Former Gap exec Michael Perman: Is innovation really everyone’s job?

By Michael Perman, Founder, C’Est What?; Former Dean of Global Innovation, Gap Inc.

Michael Perman speaks at a 2014 Innovation Leader event in San Francisco.

Michael Perman speaks at a 2014 Innovation Leader event in San Francisco.

After 25 years in innovation leadership roles at companies like Gap and Levi Strauss; running more than 1000 ethnographic sessions; and overseeing more than 50 innovation initiatives, I want to share a few of the pearls of wisdom I have gathered along the way — some counterintuitive or controversial.

Innovation defined. Finally.

Innovation is the ability to perceive alternate realities and the courage to move toward those visions.

How you get there?

The ability to perceive alternative realities is enabled by discovering what people crave, listening to their concerns, and understanding what brings them comfort.

What makes that happen?

Those “3C’s” are connected to stimulating neurotransmitters of dopamine, cortisol, and oxytocin — all pleasure chemicals in the brain — through food, music, and entertainment, as well as intellectual and creative provocations. 

Innovation baloney

Two common axioms are ridiculous. Stay away from them.

Innovation is everyone’s job. NOT. That’s no more true than distribution being everyone’s job. Yes, everyone needs to have empathy, but in reality, innovation requires talent, passion, and tenacity.

Fail fast and often: Really? That’s sounds like “be a loser as soon as possible.” In reality, innovation emerges from being curious, from experiments, and from continuous learning. Since when is learning an act of failure?

Mind over money

Establish your “burning platform” before asking for investment. Then, when you ask, go deep — not broad. Make sure you’ve outlined budgets for sufficient rounds of insights, experiments, prototypes, and people. Establish a small core team and rotate the world’s best minds in your business through it — whether they work for you or not. Everyone can benefit from supplemental creative and strategic expertise.

Fertilize one tree at a time

Establish organizational roots for your innovation quest one person at a time, through dialogue and genuine listening. Then, coalesce your thinking and share back with your executive team, reflecting the ideas you’ve heard. This will help you navigate politics and funding issues more effectively. 

Moving to mindful

The design thinking movement generated an amazing wave of empathy, and guided the creation of many wonderful products and experiences.Now we are entering a new phase I call mindful innovation, which provides deeper empathy for the relationship between people who are designing what’s next and the people for whom that’s being designed. Think holistically.

Personality trumps method

Repeatable innovation methods help organizations be operationally effective. That ensures that everyone’s playing the same game and using the same language.But creating a personality for your own brand of innovation is what drives systemic culture change. At Gap, we called it Mindspark.

Hire an art director

Great ideas pierce the veil when there is beauty imbued in the message. Shape your insights, early frameworks, and deliverables with well-designed communication. Remember the ‘d’ in design thinking.

Grassroots beats the big initiative

Top-down innovation initiatives lack energy and longevity, and they are not as tempting to people as what springs from the grassroots. Plant seeds in your organization among the most curious, the most passionate, and also the most skeptical people. Be patient. Creating a culture of innovation takes years.

Play outside

Stay externally-focused. Change your patterns. Bring in surprising speakers who don’t know anything about your business. Go on field trips. Peel oranges. And then apply what you’ve learned in new ways. 

The CFO can be your friend

When you’re advocating for investment, begin with the CFO — your toughest customer. Co-establish the investment criteria. Spec out new measures of ROI that are specific to innovation. Think like a VC. Then leverage this new paradigm with others. 

Honor ambiguity

Everyone was nothing before it became something. It’s easy to look back and wonder how an idea became so big. But few people recall the day when a idea was vague and fuzzy. Start fresh all the time and invest in the evolution from fuzzy to fruition — it’s hard work.

Focus with platforms

It’s OK for innovation to be strategic.Really.Leverage your insights and foresights to identify innovation platforms — strategic choices from which a spectrum of products, services, experiences and organizational shifts can be derived over a long time frame (3 to 5 years.) 

Find a new word

People are tired of the word innovation. Blah, blah, blah. Here are some ideas for new words: Barloneek. Zartha. Jablernishy. Fresherizing. Tude. Prozing. Napkinski. Send me your better ideas or post a comment below.

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