Author Archives: Robyn Bolton

About Robyn Bolton

Robyn M. Bolton works with leaders of mid and large sized companies to use innovation to repeatably and sustainably grow their businesses.

Nike Should Stop Blaming Working from Home for Their Innovation Struggles

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

“But even more importantly, our employees were working from home for two and a half years.  And in hindsight, it turns out, it’s really hard to do bold, disruptive innovation, to develop a boldly disruptive shoe on Zoom.” – John Donahoe, Nike CEO

I am so glad CNBC’s interview with Nike’s CEO didn’t hit my feed until Friday afternoon. It sent me into a rage spiral that I am just barely emerging from. Seriously, I think my neighbors heard the string of expletives I unleashed after reading that quote, and it wasn’t because it was a lovely day and the windows were open.

Blaming remote work for lack of innovation is cowardly. And factually wrong.

I’m not the only one giving Mr. Donahoe some side-eye for this comment.  “There were a whole bunch of brands who really thrived during and post-pandemic even though they were working remotely,” Matt Powell, advisor for Spurwink River and a senior advisor at BCE Consulting, told Footwear News.  “So I’m not sure that we that we can blame remote work here on Nike’s issues.”

There’s data to back that up.

In 2023, Mark (Shuai) Ma, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and Yuye Ding, a PhD student at the university’s Katz Graduate School of Business, set out to empirically determine the causes and effects of a firm’s decision to mandate a return to work (RTO).  They collected RTO mandate data from over 100 firms in the S&P 500, worked backward to identify what drove the decision, and monitored and measured the firm’s results after employees returned to work.

Their findings are stark: no significant changes in financial performance for firm value after RTO mandates and significant declines in employee job satisfaction.  As Ma told Fortune, “Overall, our results do not support these mandates to increase firm values.  Instead, these findings are consistent with managers using RTO mandates to reassert control over employees and blame employees as a scapegoat for firm bad performance.”

Or to justify spending more than $1B to double the size of its Beaverton, OR campus.

When you start blaming employees, you stop being a leader.

CEOs make and approve big, impactful, complex, high-stakes decisions.  That’s why they get paid the big bucks.  It’s also why, as Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.” 

Let’s examine some of the decisions Mr. Donahue made or supported that maybe (definitely) had a more significant impact on innovation than working from home two days a week.

Ignoring customers, consumers, and the market: Nike has a swagger that occasionally strays into arrogance.  They set trends, steer culture, and dictate the rules of the game. They also think that gives them the right to stop listening to athletes, retailers, and consumers, as evidenced by the recently revealed Team USA Track & Field uniforms, the decision to stop selling through major retailers like Macy’s and Olympia Sports, and invest more in “hype, limited releases, and old school retro drops” than the technology and community that has consumers flocking to smaller brands like Hoka and Brooks.

Laying off 2% of its workforce: Anyone who has ever been through a layoff senses it’s coming months before the announcement and the verdicts are rendered.  Psychological safety, feeling safe in your environment, is a required element for risk-taking and innovation.  It’s hard to feel safe when saying goodbye to 1500 colleagues (and wondering if/when you’ll join them).

Investing too much in the core: Speaking of safety, in uncertain times, it’s tempting to pour every resource into the core business because the ROI is “known.” Nike gave in to that temptation, and consumers and analysts noticed.  Despite recent new product announcements like the Air Max DN, Pegasus Premium, and Pegasus 41, “analysts point out these ‘new’ innovations rely too much on existing franchises.”

Innovation is a leadership problem that only leaders can solve

Being a CEO or any other senior executive is hard. The past four years have been anything but ordinary, and running a business while navigating a global pandemic, multiple societal upheavals, two wars, and an uncertain economy is almost impossible.

Bosses blame.  Leaders inspire. 

Mr. Donohue just showed us which one he is.  Which one are you?

One MORE thing

This is a losing battle, but STOP USING “DISRUPTIVE” INCORRECTLY!!!!  “Disruptive Innovation,” as defined by Clayton Christensen, who literally coined the phrase, is an innovation that appeals to non-consumers and is cheaper and often lower quality than existing competitors.

Nike is a premium brand that makes premium shoes for premium athletes.  Employees could spend 24/7/365 in the office, and Nike would never develop and launch a “boldly disruptive shoe.”

Image credit: Pixabay

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Time is a Flat Circle

Jamie Dimon’s Comments on AI Just Proved It

Time is a Flat Circle

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton


“Time is a flat circle.  Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over and over again – forever.” –- Rusty Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, in True Detective

For the whole of human existence, we have created new things with no idea if, when, or how they will affect humanity, society, or business.  New things can be a distraction, sucking up time and money and offering nothing in return.  Or they can be a bridge to a better future.

