I think are interesting to unpack. I've learned this new term, the idea of an accelerated work environment and this idea of like, let's speed up the conversation about innovation and let's not just put our feet up and look into space and hope a great idea comes to us. Like, let's structure it and let's do it faster. And so can you talk a little bit about like how you structure an accelerator? Like what does it mean to accelerate people through the innovation process from your approach?

Brian: Yeah, so I think a lot of it, like when I go in and talk to bigger companies, first thing I like to do is kind of do a level set of what does innovation even mean to the people in the room. Uh, because innovation has become such a word that's, you know, so limp, so to speak. It can mean anything to anybody. Uh, and so kind of understanding that level set of what does innovation mean to the company? How do they define it? Um, is it transformational innovation where it's, you know, we've got to become the next Uber and disrupt our industry? Or is it a innovation from the standpoint of value creation where we're looking at ways to optimize and incrementally improve what we're building? And so from that perspective, you know, it's, once you have that level set, then you can start thinking about, well, how, what are the particular tactics that you can work through depending on what kind of objectives you want to have and, and what you're trying to accomplish.

Brian: So I think that's the first place we start. And then how we do that. Um, again, I think a lot of is trying to help them understand that you've got to place a lot of bets on innovation and innovation is not, um, you know, it's by default working in the new, it's working in this area of gray and this area of uncertainty,

Daniel: which means there's got to be failure, right? Like there's going to have to be failure.

Brian: Yeah. So, yeah, this uncertainty by default, requires you to figure out and make assumptions and, work through this... Areas of the unknown. And that's very difficult for, a lot of folks to work through. You know, especially at companies and people who are used to having a plan or having an execution model that, that they just execute on. Corporations are doing exactly what they should be doing...They figured out a business model that works and they're executing and optimizing that particular business model…

Brian: And to radically change that, the people, the resources, the compensation, all of that stuff has to kind of morph or change to play in a different environment. And so I think that's where the challenge really begins.

Daniel: So...I'm comfortable with taking this seemingly simple question of like, we want to innovate more and turning it into this, really stretching it out into a much more complicated conversation. Like I'm wondering if people you deal with ever get frustrated with, (you): "well, Brian, you're just making this complicated. Like, we just want to innovate. Just teach us how to innovate. Let's get started." Versus like, let's talk about your strategic goals. Like I can see how some people might get a little impatient with the, with the bigger picture, with the strategic thinking approach.

Brian: Sure. Yeah. And I think, and I think it doesn't have to take a long time on to go through that particular process, but I think if you don't start off on that common definition, then you run the risk later on. And you know, why are we doing this? Why is it not working? You know, we said that, uh, you know, we need to have x, Y, z outcome and these brand new bets that you're putting on the table are not getting us an outcome that we want. Um, but you know, without having that definition, then it's sometimes hard to know if you're playing the right game to begin with. So I think, so the, the process itself of level setting I don't think takes a long time to, to make that happen. And I think, but I do think in general, to change a culture or to move the company towards having that innovation mindset set or innovation as a competency to so to speak, does take a long time. Um, but you can do that through a variety of tactics and in ways that doesn't, um, change, change it all overnight. You know, it doesn't have to be something where, um, you know, you're basically creating something brand new and, and throwing out everything that you've done in the past and, and hoping that the new thing works. Uh, it's really a series of iterative bets that you kind of de-risked these new ideas as you're, as you're approaching them into the world and seeing what happens.

Daniel: Yeah. Now, now here's the, the piece that I think that, that we were talking about that's interesting is that companies can innovate through outside acquisitions or through outside collaborations, like through working with startups. And maybe that makes it seem "like, wow, that's neat, there is an easier way to do this". we don't have to do it all ourselves. We can, we can turn outwards and see, uh, not just learn from other people, but actually like bring that outside innovation inside. Like, and that seems to me like, uh, a complicated process to navigate. Like how do you facilitate, how do you facilitate that conversation and make it smooth for people?

