Many people think of American Greetings as a purveyor of greeting cards and party goods, but as Carol Miller describes it, the privately-held company is in the “meaningful connections” business, helping people make connections with family and friends.
Miller’s role at American Greetings as Vice President of Innovation is to define a centralized innovation strategy for the privately-held company, which is based in Cleveland. She oversees a team of about 35 people, plus a handful of freelancers and contractors — a group that effectively serves as the company’s R&D arm, honing in on consumer needs and creating new products or experiences to address them, before handing things over to the business units.
On a recent IL Live call, Miller shared ten tips for getting business-side people and creatives to work together more productively.
“Many companies,” she told us, “will initiate a project and the business folks will do their thing. They [assess the] consumer need, [develop] the insights, and strategy, and marketing objectives, and financials, and [create] a sales strategy… Then they bring it into the folks who’ve been trained in creative. They expect those creative folks to execute on the business person’s stated objective.”
“What we have learned and heard from everybody is that is a huge mistake,” she continued, “because it doesn’t leverage the capabilities and the skill sets of both parties at the onset of a project.”
The current position that I am very fortunate to have [at American Greetings] is to work with a cross-functional group of business, creative, and technical folks from all over the world. Our job is to work with the individual business unit leaders to help them define and then to actuate their innovation agendas.
A large part of what we work on is focused on new products and experiences that surprise and delight, which is, of course, a consumer need that we identified many years ago. It helps consumers to meaningfully connect with one another.
Our mission is really focused more on new products and experiences that are two to three years out. You’ve got the core business creating that. We’re looking at more of the late-stage, game-changing initiatives that are going to turn the industry on its head in order to make sure we’re ahead of those and that we can embrace them, in order to build on our purpose, which is to make the world a more thoughtful and caring place.
Back in the day, when Facebook first hit the market — this goes back 12, 15 years now — we had identified that the way people were communicating with one another, and there was a lot of social sharing that was occurring.
Now, with Snapchat and Instagram and Vine and all the other companies that are out there — all of these guys are out there creating platforms for consumers to take content that they create and to share with one another.
When you think about our category, which is primarily greeting cards…there really was no way for people to share with one another in the digital world, how they felt in receiving the greeting card.
Currently, right now, that would be you receive a card, and you’ll take it, and you’ll stick it up on your mantel. If you receive it in the office, you’ll put it on your desk for a while. It shows that you’re loved, and that people care for you…
On the Internet, there’s no real way to do that, so we started working. We’re actually celebrating our 10th anniversary here soon in creating a pipeline of innovation.
This is all those greeting cards that you see out in the marketplace that sing, and dance, and wiggle, and move, and walk, and there’s parts of them you can eat, they’re just highly interactive cards that are surprising and delighting. Those cards were all informed by consumer insights, foresight, trends, work that we had done right when Facebook first launched.
We have built on that particular innovation in the marketplace and continue to do so. I think we’ve got well over 200 new products that we have now launched and have patents on just in the last 10 years alone.
Everyone is Creative
When you take groups of people and put them in buckets, it tends to come across as stereotyping— “business people are like this and creative people are like that.” That’s not what we’re intending to do.
We look at the definition of creative as being very different. What I mean by that is that everybody is creative. We, here at American Greetings, are all trained in creative problem solving and creative thinking.
The difference is that highly creative people have been trained in that particular skill. Since everyone is creative, it’s just a matter of the skill in which you learned in order to then solve the problem.
For example, someone who is an illustrator or paints is creative. Somebody who is a financial analyst internally here is creative. Somebody who is a writer here at American Greetings for greeting cards, they’re creative. Then we have people who work on strategy for the company, and we consider those folks creative, too.
It’s a very interesting and unique approach to how we look at and define what creativity is. That what makes us individually unique is how we go about using those skills to solve the problem.
The top few tips that we wanted to provide are really around how you take individuals who have been trained in very different skills through their upbringing and through their education to be able to work together and to collaborate in a very impactful way.
I have my own opinion, but I also surveyed over 35 individuals within American Greetings and outside of American Greetings across a bunch of different disciplines in order to get a well-rounded perspective. This tip list is not simply from my head, but it’s from a lot of individuals from different organizations, as well as American Greetings, who have experiences working with different functional groups of folks.
1. Deeply understand and embrace your differences. Those differences, of course, being based on the skills in which you’ve learned. Business folks tend to think very linearly. More like bullet points and in straight lines.Whereas creative folks think more in pictures, and more in curvy lines. Yet, both equally understand whatever the challenge is that they’ve been given and what the required output is in order for collectively as a unit to be successful.
