Nine simple words, "Let me just play Devil's Advocate for a minute," have torched many a fledgling concept, writes Tom Kelley, author of "The Ten Faces of Innovation." The Devil's Advocate is "the biggest innovation killer in America today." But Kelley has a remedy for the Devil's Advocate: the ten innovation personas that, he writes, can "put the Devil's Advocate in his place.""/> How to beat the Devil's Advocate and create an innovation culture

How to beat the Devil's Advocate and create an innovation culture

June 20, 2007

Nine simple words, "Let me just play Devil's Advocate for a minute," have torched many a fledgling concept, writes Tom Kelley, author of "The Ten Faces of Innovation." The Devil's Advocate is "the biggest innovation killer in America today."

But Kelley has a remedy for the Devil's Advocate: the ten innovation personas that, he writes, can "put the Devil's Advocate in his place."

Kelley splits his ten innovation personas into three categories: the learning personas, the organizing personas, and the building personas. He cautions that the ten personas are not personality traits or types. They're roles that anybody can adopt. "These innovation roles are available to nearly anyone on your team, and people can switch roles, reflecting their multifaceted capabilities."

The author writes from experience. As general manager at IDEO -- a design and development firm widely considered to be one of the most innovative firms in the world -- Kelley has "battle-tested [the personas] thousands of times in a real-world laboratory for innovation."

"The appeal of the personas," he writes, "is that they work. Not in theory or in the classroom but in the unforgiving marketplace."

The learning personas

The learning personas include the Anthropologist, who seeks insights by observing human behavior in the field; the Experimenter, who learns by doing, constantly turning ideas into prototypes; and the Cross-Pollinator, who understands that the best lessons may be learned from other companies, industries, countries, and cultures.

At the heart of the learning persona is a sense of humility -- an understanding that business people don't have all the answers even if they "know" a lot. If they look in the right places, though, they can find some of those answers that will help the business pull ahead of its competition.

"The learning roles help keep your team from becoming too internally focused and remind the organization not to be so smug about what you 'know,'" Kelley writes. "People who adopt the learning roles are humble enough to question their own worldview, and in doing so they remain open to new insights every day."

For Kelley, the Anthropologist is the most important of the ten personas. That's in part because the Anthropologist figures out what's really going on in customer's lives -- which allows the business to create a truly customer-centered product or service.

Putting on the Anthropologist's hat is about letting go of what you "know" -- going out into the field with a totally open mind. Kelley tells the story of two business people from a soft-drink company in Warsaw who wanted to sell more drinks to passengers in the train station. So they went to the train station to watch.

"As they observed the crowds," Kelley writes, "they noticed a recurring pattern: In the minutes before the trains arrived, people would stand on the platform, look over their shoulder at the drink kiosk, glance at their watch, and then scan the platform for the incoming train. A casual observer might have missed the clue. But these budding Anthropologists realized that passengers were torn between wanting something to drink and not wanting to miss their train."

So the soft-drink company created vending machines with large built-in clocks, to reassure customers that they had time to buy a cold drink. As a result, soft-drink sales in Warsaw train stations boomed.

Once a business has gathered information about customers in the field, it has to create an innovative product or service that will meet the customer's needs. The Experimenter learns what works by doing, continuously trying out new prototypes, not afraid to fail.

"Trace the history of any great innovation," Kelley writes, "and chances are you'll find the footprint of an Experimenter."

Sometimes the best ideas already exist in another industry, country, or culture. The piano keyboard served as inspiration for the typewriter; a recipe to create a stronger flowerpot turned out reinforced concrete; and a Frisbie Baking Company pie tin led to the ever-popular Frisbee toy.

That kind of bridging of ideas is the work of a Cross-Pollinator. "Cross-Pollinators can create something new and better through the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts," Kelley writes. "They often innovate by discovering a clever solution in one context or industry, then translating it successfully to another."

The organizing personas

The organizing roles -- including the Hurdler, the Collaborator, and the Director -- are "played by individuals who are savvy about the often counterintuitive process of how organizations move ideas forward" and understand that "even the best ideas must continuously compete for time, attention, and resources."

Organizers recognize processes like budgeting and resource allocation as complex games of chess, Kelley writes, "and they play to win."

The Hurdler overcomes the adversity that is so often present in companies. Kelley writes about 3M, where Richard Drew invented masking tape. Far from being part of a company-wide innovation culture, Drew's invention was the result of the hard work and perseverance of one Hurdler.

Drew got his job as a lab technician at 3M in 1921. He was responsible for taking trial batches of 3M's Wetordry sandpaper to a local auto body shop. There, he learned of a painter's frustration with the newspaper, glue, and butcher paper he had to use to mask one color from another when doing a two-tone paint job.

The young technician began experimenting with different kinds of materials to create a superior adhesive. When he asked 3M's president for funds to purchase a papermaking machine to produce his tape, the president turned him down. But instead of giving up, Drew purchased the machine with a series of $99 purchase orders (he was authorized to approve purchases up to $100). In 1925, Drew rolled out the world's first masking tape -- which came to be a 3M hallmark.