As a leader, it’s your job to figure out which things are a bridge (i.e., innovation) and which things suck (i.e., shiny objects).

Innovation is a flat circle

The concept of eternal recurrence, that time repeats itself in an infinite loop, was first taught by Pythagoras (of Pythagorean theorem fame) in the 6th century BC. It remerged (thereby proving its own truth) in Friedreich Nietzsche’s writings in the 19th century, then again in 2014’s first season of True Detective, and then again on Monday in Jamie Dimon’s Annual Letter to Shareholders.

Mr. Dimon, the CEO and Chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co, first mentioned AI in his 2017 Letter to Shareholders.  So, it wasn’t the mention of AI that was newsworthy. It was how it was mentioned.  Before mentioning geopolitical risks, regulatory issues, or the recent acquisition of First Republic, Mr. Dimon spends nine paragraphs talking about AI, its impact on banking, and how JPMorgan Chase is responding.

Here’s a screenshot of the first two paragraphs:

JP Morgan Annual Letter 2017

He’s right. We don’t know “the full effect or the precise rate at which AI will change our business—or how it will affect society at large.” We were similarly clueless in 1436 (when the printing press was invented), 1712 (when the first commercially successful steam engine was invented), 1882 (when electricity was first commercially distributed), and 1993 (when the World Wide Web was released to the public).

Innovation, it seems, is also a flat circle.

Our response doesn’t have to be.

Historically, people responded to innovation in one of two ways: panic because it’s a sign of the apocalypse or rejoice because it will be our salvation. And those reactions aren’t confined to just “transformational” innovations.  In 2015, a visiting professor at Kings College London declared that the humble eraser (1770) was “an instrument of the devil” because it creates “a culture of shame about error.  It’s a way of lying to the world, which says, ‘I didn’t make a mistake.  I got it right the first time.’”

Neither reaction is true. Fortunately, as time passes, more people recognize that the truth is somewhere between the apocalypse and salvation and that we can influence what that “between” place is through intentional experimentation and learning.

JPMorgan started experimenting with AI over a decade ago, well before most of its competitors.  As a result, they “now have over 400 use cases in production in areas such as marketing, fraud, and risk” that are producing quantifiable financial value for the company. 

It’s not just JPMorgan.  Organizations as varied as John Deere, BMW, Amazon, the US Department of Energy, Vanguard, and Johns Hopkins Hospital have been experimenting with AI for years, trying to understand if and how it could improve their operations and enable them to serve customers better.  Some experiments worked.  Some didn’t.  But every company brave enough to try learned something and, as a result, got smarter and more confident about “the full effect or the precise rate at which AI will change our business.”

You have free will.  Use it to learn.

Cynics believe that time is a flat circle.  Leaders believe it is an ever-ascending spiral, one in which we can learn, evolve, and influence what’s next.  They also have the courage to act on (and invest in) that belief.

What do you believe?  More importantly, what are you doing about it?

Image credit: Pixabay

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AI Strategy Should Have Nothing to do with AI

AI Strategy Should Have Nothing to do with AI

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

You’ve heard the adage that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Well, AI is the fruit bowl on the side of your Denny’s Grand Slam Strategy, and culture is eating that, too.

1 tool + 2 companies = 2 strategies

On an Innovation Leader call about AI, two people from two different companies shared stories about what happened when an AI notetaking tool unexpectedly joined a call and started taking notes.  In both stories, everyone on the calls was surprised, uncomfortable, and a little bit angry that even some of the conversation was recorded and transcribed (understandable because both calls were about highly sensitive topics). 

The storyteller from Company A shared that the senior executive on the call was so irate that, after the call, he contacted people in Legal, IT, and Risk Management.  By the end of the day, all AI tools were shut down, and an extensive “ask permission or face termination” policy was issued.

Company B’s story ended differently.  Everyone on the call, including senior executives and government officials, was surprised, but instead of demanding that the tool be turned off, they asked why it was necessary. After a quick discussion about whether the tool was necessary, when it would be used, and how to ensure the accuracy of the transcript, everyone agreed to keep the note-taker running.  After the call, the senior executive asked everyone using an AI note-taker on a call to ask attendees’ permission before turning it on.

Why such a difference between the approaches of two companies of relatively the same size, operating in the same industry, using the same type of tool in a similar situation?

1 tool + 2 CULTURES = 2 strategies

Neither storyteller dove into details or described their companies’ cultures, but from other comments and details, I’m comfortable saying that the culture at Company A is quite different from the one at Company B. It is this difference, more than anything else, that drove Company A’s draconian response compared to Company B’s more forgiving and guiding one.  

This is both good and bad news for you as an innovation leader.