I think an example of that is a business coach will come to an hourlong meeting. They’ll go beyond time. They have an agenda. They’ll be very focused on a task at hand. They’ll start at A. They’ll end at D, and with very clear and specific deliverables when they leave your meeting.
Then, across the hallway, if you have over that same hour, a group of folks who have been trained creatively in the creative skills, they may start a little early. They may end a little late. They’re less sensitive to time constraints. They’ll start the meeting with chatting about friends, and family, and all their work projects, and also the challenge in front of them at the time.
Yet, at the end of that hour, they would have accomplished the exact same task that they were looking to accomplish when they went into it the same as the business folks. We also found that, in a deep understanding of them, that the trained business folks had jobs that had a tendency to define who they are.
While you were shaking your head up and down, saying, “OK, yeah,” they start a conversation with a stranger around a work topic. Whereas someone who’s trained in creative might chat about their hobbies or their passions because, for them, work is a personal expression that then brings emotion into play.
It’s not just a nine-to-five job. It’s part of who they are — an essence of the skill that they’ve learned, and their ability to then take that skill and output it. It’s like, “What’s the front line?” if you will, of their consciousness. What’s most in the frontal lobe of what they’re thinking?
What’s interesting about it is that it’s important to recognize that every one of those two folks is creative, but how they approach the problem that they’ve jointly been given as a team is often dictated by their education, their work lives, and skills. That it provides a challenge to a lot of companies, a lot of corporations, a lot of individuals.
Because, how do you take those two very, very different styles and map them together on one team, in one room, over one hour, and not have everyone leave incredibly frustrated and confused, and not delivering on the project?
If you’re going to have the opportunity and you highly recommend to always match up business and creative folks, because they’re just people skilled in that space, really spend a lot of time deeply understanding what drives them. Deeply understanding who they are, what they’re about, and what their key emotional motivators are. It’s going to help tremendously longer term in being able to accomplish whatever the topic you have.
2. Dance from Day One. Many companies will initiate a project and the business folks will do their thing. They do consumer need, the insights, and strategy, and marketing objectives, and financials, and a sales strategy, and so on and so forth. Then they bring it into the creative folks. They expect those creative folks to execute on the business person’s stated objective.
What we have learned and heard from everybody is that is a huge mistake, because it doesn’t leverage the capabilities and the skill sets of both parties at the onset of a project. Based on my 16 years here and everybody that I’ve talked to, we can promise you that, no matter the project, you’ll be 10 times more successful if you partner day one on the project.
If you’re a business person and there isn’t a creative person on a team of a project that you’re on, proactively go find one, two, 10. Bring them in the best that you possibly can, maybe even getting their opinions before work or after work, depending on the challenge. If you’re a creative person, vice versa.
When you take business minds and creative souls, and you put them together in a challenge from day one, and you immerse both of those disciplines in every aspect from understanding the challenge to ideas around the challenge, and then solving for it from a commercialization standpoint, the value that the combination of those can bring together is really priceless.
For us here at American Greetings, the essence of every single product that we create comes from hybrid genes. There’s no business folks passing off a deck to the creative folks. There’s no creative folks coloring something and sending it over to business folks.
From the very beginning of the challenge, the business and the creative disciplines are in the room together, and are with one another along that entire journey. A tip for us is to don’t let a project happen if you have the power to do that without having both disciplines there, because we promise you, your output will be better.
3. Get to know one another. That sounds kind of weird. You’re like, “Well, yeah,” but I mean really get to know one another, so on a personal and professional level, complete transparency.
You go to work. You come in and whatever time you’re there at work, but oftentimes the relationships start to grow with your fellow coworkers and associates once you’ve been there for quite a long time.
If somebody who’s new to an organization, if you could put on a project and all of a sudden you’re trying to work with individuals who have been trained in different skill sets, it’s very, very difficult to do that.
Just in the nature of the fact that you’ve been brought up differently through your education, and your training, and your work experiences cannot fully understand what their experiences are, so we would highly recommend as a tip to have a happy and healthier relationship to grab a group of people who are on the team. Grab the one person or the 20 people, whatever that is, and find some place for you to go and to spend quite a bit of time. You’ve got to be patient with it, it may even be a day, or it might be multiple times throughout the project depending on the length of the project.