Brian: Yeah. So I think, at least for a lot of folks, you know, the idea of looking outside is not become, it's not a novel concept anymore. You know, maybe five or six years ago it was like, oh, what's one of these things called startups out there? And you know, we're, we're seeing more and more hearing more and more about it. So it's, it's not a novel concept that, hey, the ability for two women in the garage or in a dorm room to spin up something and get some traction and create something of huge value in the world...that's, that's there and that's not going away. And that's speeding up. And so I think, uh, that, uh, first part of the conversation happening, having people understand that, people have the power and tools and capabilities and access to markets and cheap technology, et Cetera, to really disrupt things is there.

Brian: So if we understand that, then what can we do to kind of help navigate that? And, and I think the first thing is just, you know, raise your hand and say, Hey, there are things going on outside. Let's, uh, let's take an inventory or a map on discover what's going on...and one of the, pitfalls I see a lot of companies jump into is let's look in our industry. You know, what's happening in our industry. And that's great, and that you should do that of course. But, um, that's also probably where 99% of your competitors are also playing in that same field. And so I find a lot of times it helps to look at adjacent industries or industries far and away, uh, different from your own to see what's going on, and look for clues or models or technologies or, or talent that may give you a different advantage, if you put those pieces together differently than playing, in the same ball game as your competitors are playing. So, you know, I, I see a lot of people going to these conferences and looking for startups in the fintech space and all you have are corporations in the Fintech area looking at Fintech startups where a lot of times I think, it's better to maybe go to a more of a horizontal conference and looking at AI or uh, you know, different types of data conferences and that would give you a different perspective on how those technologies could be used in your industry or in somebody else's, industry, for example.

Daniel: Do you have a story like, cause it's funny as you're telling me the story, like I'm realizing this is, this is the classic innovators trick, right? Which is, yeah, it's, and it's a classic trick from nature, right? Which is, people don't realize that evolution isn't just, um, vertical where you adapt and survive. But there's horizontal transfer of, of genes in nature. Like literally the reason we have mitochondria is because we ate them, you know, a billion years ago. And all of the energy in our bodies is made by an alien organism that has its own DNA, which I find a very, it's always just like an extraordinary fact. Um, but you know, and I've been telling my clients this for a long time too. Like what do you, do you have, uh, a story to share of a surprising transfer of, of innovation from industry to industry in case there's any doubters in the world.

Brian: Yeah, it's, let, I'm trying to think of one off the top of my head, but I know I've seen it on the reverse side. For example, we've seen, because I run a conference called inside, outside/innovation. And, one of the things we do is we, uh, go out and find startups in a variety of different markets, bring them to a showcase and then bring corporations around to kind of see what they're building and why and hopefully make some connections for that. And where I've seen it happen is a lot of times where, a startup will be working in a particular vertical market, early stage, uh, and they think they've got a solution in, you know, retail or whatever, and a corporation conversation will come around and they'll say, hey, I love your technology, but you're looking in the retail space. Did you know that you could apply this to insurance?

Brian: And the light bulb will kind of go off in the entrepreneur's mind. It's like, oh, this is an opportunity for me to potentially go into a different market or get traction with an early customer that I didn't have before. And so I need to happen that way. Um, and I'm sure the reverse could happen as well where a corporation, uh, is, you know, looking at a variety of startups out there and say, hey, that startup's, not in our industry, but we could definitely apply that technology to what we're doing and leverage it in some way.

Daniel: So that actually sparks, I mean, I definitely, I want to make sure we talk about the conference before we, before we leave, but in a way, like you said, this thing that was really interesting about startups, you know, they're, they're trying to, uh, you know, iterate and build their own, um, you know, their own growth engine. Right? Um, I would imagine that some of them are not necessarily open to this idea of like, well look, we're, we've got our roadmap and we're trying to build our own flywheel and move it, get that moving. This, they may not be open to this, this pivot or this expansion. Uh, there's like, oh, you know, well, we're just focusing on market X and like, do you want me to also like expand our, our code base so that we can also take advantage of, of why and collaborate with these guys. Like I how do you sort of, I know you've done a lot of work on building community through, through the conference. Like how do you find startups are expanding their perspectives to being open to this collaborative conversation versus like, nope, we're just doing our thing.