It’s good news because it means that you don’t have to pour hours, days, or even weeks of your life into finding, testing, and evaluating an ever-growing universe of AI tools to feel confident that you found the right one. 

It’s bad news because even if you do develop the perfect AI strategy, it won’t matter if you’re in a culture that isn’t open to exploration, learning, and even a tiny amount of risk-taking.

Curious whether you’re facing more good news than bad news?  Start here.

8 culture = 8+ strategies

In 2018, Boris Groysberg, a professor at Harvard Business School, and his colleagues published “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” a meta-study of “more than 100 of the most commonly used social and behavior models [and] identified eight styles that distinguish a culture and can be measured.  I’m a big fan of the model, having used it with clients and taught it to hundreds of executives, and I see it actively defining and driving companies’ AI strategies*.

Results (89% of companies): Achievement and winning

  • AI strategy: Be first and be right. Experimentation is happening on an individual or team level in an effort to gain an advantage over competitors and peers.

Caring (63%): Relationships and mutual trust

  • AI strategy: A slow, cautious, and collaborative approach to exploring and testing AI so as to avoid ruffling feathers

Order (15%): Respect, structure, and shared norms

  • AI strategy: Given the “ask permission, not forgiveness” nature of the culture, AI exploration and strategy are centralized in a single function, and everyone waits on the verdict

Purpose (9%): Idealism and altruism

  • AI strategy: Torn between the undeniable productivity benefits AI offers and the myriad ethical and sustainability issues involved, strategies are more about monitoring than acting.

Safety (8%): Planning, caution, and preparedness

  • AI strategy: Like Order, this culture takes a centralized approach. Unlike Order, it hopes that if it closes its eyes, all of this will just go away.

Learning (7%): Exploration, expansiveness, creativity

  • AI strategy: Slightly more deliberate and guided than Purpose cultures, this culture encourages thoughtful and intentional experimentation to inform its overall strategy

Authority (4%): Strength, decisiveness, and boldness

  • AI strategy: If the AI strategies from Results and Order had a baby, it would be Authority’s AI strategy – centralized control with a single-minded mission to win quickly

Enjoyment (2%): Fun and excitement

  • AI strategy: It’s a glorious free-for-all with everyone doing what they want.  Strategies and guidelines will be set if and when needed.

What do you think?

Based on the story above, what culture best describes Company A?  Company B?

What culture best describes your team or company?  What about your AI strategy?

*Disclaimer. Culture is an “elusive lever” because it is based on assumptions, mindsets, social patterns, and unconscious actions.  As a result, the eight cultures aren’t MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive), and multiple cultures often exist in a single team, function, and company.  Bottom line, the eight cultures are a tool, not a law (and I glossed over a lot of stuff from the report)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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The Beginning, Middle, and End of Innovation

And How Moneyball Fits In

The Beginning, Middle, and End of Innovation

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Not long ago, pitchers and catchers reported to MLB Spring Training facilities in Florida and Arizona.  For baseball fans, this is the first sign of Spring, an occasion that heralds months of warmth and sunshine, ballparks filled (hopefully) with cheering fans, dinners of beers and brats, and the undying belief that this year will be the year.

Of course, there’s still a lot of dark, dreary cold between now and Opening Day.  Perfect weather for watching baseball movies – Bull DurhamMajor LeagueThe NaturalField of Dreams, and, of course, Moneyball.

Moneyball is based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis and chronicles the 2002 Oakland Athletics season.  The ’02 Oakland A’s, led by General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), forever changed baseball by adopting an approach that valued rigorous statistical analysis over the collective wisdom of baseball insiders (coaches, scouts, front office personnel) when building a team.  This approach, termed “Moneyball,” enabled the A’s to reach the postseason with a team that cost only $44M in salary, compared to the NY Yankees that spent $125M to achieve the same outcome.

While the whole movie (and book) is a testament to the courage and perseverance required to challenge and change the status quo, time and again I come back to three lines that perfectly sum up the journey of every successful intrapreneur I’ve ever met.

The Beginning

I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall…he always gets bloody…always always gets bloody.  This is threatening not just a way of doing business… but in their minds, it’s threatening the game. Really what it’s threatening is their livelihood, their jobs. It’s threatening the way they do things… and every time that happens, whether it’s the government, a way of doing business, whatever, the people who are holding the reins – they have their hands on the switch – they go batshit crazy.”John Henry, Owner of the Boston Red Sox

Context

The 2002 season is over, and the A’s were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.  John Henry, an owner of the Boston Red Sox, has invited Bill Beane to Boston to offer him the Red Sox GM job. 

Lesson

This is what you sign up for when you decide to be an Intrapreneur.  The more you challenge the status quo, the more you question how business is done, the more you ask Why and demand an answer, the closer you get to “tak(ing) it in the teeth.”