We’re all people, we’re all humans. We’re all driven by happiness, laughter, and love, if you will. That’s what we say here in American Greetings, so really getting to know the person you’re working with is key.
4. Role clarity. It’s uber important. Understanding, very early, alignment as to who does what, and then the vision for the end state. Sometimes creative people speak creative language, and business people speak business language.
It’s really important to make sure that however each individual communicates, that you all have a clarity in both. In order to be successful, you’re making sure that the business folks aren’t telling the creative folks that it should be the color blue, and that the creative folks aren’t telling the business folks what the percentage of margin should be when we sell it into our customers.
Make sure you have role clarity [that] is pretty clear.
5. [Get] alignment on project objectives, how both parties can be successful and what success looks like. What we mean by that is success looks very differently for people who are trained in different skills.
For a business person, success might be the sales numbers that happened because of a new product or experience that you sold. Whereas success for a person who is trained in the creative skills might be working with a new material, or a new substrate, or a new manufacturing process, or perhaps being able to go to a new place to do ideation, or to learn a new skill.
They used to be someone who never did digital graphics before, and now they’re working in digital graphic-type work. So it’s really important to understand, if you’re working with different disciplines, what is their key driver and motivation, because then it’ll help you define the roles. It’ll help to bring clarity to the project objectives and each party will find themselves, at the end of the day, as successful participants on the team.
6. Mix it up. You have a tendency to get a group of folks together that create magic, and then you keep that group real tight because you think they can continue to create magic forever and ever.
Our recommendation is to mix it up, meaning to make sure that with every new project you bring on new creative disciplines and new business disciplined individuals in order to keep it fresh, because you will eventually become a group that is operating as one unit.
You’ll start to have group think —you’ll talk alike, you’ll walk alike, you’ll do everything the same, and then the creativity and innovation you’re looking for will just disappear. It’s real important to mix it up.
7. Timely and honest communication. Sounds cliché, but there’s a weird universe of language disconnect that occurs between business and creative folks. Make sure that you ask a lot of questions, clarifying questions that will help make sure you’re having open, honest, and timely communication.
8. Mix up the environment. Get yourself out of the building — go bowling, play cards. Disrupt the environment to make it relaxing and freeing, because the business folks sometimes get like, “Oh, well. I feel goofy. I’m bowling with my fellow coworkers.”
You’d be surprised at, when business and creative folks go out and do that together, how that unleashes a level of creativity in both disciplines that you’ve never seen before. So, get out of the office, from working on the project, the most that you can.
9. Share in success and failures. Share all the results the consumer input, the financial results, anything you hear from internal stakeholders, customers, whatever that might be. Share in those results and failures.
10. Have fun and laugh a lot. Intentionally do goofy things. We do that all the time here at American Greetings in order to lighten the atmosphere. Folks give them a blank card, then train them to be different folks who are trained to be very serious, and very methodical, and very spreadsheet-oriented.
If you take a Nerf Ball or a Nerf Gun and you shoot them with the Nerf Gun, it might just lighten up the mood a bit, and everybody will, at the end of the day, have a lightened spirit in order to ideate and solve for the challenge in front of them.
Because, you know, inventing stuff is hard. It’s really hard, but it can also be super fun if you have the right environment and right people.
Metrics We Use
We’re internally a functional unit. So accounting, or lawyers, or our creative department, we provide a service to the business unit. The metrics that we have are really geared more towards…We’re basically R&D.
We have funding in order to do the consumer ideation, solve for those consumer needs, and then come up with those solutions. There’s not any hard core metrics other than making sure that we don’t spend over our budget on an annual basis.
It’s all about the new products and experiences that we can deliver to the business unit, and then the business unit, of course, has the actual metrics on a quarter by quarter basis that they need to deliver on sales.
While we test stuff in the market place and have metrics against it, the task as to whether or not it will then go to launch, that’s really driven more by the business unit than by our group. We’re just type A, self-driven folks who make stuff happen on our own.
Developing Digital Products
Under corporate innovation, which I had the opportunity to lead, we do innovate in the digital space, but the innovation that we do in the digital space, it follows the exact same process that we use for our physical products. But, there are areas along the process in which we have to deviate in order to test the product.
For an example, the cost of goods on a greeting card product, to test that in the marketplace is very inexpensive. To test a new application you would need to create an app and you’d need to put it out in the app store, and that can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
We have a different process in place for creating new experiences in the digital world when it comes down to it with the consumer in a live environment.