Brian: Yeah. And I think a lot of it depends on where the startup is in their lifecycle. A lot of the folks that we bring in are probably seed stage and so they, they haven't figured out their business model. They haven't figured out the exact markets sometimes. Uh, and they're looking for that early traction. And you know, one of the reasons we hold this in the Midwest is because, you know, venture capital and the traditional ways of kind of scaling a business in Silicon Valley don't exist out here. And so you've got to find customers. You've got to find ways to, um, to, to get that early traction. And a lot of that means, you know, getting out and finding those early customers. And so having conversations with customers, uh, real people out there and trying to define what problems are out there in the marketplace and then create a solution, uh, to meet those problems and then meet the market where it's at, I think is more effective way a lot of times in the Midwest here or in places outside of your core tech hubs that don't have the, the against the, um, the advantage of getting a venture capital and being able to have a year or two young, two year runway to figure out, uh, how, where that market is.

Brian: So I think, I think so part of that is that, um, I think when I'm talking to start ups, you know, I put my "accelerate" hat on and working as a person who is helping startups through that process, a lot of times I'll quite frankly tell them to stay away from corporates until they, until they figured out some of that stuff. Cause it's very easy to go down the rabbit hole of um, hey, if we just get this one big customer on our plate, we'll be good to go. But a lot of times you know that the timing of the two types of organizations don't match up and it can very, very easily kill start up really pretty quickly.

Daniel: Yeah. And it can kill them in that what they're, they're focusing, they'd lose their focus or their, they spread themselves too thin. You know, so like what, what sort of, I think beautiful about what you do is that there's this symmetry in a way you have a community driven approach to innovation through the conference you do building community, but building community so that you have a group of startups who are interested in this type of thinking so that companies can have an innovation community. So they're not just going it alone, that they have a view to what's, what's open in the world for them. I mean, I guess my question is like, have you always been so community driven? Like how did you come to value community as an approach, as in a solution to, to these challenges that you're seeing?

Brian: So, I mean, I guess I've always felt community is, is a way to accelerate your learning. Uh, and I think early stage ideas, no matter what they are, whether they're inside a startup or inside a corporation, the key to a lot of those taking place in actually taking hold is that the speed of learning. How fast can you, um, take your assumptions and navigate those and understand where you're on the right track or not, and, um, get to that next stage that you need to get to. So, um, community's always been away from me, uh, personally and otherwise to help accelerate those learnings, whether it's, you know, again, connecting somebody to somebody else who can, uh, an expert in a different field or, um, someone who can help me navigate to something else that I didn't know I needed. Um, and so I think it started from that perspective and it started because, uh, you know, quite frankly, when I started a lot of this stuff seven, eight years ago, uh, the, you know, entrepreneurship and startups were, were smaller, uh, both, you know, nationally as well as in our own backyard.

Brian: And so part of it was like, well, if we're going to do this, we're going to, we can't do it all are ourselves. So how do we create a community that allows startups to raise their hand and first say, Hey, I want to be entrepreneurial. I want to try some things. I want to build something. In my backyard. Yeah. And then what do I need and what am I missing and how do I then can be that catalyst to help, um, folks figure that out. Uh, and so it was an evolution of just having conversations, going to different cities, uh, meeting different people, starting a podcast, you know, telling stories, um, you know, starting a new newsletter and then, uh, eventually a conference and everything else around it. Um, and then all the while, you know, consulting and helping companies kind of figure it out on both sides.

Brian: And, um, it's been fun. It's been fun to see that journey and continue to figure out what the, what the next phase is as we build it out.

Daniel: Yeah. Well, I mean, I guess I'd begs the question, what is, what's the next phase? Can you talk about it? Is it Secret?

Brian: Yeah, no! Um, so yeah, so inside, outside innovation, you know, we started four years ago actually with the podcast and the original idea was it was called inside, outside, and it was an inside look at startups outside the valley with the idea that their stories, outside the tech hubs that need to be told and how can we help our entrepreneurs, uh, figure that stuff out. And so that's where it started. And again, it'll happen with further conversations as, as we built that particular audience and had conversations around those particular topics, we kept getting asked by innovators in bigger companies, you know, it's like, how are we doing this?