This is why courage, perseverance, and an unshakeable belief that things can and should be better are absolutely essential for intrapreneurs.  Your job is to run at the wall over and over until you get through it.

People will follow.  The Red Sox did.  They won the World Series in 2004, breaking an 84-year-old curse.

The Middle

“It’s a process, it’s a process, it’s a process” — Bill Beane

Context

Billy has to convince the ballplayers to forget all the habits that made them great and embrace the philosophy of Moneyball.  To stop stealing bases, turning double plays on bunts, and swinging for the fences and to start taking walks, throwing to first for the easy out, and prioritize getting on base over hitting a home run.

The players are confused and frustrated.  Suddenly, everything that they once did right is wrong and what was not valued is deeply prized.

Lesson

Innovation is something new that creates value.  Something new doesn’t just require change, it requires people to stop doing things that work and start doing things that seem strange or even wrong.

Change doesn’t happen overnight.  It’s not a switch to be flipped.  It’s a process to be learned.  It takes time, practice, reminders, and patience.

The End

“When you get an answer you’re looking for, hang up.” — Billy Beane

Context

In this scene, Billy has offered one of his players to multiple teams, searching for the best deal.  When the phone rings with a deal he likes, he and the other General Manager (GM) agree to it, Billy hangs up.  Even though the other GM was in the middle of a sentence.  When Peter Brand, the Assistant GM played by Jonah Hill, points out that Billy had just hung up on the other GM, Billy responds with this nugget of wisdom.

Lesson

It’s advice intrapreneurs should take very much to heart.  I often see Innovation teams walk into management presentations with long presentations, full of data and projections, anxious to share their progress, and hoping for continued funding and support.  When the meeting starts, a senior exec will say something like, “We’re excited by the progress we’re hearing about and what it will take to continue.” 

That’s the cue to “hang up.”

Instead of starting the presentation from the beginning, start with “what it will take to continue.”  You got the answer you’re looking for – they’re excited about the progress you’ve made – don’t spend time giving them the info they already have or, worse, could raise questions and dim their enthusiasm.  Hang up on the conversation you want to have and have the conversation they want to have.

In closing

Moneyball was an innovation that fundamentally changed one of the most tradition-bound businesses in sports.  To be successful, it required someone willing to take it in the teeth, to coach people through a process, and to hang up when they got the answer they wanted.  It wasn’t easy but real change rarely is.

The same is true in corporations.  They need their own Bill Beanes.

Are you willing to step up to the plate?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Do You Find Growth By Searching, Seeking, or Stalking?

Do You Find Growth By Searching, Seeking, or Stalking?

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Growth is the lifeblood of any organization, and the quest for growth opportunities is not just a strategic imperative. It is a fundamental necessity because the ability to identify and capitalize on opportunities is a game-changer for companies wanting to achieve sustainable success and stay ahead of the competition. 

The challenge, however, is that not all opportunities are the same – some are head-smackingly obvious, while others are like trying to nail down JELL-O.  Yet companies take a “one size fits all” approach to finding, developing, and capitalizing on them.

SEARCH when need to transform

What do you do when you need information but don’t know precisely what you need and certainly don’t know where to find it? You Google it or, in less-branded terms, you search for it. 

When searching for growth opportunities, you’re looking for something but don’t know exactly what you need or where you’ll find it.  Finding opportunities requires you to go beyond traditional market analysis and adopt a learner’s mindset to see ways to disrupt the status quo, challenge existing paradigms, and create new value propositions for your customers.

Searching is a creative process that entails investing in R&D, fostering a culture of intrapreneurship, and experimenting with new technologies. It requires a culture of creativity, experimentation, and agility to adapt to changing market dynamics.  You have to be willing to be wrong on your way to being right, to move slowly so you can act quickly, and to throw out the timeline to harness the game-changing opportunity.

SEEK when you need to innovate

What do you do when you know what you need and generally where to find it?  You seek it out – you go to where you think it will be, and, on the off-chance it’s not there, you pivot to Option B.

When you’re seeking growth opportunities, you have a target in mind but are not 100% sure how to hit it.  Maybe you know you want to enter a new geography, but you need to figure out how to do it successfully and avoid the mistakes of previous entrants.  Maybe it’s a new industry or category, but you must understand if and how to do it without disrupting your existing business model.

Seeking is both creative and analytical.  You look for data and market intelligence, interview experts and individuals, analyze industry trends and explore untapped segments. It also requires you to stay open to surprises and new possibilities and take calculated risks to capitalize on emerging trends or consumer preferences.  Like searching, it requires patience.  Unlike searching, it respects a deadline.