Richard Drew's invention of masking tape was largely an individual effort, but most often innovation is the result of collaboration. The Collaborator brings people out of their individual silos to create cross-functional teams to get things done.

One tool for overcoming barriers to successful collaboration is co-opting the opposition, Kelley writes. "Instead of being offended by [your opposition's] arguments, why not listen and respond to their concerns? They often have valid points. The payoff can be extraordinary. There's nothing like the conviction of a convert to boost team momentum."

But even the most collaborative team needs a director at the helm. Just as directors on a movie set don't usually appear in the final product -- though their work shines through in the actors' performance -- innovation Directors encourage greatness in others.

"Directors are unlike all the other personas," Kelley writes, "because their main purpose is to inspire and direct other people, developing chemistry in teams, targeting strategic opportunities, and generating innovation momentum."

The building personas

The building personas -- including the Experience Architect, the Set Designer, the Caregiver, and the Storyteller -- bring it all together. They "apply insights from the learning roles and channel the empowerment from the organizing roles to make innovation happen," Kelley writes.

The Experience Architect designs experiences -- for the company's employees as well as its customers. Kelley writes that "an Experience Architect is the right person to remind your organization that the first step in becoming extraordinary is simply to stop being ordinary."

To begin, Kelley suggests finding the customer's trigger points and fixing a problem or designing a great experience around those points. Otherwise, you risk trying to do too much -- and not doing anything very well. "Wise Experience Architects know how to focus their energy," Kelley writes. "Start by asking what's truly important to your customer."

Kelley tells the story of Tempe, Arizona-based Cold Stone Creamery, a company that has innovated by building an ice cream experience. "Sales at industry stalwarts like Baskin-Robbins and Dairy Queen have been relatively flat in recent years," Kelley writes. Cold Stone, on the other hand, "has been growing like gangbusters." The difference? Cold Stone offers more than just a product -- it offers "the ultimate ice cream experience."

Where the Experience Architect designs experiences, the Set Designer designs space. "Set designers look at every day as a chance to liven up the workplace," Kelley writes. "They gauge how space behaves and make subtle adjustments to keep it responsive to your shifting needs."

Most importantly, Set Designers understand that it's not really about the space -- it's about how people interact with it. "Remember that people are the X-factor in space," Kelley cautions. "Never forget how people might react to space -- whether it's collaborative or private. They're the ultimate arbiters."

Where Set Designers design space for people and Experience Architects design outstanding experiences, Caregivers infuse the human touch into those experiences. "Caregivers take extra pains to understand each individual customer," Kelley writes. "Why? Because the best care is geared to personal interests and needs."

Kelley tells the story of a local California shoe store, Archrival. Co-founder Peter Van Camerik, Kelley writes, "learned long ago that while his featured product may be athletic shoes, what he really sells is caregiving -- a seamless blend of service and expertise." Before he even brings out a shoe for his customers to try on, he studies their feet, how they walk, and asks about their activity.

"Peter trains his staff not to sell a shoe until they've got 'the story of the feet,' the biomechanics. 'Once you understand the story,' says Peter, 'you can prescribe the right shoe.'"

The story of Archrival -- and the other stories that fill up the pages of Kelley's book -- illustrate the power of the Storyteller persona. Kelley's storytelling works because, as he writes, "stories make an emotional connection."

In companies, The Storyteller "brings a team together. Their work becomes part of the lore of the organization over many years. Storytellers weave myths, distilling events to heighten reality and draw out lessons. … Most important, Storytellers make heroes out of real people."

 Creating an innovation culture

 Kelley suggests that businesses encourage their team members to cultivate at least one of the innovation personas. And he emphasizes that "the personas can comfortably live side by side with traditional titles. … You may be an engineer with the heart of a Cross-Pollinator and the spirit of an Experimenter. At your best, there's a synergy that comes from bringing these talents together."

 And just as the ideal employee doesn't have to be an expert at assuming all of the personas, the ideal team doesn't have to include all ten. "A good analogy might be the tools in a carpenter's toolbox," Kelley writes. "You seldom need all the tools at once, but the perfect kit of tools is a set where you use all of them pretty frequently."

Bottom Line:

 There are ten innovation personas -- battle-tested in the marketplace at design firm IDEO -- that can put the Devil's Advocate in his place and encourage a culture of innovation within a company. They are:

  • The Anthropologist, who seeks insights by observing human behavior in the field
  • The Experimenter, who learns by doing, constantly turning ideas into prototypes
  • The Cross-Pollinator, who understands that the best lessons may be learned from other companies, industries, countries, and cultures
  • The Hurdler, who overcomes the adversity that is so often present in companies
  • The Collaborator, who brings people out of their individual silos to create cross-functional teams to get things done
  • The Director, who "inspires and directs other people, developing chemistry in teams, targeting strategic opportunities, and generating innovation momentum"
  • The Experience Architect, who designs experiences for the company's employees as well as its customers
  • The Set Designer, who "looks at every day as a chance to liven up the workplace"
  • The Caregiver, who infuses the human touch into employee and customer experiences
  • The Storyteller, who "brings a team together" through work that "becomes part of the lore of the organization over many years"