Brian: How, how's this working? We want to be connected to startups. We want to understand this new way of innovating things like design thinking and lean startup in that work, uh, becoming methodologies and tactics that could apply to, you know, start ups outside of a big corporation or, or startups within a corporation that were trying to spin up new ideas. So through that we started the inside outside innovation podcast as the, as the way to have those conversations and talk about corporate innovation and how we're corporate matching with startups and how corporate venture play out differently and how we're internal innovation accelerators popping up all around. And what were the different tactics that folks were using through that. We've kind of created this weird community. It's almost like two communities, but the, the advantages by bringing them together, they both learned from each other. So that's kind of how, that's how it's kind of evolved. What's next? We're trying to figure out the third year of the insight off the innovation summit. Uh, we haven't got the dates and, and that solidify, but it's looking like we're probably going to do it sometime in the end of October. I'm in the process, I'm looking at writing a book around this concept of collaborative and innovation and this innovation as a competency. And then, um, we'll just continue with the podcast and the newsletter and keep growing our conversations with great people out there.

Daniel: You know, Brian, it's really, it's, I mean it's, it's lovely to talk to you about this stuff because, you know, the, the ecological approach you have to this, to this processes, you know, it's, it's clearly organic. Like, like anything else, it's starting a conversation and then you've gotten feedback from the world and over time you've, you've built more than you've added to it. Like it's, it's a, it's just guy. It's a wave that is sort of, it has its ups and downs clearly. But you're just continuing to, to ride that wave, which was really awesome.

Brian: What the, it comes back to, you know, my feeling is that obviously with the world changing in the, in the speed of change that's happening out there, everybody is going to have to take on some of the skillsets of, of the early innovator. You know, again, a startup entrepreneur or, um, or innovator are going to have to have kind of core capabilities or characteristics that allow you to adapt and be nimble and, and, uh, execute.

Daniel: Unless you want a robot to do your job!

Brian: Yeah. That's executing different ways that, that you didn't have or that were different in the way that you could execute in the past. So things like, you know, curiosity having a bias towards learning characteristics like having a, an a customer focus and this bias towards problem solving for that customer. You know, the, the skill of collaboration and you know, knowing that you can't build everything yourself.

Brian: There's bias towards team, um, you know, some of the characteristics of just speed, you know, how can you have this bias towards action and experimentation. And then finally having kind of the reverse of that you are having patience and that bias towards that long term value creation. You know, I think those are some of the core concepts that make up, um, this new world that we're living in. And the more individuals, whether you're, you know, a traditional manager or a entrepreneurial founder, those are the skillsets that are going to take you to the next level in the world that we're living in.

Daniel: It sounds like a good book already, Brian. I don't know. I like it.

Brian: I'm still outlining.

Daniel: It sounds like a pretty good proposal to me. Um, so listen, I, I, we're, we're up against our, our, our time together. Uh, is there anything I haven't asked you about that I should, that we should talk about? Any, any, any final thoughts?

Brian: Yeah, I'm curious for, you've obviously been in the space of helping people have conversations and that I'm always curious to understand what have you learned from helping companies and people kind of navigate a, this world of change, uh, and in this world of innovation, what are some of the things that are obstacles or things that stand out that, uh, I could take back to my audience as well? Well,

Daniel: I mean, do you have a hard stop in the next three minutes because, no, go ahead. We can go over a little bit. Well, I mean, for me, what really resonated in what you were talking about is the necessity for patients. And I think this is one thing that's really, really hard, um, for people because we want to go fast and we want to have results. Um, but we also need to slow things down. So one of the things that like I'm becoming more aware of in my own work is psychological safety, which people, you know, Google identified as like the main characteristic of effective teams. The ability, the willingness, the openness to saying what's happening, to be able to speak your mind, to say what's right or to say what's wrong. And that, I don't know, that stuff doesn't really come for free. Uh, it's a really, you have to cultivate that environment.