STALK when you need to improve

Just like a lioness stalking a wildebeest, you do this when you see an opportunity and know exactly how to capture it. Yes, there will be zigs and zags along the way, and an unexpected competitor may pop up. But this is who you are and what you do. 

When stalking opportunities, you bring the full value and power of your experience, expertise, resources, and capabilities to bear on an opportunity.  This may happen when you’re operating and improving your core business.  It may also occur after you’ve searched (and found) an opportunity, sought (and decided on) a strategy, and now you have the confidence to launch and scale.

Do Your Approaches Align with Your Goals?

Most companies say that they want to transform. Still, very few have the patience or intestinal fortitude to search because there is no Google for Transformation that produces the exact plan you need to transform successfully.

Companies also tend to stalk when they want to innovate, leaving opportunities to change the game and build sustainable competitive advantage on the sideline because they’re too uncertain or take too long.

Growth requires all three approaches – search, seek, and stalk – but only happens when your chosen approach aligns with your goals.

Image credit: Pexels

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Five Lessons from the Apple Car’s Demise

Five Lessons from the Apple Car's Demise

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

In 2014, rumors started to circulate that Apple was developing a self-driving autonomous car to compete with Tesla.  At the end of February 2024, rumors circulated that Apple was shutting down “Project Titan,” its car program. According to multiple media outlets, the only logical conclusion from the project’s death is that this decision signals the beginning of the end of Apple.

As much as I enjoy hyperbole and unnecessary drama, the truth is far more mundane.

The decision was just another day in the life of an innovation.

As always, there is a silver lining to this car-shaped cloud: the lessons we can learn from Apple’s efforts.

Lesson 1: Innovation isn’t all rainbows and unicorns

People think innovation is fun.  It is.  It is also gut-wrenching, frustrating, and infuriating.  Doing something new requires taking risks, which is uncomfortable for most people.  Even more challenging is that, more often than not, when you take a risk, you “fail.” (if you learned something, you didn’t fail, but that’s another article). 

What you can do: Focus on the good stuff – moments of discovery, adventures when experimenting, signs that you’re making life better for others – but don’t forget that you’re defying the odds.

Lesson 2: More does not mean success

It’s been reported that Apple spent over ten billion dollars on Project Titan and that over 2000 people were working on it before it was canceled. With a market cap of over two trillion dollars, a billion dollars a year isn’t even a rounding error. But it’s still an eye-popping number, which makes Apple’s decision to cut its losses downright courageous.

What you can do: Be on guard for the sunk-cost fallacy.  It’s easy to believe that you’ll eventually succeed if you keep working and pouring resources into a project.  That’s not true, as Apple experienced.  And in the rare cases when it is, executives are often left wondering if the success was worth the cost.

Lesson 3: Pivot based on data, not opinions

At least four different executives led Project Titan during its decade in development, and each leader brought their own vision for what the Apple Car should be.  First, it was an electric vehicle with driver assistance that would compete with Tesla.  Next, it was a self-driving car to compete with Google’s WayMo.  Then, plans for fully autonomous driving were canceled. Finally, the team returned to its original target of matching Tesla’s Level 2 automation.  

Changes in project objectives, strategies, and execution plans are necessary for innovation, so there’s nothing obviously wrong with these pivots.  But the fact that they tended to happen when a new leader was appointed (and that Jony Ive caused an 18-month hiring freeze simply by expressing “displeasure”) makes me question how data-based these pivots actually were

What you can do: Be willing to change but have a high standard for what is required to cause a change.  Data, even qualitative and anecdotal data, should be seriously considered.  The opinion of a single executive, not so much.

Lesson 4: Dream big, build small

Apple certainly dreamed big with its aspirations to build a fully semi-autonomous vehicle and it poured billions into developing and testing the sensors, batteries, and partnership required to make it a reality.  But it was never all-or-nothing in its pursuit of the automotive industry.  Apple introduced CarPlay the same year it kicked off Project Titan, and it continues to offer regular updates to the system.  Car Key was announced in 2020 and is now offered by BMW, Genesis, Hyundai, and Kia.

What you can do: Take a portfolio approach towards your overall innovation portfolio (Apple kept working on the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Vision Pro) and within each project.  It’s not unusual that a part of the project turns out to be more valuable than the whole project.

Lesson 5: ___________________________

Yes, that is a fill-in-the-blank because I want to hear from you. What lesson are you taking away from Project Titan’s demise, and how will it make you a better innovator?

Image credit: Dall-E via Bing

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How I Use AI to Understand Humans

(and Cut Research Time by 80%)

How I Use AI to Understand Humans

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

AI is NOT a substitute for person-to-person discovery conversations or Jobs to be Done interviews.

But it is a freakin’ fantastic place to start…if you do the work before you start.

