How P&G Evolved Its Innovation Studio for Broader Impact

By Ann Brocklehurst |  October 17, 2016

Back in 2004, when Procter & Gamble initiated the Clay Street Project, the company wanted not only to get employees working in different ways to foster innovation, but also to address the problems that can get in the way of new ideas growing into successful new products. To accomplish that, it took teams of employees out of their day jobs, often for as much as three months at a time, gave them just one task one to focus on, and made the teams accountable.

The Clay Street sessions, as they became known, took place in a refurbished brewery in a not-quite-gentrified Cincinnati neighborhood across the river from Procter & Gamble’s corporate headquarters. To qualify for entry, teams had to have identified a big problem to solve. And over the years, many did just that. One of Clay Street’s early achievements was the reinvention of the flagging Herbal Essence hair care brand. Later there was the Swash session, which led to a new appliance designed to get rid of wrinkles and freshen clothes without constant laundering. And then there was the branding of Procter & Gamble itself: the company had long resisted a P&G brand, instead putting the emphasis on famous products like Tide, Pampers, Crest, Cascade, and Gillette. The popular Procter & Gamble ad spots about athletes and their mothers, shown during the Rio, Sochi, and London Olympic Games, are just one example of the wide-reaching initiatives that started with a Clay Street session.

By any standard, Clay Street proved itself a success, but as any good innovator will tell you, you can’t rest on your laurels. While the three-month Clay Street timeframe had originally been selected, in part, because that was the time needed for new work habits to really sink in, it also had a drawback. It limited the number of people who could take part in Clay Street sessions. And, says Karen Hershenson, who leads the Clay Street Project and has been there since the early years, “Sometimes both the people and the ideas had changed so much it was difficult to get them back to the regular P&G system.”

Over the years, many of the ideas that had seemed novel when Clay Street first opened — its giant Marimekko bean bags, circle conversations, and cell phone bans — have become mainstream and “really commonplace in the rest of P & G,” Hershenson explains. “We want to make sure … that people don’t feel they have to be at Clay Street to be innovative, that they can be innovative anywhere. So that’s been our goal as we evolve.”

Introducing a Shorter Ideation and Prototyping Session

One of the new core offerings at Clay Street is now a two-week session known as Shift. The pattern of what teams do there remains the same, says Hershenson. But the pace is accelerated. (See the comparison chart below.)

The first half of the session is still devoted to inspiration and ideation. To encourage the ability to listen, participants spend each morning in conversation. To further open them up to different points of view, Clay Street regularly brings in outsiders — for example, an architect to talk about stores, or an acting teacher to discuss character as a way to better understand how to develop a relationship with the consumer.

“The consumer understanding is probably the most important part,” says Hershenson. “At Procter & Gamble, we have a lot of consumer knowledge, and what we try to do with our teams is move them into understanding and caring about her — not just studying her habits.”

In the second part of the session, consumer insights are put to use as the team works to write a strategic story and create a prototype. “At the end of two weeks, leadership comes in for a final presentation. Usually, preparing for that final presentation is when the magic happens,” says Hershenson.

Finding a Different Way to Use Experts

This is not to suggest the history of Clay Street has been all rainbows and lollipops. Over the years, Hershenson and her team have learned that “some people aren’t good fit for working at Clay Street.” One conflict that kept recurring was with participants unwilling or unable to relinquish their expert status. The goal in asking them to take off their “guru” hat was to have everyone on the team stretch themselves and learn. “We want you to bring all the things you know, and be able to accept what everyone else brings,” says Hershenson. “Sometimes that expert title gets in the way of collaboration.”

A decision was eventually made, says Hershenson, to put “deep experts” into more of a consulting role, where they participated in Clay Street in a different way. Sessions also “spend more time honoring past work and recognizing expertise early on.”

While the Clay Street website states that “genius lies inside of everyone” and “it only needs to be revealed,” Hershenson says it’s not a no-idea-is-a-bad-idea culture.

“If you hear someone say, ‘all ideas are welcome,’ you might think it’s about consensus or everybody just getting along, but that’s really not the case. I don’t believe every idea is a good idea at all.”

“We want [participants] to get all their bad ideas out of their head,” says Hershenson, adding that the goal is to make people feel comfortable enough to express even the most outrageous idea. “A ‘stupid’ idea gets built on. You start to see new connections. From those connections, great ideas can emerge.”

Hershenson acknowledges that there are ideas that sometimes spring from the mind of the proverbial lone genius, but she says it takes a multifunctional team to blend the consumer insights, business strategies, and enabling technology that are required for P&G brands to innovate effectively.

Infusing Clay Street into the Organization

Clay Street’s current focus is on supporting teams after they leave, and “putting the power back in the organization,” says Hershenson. Sometimes, teams are brought back to Clay Street every few months. In another case, a Clay Street leader was sent to sit full-time for a year in the team’s business to help other employees there develop new habits. While the project was a big success, resources dictate that not every team can take its own full-time facilitator with it when it leaves Clay Street. Hershenson is now trying to figure out how to capture and recreate the same sort of reinforcement and spreading of positive habits, but without a full-time Clay Streeter. “What’s working well for teams is when they have a shared space to work together, use displayed thinking, and regularly pause to connect the team and the work.”

As simple as that may sound, when it’s not done, teams can drift back to old habits and established ways of working, with standing meetings and less intense focus. “The idea,” Hershenson emphasizes, “is to use Clay Street to represent a way of working [at P&G] versus a place, so teams can say, ‘We created our own Clay Street process.'”