Daniel: And so for me, you know, my angle and entry point is always that somebody, somebody has to design that conversation. Um, if a group of, you know, if a group of people is gonna talk about what we're going to do next and how to innovate, we can either contribute content or we can contribute process. Um, if the, to me, the most important and precious conversation is when a group of people is coming together, the fact that you're willing to, that you have a framework, I'm guessing, to stretch out the conversation about what's our innovation roadmap and where are we placing our bets allows people to say like, okay, what's my holistic view of this? It creates, it creates safety, right? It creates a moment where, where we can have the conversation about innovation, we can have the conversation about how we're gonna brainstorm.

Daniel: We can have the conversation about how we're going to, uh, evaluate ideas and how we know if they're good or not. Um, and so for me, I think, um, I feel like I'm ranting now, but I was at a problem framing workshop, uh, with my, my friend Jay Malone, who has a company called new haircut. They do a lot of design sprint training and he was teaching a problem framing workshop. And at the end of the workshop, he presented, uh, you know, on one hand, a very straightforward, like, here, this is what problem framing is in the essence. Like, uh, who has the problem, uh, why does it matter? Um, when does it happen? Uh, like, you know, think about like, where to play and how to win. And this one woman said like, well, yeah, what about, uh, uh, how do we know when it's been solved? You know, how do we know if it's working? And this is, I think one of the biggest challenges with, with companies is we don't know like what good looks like. We don't know when to start. We don't know how to stop working and grinding it out. Um, well, and the metrics

Brian: are so different from existing business model versus a new business model that you don't even know who the customers are and the value proposition you're creating at the beginning.

Daniel: Yeah. So I mean, for me, like I find the, one of the biggest challenges of innovation is that people bring me in to say like, okay, let's help this team coach through this process. Meanwhile, they've already got a job that takes 100% of their time. Um, and they look at me and they're like, this guy has just given us extra work to do. You know, the workshop that I come in is taking them away from their quote unquote real job. The, the work that I asked them to do to go out and do the interviews and to, to get customer contact looks like it's taking away time for them. And so this idea that that innovation's like something you can buy or pay someone else to do. To me, I want people to be earning their own innovation. But the problem is that most people are at 110% capacity.

Daniel: And You bring in somebody like me who says, okay, let's do some design thinking stuff. Let's do a, you know, even if it's a week long sprint, which doesn't give you everything you need, you know, if it's a six week process, it's people are like, Oh man, that was great, but oh, that was hard and I never want to do that again. It's like, it's really, really challenging to get people to find time to innovate. And that's frustrating to me.

Brian: Absolutely.

Daniel: As a person who just really wants people to get their hands dirty with it so that they value it and, and participated in it. So, I don't know. I don't know what the balance is there. That's... I don't know. I don't know if that's a question with an answer, but

Brian: I don't know if there's a clear answer for that one. No, no.

Daniel: that, oh, so, yeah, I mean that, that's, that's, that's my perspective. I don't know if that, if that's helpful to you at all, but that's, that's…

Brian: Very much so, very much so.

Daniel: Is there, is there anything else we should I this, this is definitely the shortest episode. You know, I'm, I'm sort of enjoying or slash you know, floundering in the, in the 30 minute time zone. So I just want to make sure that we've covered everything that you want to cover …

Brian: No, it's been great, thanks for having me on the show and the opportunity to talk about and everything we're doing.

Daniel: Yeah. So like that's the, that's the final question. Like where, uh, where can people find all things insideoutside and Brian Ardinger on the Internet.

Brian: Yeah. Thanks Daniel. Yeah. So, uh, obviously you can go to the website that has our podcast, our newsletters sign up for that. Um, and obviously I'm very, um, out there on Twitter and Linkedin in that happy to have conversations. So reach out and say hi.

Daniel: Well we will do that. Um, Brian, I really appreciate you taking the time. It's really, it's always interesting to have some patience and just slow down and have some of these conversations about this stuff, that's I think really, really important. Like you said, the future is unwritten and uncertain and all of us need to have skills of adaptability, the inside and I think both sides of the ecosystem that you're a co-creating - the innovator, the startups need to learn from big companies how to scale and big companies need to learn from startups, how to be more nimble. So I think it's really a really important dialogue that you're facilitating. It's really cool.

Brian: Thanks for having me on the show!