Get smart about what’s possible

When ChatGPT debuted, I had a lot of fun playing with it, but never once worried that it would replace qualitative research.  Deep insights, social and emotional Jobs to be Done, and game-changing surprises only ever emerge through personal conversation.  No matter how good the Large Language Model (LLM) is, it can’t tell you how feelings, aspirations, and motivations drive their decisions.

Then I watched JTBD Untangled’s video with Evan Shore, WalMart’s Senior Director of Product for Health & Wellness, sharing the tests, prompts, and results his team used to compare insights from AI and traditional research approaches.

In a few hours, he generated 80% of the insights that took nine months to gather using traditional methods.

Get clear about what you want and need.

Before getting sucked into the latest shiny AI tools, get clear about what you expect the tool to do for you.  For example:

  • Provide a starting point for research: I used the free version of ChatGPT to build JTBD Canvas 2.0 for four distinct consumer personas.  The results weren’t great, but they provided a helpful starting point.  I also like Perplexity because even the free version links to sources.
  • Conduct qualitative research for meI haven’t used it yet, but a trusted colleague recommended Outset.ai, a service that promises to get to the Why behind the What because of its ability to “conduct and synthesize video, audio, and text conversations.”
  • Synthesize my research and identify insights: An AI platform built explicitly for Jobs to be Done Research?  Yes, please!  That’s precisely what JobLens claims to be, and while I haven’t used it in a live research project, I’ve been impressed by the results of my experiments.  For non-JTBD research, Otter.ai is the original and still my favorite tool for recording, live transcription, and AI-generated summaries and key takeaways.
  • Visualize insights:  MuralMiro, and FigJam are the most widely known and used collaborative whiteboards, all offering hundreds of pre-formatted templates for personas, journey maps, and other consumer research templates.  Another colleague recently sang the praises of theydo, an AI tool designed specifically for customer journey mapping.

Practice your prompts

“Garbage in.  Garbage out.” Has never been truer than with AI.  Your prompts determine the accuracy and richness of the insights you’ll get, so don’t wait until you’ve started researching to hone them.  If you want to start from scratch, you can learn how to write super-effective prompts here and here.  If you’d rather build on someone else’s work, Brian at JobsLens has great prompt resources. 

Spend time testing and refining your prompts by using a previous project as a starting point.  Because you know what the output should be (or at least the output you got), you can keep refining until you get a prompt that returns what you expect.    It can take hours, days, or even weeks to craft effective prompts, but once you have them, you can re-use them for future projects.

Defend your budget

Using AI for customer research will save you time and money, but it is not free. It’s also not just the cost of the subscription or license for your chosen tool(s).  

Remember the 80% of insights that AI surfaced in the JTBD Untangled video?  The other 20% of insights came solely from in-person conversations but comprised almost 100% of the insights that inspired innovative products and services.

AI can only tell you what everyone already knows. You need to discover what no one knows, but everyone feels.  That still takes time, money, and the ability to connect with humans.

Run small experiments before making big promises

People react to change differently.  Some will love the idea of using AI for customer research, while others will resist with.  Everyone, however, will pounce on any evidence that they’re right.  So be prepared.  Take advantage of free trials to play with tools.  Test tools on friends, family, and colleagues.  Then under-promise and over-deliver.

AI is a starting point.  It is not the ending point. 

I’m curious, have you tried using AI for customer research?  What tools have you tried? Which ones do you recommend?

Image credit: Unsplash

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Predicting Unintended Consequences

The 93% Rule

Predicting Unintended Consequences

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Unintended consequences often catch us off guard despite their predictability.  The moment they occur, we gasp in shock, shake our heads, and look at each other in wide-eyed horror at this thing that just happened that we could never ever ever have anticipated. 

Yet, when (if) we do an After-Action Review, we often realize that these consequences were not entirely unforeseeable. In fact, had we anticipated them, we might have made different decisions.

The Unintended Consequences of Spreadsheets

In 1800 BCE, ancient Babylonians started recording data by scratching grids and columns onto clay tablets, and the spreadsheet was born.  Over the millennia, we went from clay tablets to papyrus to parchment and then paper. 

Fast forward to 1963 when R. Brian Walsh of Marquette University ported the Business Computer Language (BCL) program to an IBM 7040, and electronic spreadsheets became a reality.  The introduction of VisiCalc by Apple in 1979 revolutionized spreadsheet capabilities, followed by Lotus 123 and Microsoft Excel. Today, spreadsheets are ubiquitous in education, business operations, financial markets, budgeting, and even personal inventories.

Unintended yet predictable consequences

While spreadsheets have undoubtedly enhanced efficiency and accuracy compared to traditional methods like clay tablets or hand-drawn tables on parchment, their ease of use has inadvertently led to complacency.

We stopped engaging in a multi-millennial habit of discussing, debating, and deciding before making a spreadsheet. We started flippantly asking people to create spreadsheets and providing little, if any, guidance because “it’s easy to make changes and run scenarios.”

This shift resulted in a reliance on automated models and a lack of shared assumptions or analytical rigor in decision-making processes.

Of course, these behaviors were never intended.  They were, however, very predictable.

93% of Human Behavior is predictable.

Research spanning disciplines as varied as network scientists, anthropology, neuropsychology, and paleontology shines a light on how truly predictable we are.

Here are some examples:

Emotions before Reason: Ask someone if they make decisions based on their motivations, aspirations, and fears and use data to justify the decisions, and they’ll tell you no. Ask them the last time someone else made a decision that “made no sense,” and you’ll listen to a long list of examples.

Small gains now are better than big gains later: Thoughtfully planning before using solutions like spreadsheets, word processing, email, and instant messaging could save us time at work and help us get home 30 minutes earlier or work a few hours less on the weekend.  But saving a few seconds now by brain-dumping into Word, setting up a “flexible” spreadsheet, and firing off a text feels much better.

Confidence > Realism: We’ve all been in meetings where the loudest voice or the most senior person’s opinion carried the day.  As we follow their lead, we ignore signs that we’re wrong and explain away unexpected and foreboding outcomes until we either wake up to our mistakes or adjust to our new circumstances.

Predict the 93%. Create for the 7%

Acknowledging the predictability of human behavior is not an endorsement of stereotypes but a recognition of our innate cognitive processes. By incorporating this understanding into design, innovation, and decision-making processes, we better anticipate potential outcomes and mitigate unintended consequences.

While 93% of human behavior may follow predictable patterns rooted in evolutionary instincts, focusing on the remaining 7% allows for the exploration of unique behaviors and novel solutions.  By embracing both aspects of human nature, we can navigate challenges more effectively and anticipate a broader range of outcomes in our endeavors, leading to informed decision-making and value creation.

Now, if I could only get Excel to stop auto-converting numbers into date/time format.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Positive Power of Negative Emotions Drive Change

Positive Power of Negative Emotions Drive Change

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

You want to make life better for others. This desire is reflected in the optimism and positivity of your language – create value, love the problem, and delight the customer.  But making life better requires change, and, as the adage goes, “People want change, but they don’t want to be changed.”

You are confident that the solution you created will make life better and that the change people need to make is quite small and painless, well worth the dramatic improvement you offer.  Yet they resist.  No amount of explaining, showing, convincing, or cajoling changes their mind.  What else can you do?

To quote Darth Vader, “Give yourself to the Dark Side.  It is the only way to save your friends.”

“If only you knew the power of the Dark Side…”

The Dark Side is populated by “negative” emotions like anger, fear, and frustration, which are incredibly powerful.

Consider that:

Unfortunately, these are also some of the first emotions experienced when confronting change.   

Change requires people to let go of what they know in exchange for the promise of something better.  This immediately triggers Loss Aversion, the cognitive bias in which the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. 

As a result, people won’t let go of what they know until the pain of holding on becomes unbearable.  When you point out the problems and pain of the current situation, you help people understand and experience the unbearableness of the current situation. 

“Anger, fear, aggression; the Dark Side of the Force are they”

Not every “negative” emotion elicits the same behavior, so carefully choose the one to tap into.

Fear motivates people to seek safety, which can be good if your solution truly offers a safer alternative.  It’s a motivator used well by companies such as Volvo, SimpliSafe, and Graco.  But lean on it too much, and people may feel overwhelmed and remain frozen to the status quo.

Anger motivates people to take risks, which can be good when the change requires bold decisions and dogged persistence.  It can be great when it bonds people together to achieve a shared goal or protect a common value.  Apple used this emotion to brilliant effect in its famous “1984” commercial announcing the launch of Macintosh.  But incite too much anger, and things can get broken and not in a helpful way like Apple’s ad.

Frustration, one of the emotions that often drives aggression, is anger’s polite little sister.  When people feel frustrated, they’re likely to act, persistently pursue solutions, and creatively approach and overcome obstacles.  But if the change is big, feels scary, and puts their sense of self at risk, frustration isn’t powerful enough to convince people to let go of the old and embrace the new.

“If you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

Yoda is incredibly wise, but he gets this one wrong.  Using the Dark Side to speak to people’s “negative” emotions doesn’t doom you to a life or career of fear-mongering or inciting violence.  Start here, don’t stay here.

Multiple research studies show that positive emotions, like hope and joy, are more powerful than negative ones in maintaining motivation and even enable more creative thinking and problem-solving.  By speaking to both negative and positive emotions, the Dark Side and the Light, you enable change by giving people a reason to let go of the past and a future worth reaching for.

When people stop resisting and start reaching to the future you’re offering, change happens, and you realize that Yoda was right, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

Image credit: Pixabay

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3 Innovation Lessons from The Departed

3 Innovation Lessons from The Departed

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

It’s award season, which means that, as a resident of Boston, I have the responsibility and privilege to talk about The Departed (pronounced: The Dep-ah-ted).  The film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2007 and earned Martin Scorsese his first, and to date only, Academy Award for Best Director.  It is also chock-full of great lessons for corporate innovators.

Quick Synopsis

If you’ve seen The Departed, you can skip this part.  If you haven’t, why not and read on.

The Departed is loosely based on notorious Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger and features three main characters:

  1. Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a vicious and slightly unhinged Irish mob boss
  2. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a Massachusetts State Trooper in the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) formed to catch Costello, who, in his spare time, is a spy for Costello.
  3. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a police academy recruit who goes undercover to infiltrate Costello’s organization

But wait!  There’s more.  Alec Baldwin plays Colin’s SIU boss, George Ellerby.  Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg (who received an Oscar nomination for this role) play Billy’s Mass State Police (MSP) bosses, Captain Queenan and Staff Sergeant Dignam, respectively.  Completing the chaos is Vera Farmiga, who plays Madolyn Madden, Colin’s girlfriend and Billy’s court-ordered psychiatrist.

There’s a lot of other stuff going on, but that gives you enough context for the following quotes to hopefully make sense.

Listen to the words people use.

Colin (after Dignam refuses to hand over undercover files): I need those passwords.

Ellerby: No, you want those passwords

It’s not often that Ellerby says something useful, let alone wise, but he nails it with this one.  Colin wants the passwords to Dignam’s files on undercover agents because it will make both Colin’s official job of finding Costello’s rat in the MSP and his unofficial job of finding the MSP officer in Costello’s crew easier.  He doesn’t need the passwords, however, because, with enough time and effort, he can find the rats he’s looking for.

When we hear from customers that they want something, it’s tempting to run off and create it.  But as Ellerby points out, wants and needs are different.  Just because customers want something doesn’t mean they are willing to pay for or change their behavior to get and use it. 

Figuring out what a customer needs is difficult because it requires them to trust you enough to admit they have a problem they can’t solve.  It’s also difficult because most of us have access to solutions to our functional needs (think the bottom few layers of Maslow’s hierarchy).  As a result, the needs consumers grapple with tend to be emotional and social, and it’s far more challenging to admit those to a stranger, especially in a focus group or product-focused interview.

How you feel impacts everyone around you

Madolyn (after a counseling session): Why is the last patient of the day always the hardest?

Billy: Because you’re tired, and you don’t give a sh*t.  It’s not super-natural.

Billy and Madolyn get off to a rough start in their first counseling session, culminating in Billy asking for a prescription for Valium.  Madolyn calls him out for “drug-seeking behavior” and throws two Valiums across the desk before Billy storms out.  A few minutes later, Madolyn catches up with Billy, hands him a prescription for Valium, and asks the above question.

Being a corporate innovator can be difficult, sometimes soul-crushing work (ask the good people at Store 8).  It can also be thrilling and inspiring.  It can even be all those things in one day.  That’s what makes it tiring, even when you give a sh*t. 

Managing your energy and monitoring your behavior are leadership qualities we don’t discuss often enough.  It’s okay to be exhausted after a day of facilitating ideation sessions or intense strategic meetings.  It’s normal to be frustrated after a contentious conversation or demotivated when you get bad news.  But leaders usually find a way to not take those emotions out on their teams.  And, in the rare instance when they punish the team for someone else’s sin, they apologize and explain. 

Your job is not your identity.

Billy: Look, I just want my identity back, all right?  That’s all.

Colin: All right, I understand.  You want to be a cop again.

Billy: No, no, being a cop’s not an identity.  I want my identity back.

Towards the end of the film, Billy is tired of working undercover and reports to MSP headquarters to complete the paperwork required to expunge his criminal record and get his identity back.  That’s when Colin makes the same mistake most of us make and confuses Billy’s job with his identity.

We spend so much time at work.  We rely on our paychecks for so much.  We even introduce ourselves to new people using our job titles.  It’s easy for your job to feel like your identity, especially when your job aligns so closely with your deeply held beliefs and values.  But your job is not your identity.  You are still a Tempered Radical, even without your corporate title.   You are still an optimistic problem-solver, even when it’s been months since your last brainstorming session. 

You are an innovator, even if you don’t have a business card to prove it.

Image credit: RadioTimes.com

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