Innovation is such an over-talked and over-written about subject matter that it’s tough to find anything original anymore. Alas, we did. In business, like in life, you either change and innovate, or you die. The push for innovation is felt at every level of the organization.
There are seminars, there are books, there are YouTube videos (most likely) that “teach innovation”, but they really don’t. They teach you how to develop a specific product. They don’t actually teach you how to open your mind to the entirety of the creative process.
No, we’re not going to tell you how to develop a product. The interview below is with Susana Vidal of Shift Innova, and it is going to shine a light on innovation, in a new, surprising way. We’re going to teach you how to keep innovation alive, and how to spark it back up, if you feel like your innovative drive has gone the way your colorful crayons went, out with all the other elementary school supplies from childhood.
TBM4W: Who is Susana Vidal? and What is Shift Innova?
Susana Vidal: I came back to the US about 16 years ago to do my MBA and through work, I ended up living in Australia and then Singapore, then the UK, and now back to the US, now in New York. I’ve also gone through entrepreneur adventures and working in the corporate world, especially with CISCO with whom I’ve worked for about 8 years. Three years ago, I actually decided to go back to my passion which is having my own company and working with entrepreneurs and also inside and outside of corporations trying to help them to innovate in a much more structured way. I’m a very visual type of person, I think a lot of people also think more in that way than linearly, so I think that the tools that I use with my clients help them put some structure on the craziness that is the innovation process.
TBM4W: That’s how Shift Innova came about?
I have a span of a few years in the corporate world with CISCO, and that was great and there are a lot of amazing people there, but I think at some point I wanted to be more hands-on on a project that I can see from start to finish. I think that’s why I shifted to doing consulting first, with startups mostly and then also with growing companies and corporations. To be honest, I think the first idea was to become more of a management consultant but I think as I learned more about traditional management consulting I thought maybe there’s a better way to help companies with their marketing strategy. I mean there is the Lean Methodologies, there are things like the Business Model Canvas Tool which is a visually attractive way of creating new products and services. I think the way of how Shift Innova came about was, well [I asked myself] is there a better way to work on a strategy, on a business strategy and marketing strategy? That’s really what Shift Innova became.
TBM4W: That’s how you’re helping clients? By making innovation something that they can learn?
Yes, in some way demystifying innovation, yes, not thinking that innovation is something that only a few geniuses can do. It’s actually something that we all can do. In Creative Confidence, it says that creativity is something we are born with. But I think at some point, sadly pretty early in our lives, we begin to label ourselves as noncreative. And that’s not true. We all can be creative and I think in some way a part of what I do is to demystifying the innovation process and using certain tools to bring in some knowledge that was already in there. A lot of it actually is listening to our customers and potential customers and creating something of value for them. Innovation at the end of the day is creating a product that gives some value to a customer, in a different way.
TBM4W: Innovation is good for everybody in every field. That’s one of the biggest drives in business. Without innovation, you stagnate and you die. The more we can teach innovation, the better off we will all be. So, how do you teach innovation? Can you give us a few pointers on developing an innovation culture?
Yes, I think I heard somebody say, it’s smart to create something but it’s easier to copy or something like that, [laugh]. In some way, I’m already using tools that have been developed quite a few years ago, some tools like ‘Design Thinking’. I don’t know if you heard about Design Thinking before.
TBM4W: Design Thinking? Yes, but let’s explore it a bit.
Yes, so Design Thinking is a sort of method, and also a mindset that was developed by I think a commission of IDEO, the design firm, and/or Stanford. So they developed different methodologies and mindsets that try to help you think like a designer. To think like a designer, you don’t start with a finished product, you start with a concept! You start by creating something, then you show this [concept] to other people who can give you some input. Well, maybe this idea should be more this way or that way. Then you go back to the drawing board and scratch the original design, and you create something better based on that feedback. And again, you go through the design and feedback, and again, and again. So it’s a part of the design thinking mindset of trying, experimenting, learning. You can think of the way that architects design buildings. At first, it’s a very rough drawing, and then you test the idea, get feedback, and the next drawing is better. So it’s about learning by failing, it’s about empathizing with your potential client, it’s about serving before judging. Design thinking is also a method but it’s a lot of, as I was mentioning, a mindset of how you do things. The reason why I mention it is because you asked me how do you teach innovational creativity. I think a lot of it starts with a very questioning mind and an observant mind. I think, maybe the way you teach it, in some way, is by trying new things and not thinking of failing. Unless you haven’t learned from it, then you really have failed. By trying new things and learning from it and trying again, then you can create some more value for your customers.
TBM4W: So it’s more like learning from failing. So basically you’re teaching that it’s ok to fail at something because it teaches you a lesson about why you failed, and what failed about what you failed. So there’s actually a good lesson in failing. That’s one thing. Second thing. Start with the concept, not with the goal. If you start with the goal, you know exactly where you’re going, and there’s no innovation. If you start with the concept, you can fail to the left, but got to the right and your concept is going to grow by itself by discovering what works and what doesn’t, and by interactions with the clients.
Yes, exactly. What I bring in after that is, I help you to figure out what your business model is going to be for your new product. You need to define your value propositions. What channels and how is your customer acquisition going to work. What are the partnerships that you’ll need. We will build all of that in a visual framework that I use in the work with my clients. That is the part that helps structure innovation in a better way, in a more efficient way. Design Thinking and principles are first but of course, there’s a fuller structure that I use with my clients, founders, and people who are very creative, and for whom these tools are very useful.
TBM4W: There are other ways that people are teaching innovation, but your system seems like something that actually works. And obviously, is working for your clients and for everybody that’s familiar with Design Thinking. It’s working because it lets you fail without ruining your plans. So you fail on specific things, but as a whole, you keep going forward because you’re learning from it. That, together with your input and how you’re guiding your clients, seems remarkable.
Thank you. Some of the tools that I use are Business Model Canvas and Value Proposition Canvas from Strategyzer, a company out of Switzerland. This book called Business Model Generation, it became a best seller, and I recommend it to everybody.
TBM4W: How do we let our children be innovators? As you mentioned, we lose innovation, lose creativity, as we grow, we think we’re not innovative anymore, so we stop being innovative. How do we let children stay with innovation, let them explore more of that? Is that something that we can teach in school, or is that something that parents could do at home?
I think it’s both. Well, I have a three-year-old so I’m actually very interested in this part. My daughter actually has been going to a Montessori pre-K. I think the Montessori method is great. This method was developed by this Italian educator and for her it was a lot about respecting the child, and also the teachers being more of a guide than somebody who directed their learning. Montessori is a lot about self-guided learning. I think the reason why my daughter has been going to a Montessori school is because I believe that, that’s a very good way for you to retaining the creativity by giving the children that freedom and that self-determination. I think maybe the way that you help your kids at home or at school to stay innovative or be innovative is being able to let them experiment with different things. We all want our children to be safe and not to get hurt. But within the boundaries that are good for their age let them experiment and try different things. Guide them but do not direct them. Montessori said is that the way children learn is: you put something in front of the child that is going to be challenging, not so challenging that they will give up, but challenging enough that will force them to go a little bit further [than where they were before]. So I think that helps kids continue to want to learn more, want to try different ways of figuring things out, and as I said, without us [the parents or educators] having to direct every single step. It’s a lot of letting go and letting them do it.
TBM4W: Art. Art is very helpful in self-expression. But we lose the capacity to sit in front of a blank canvas and start drawing. Pressure comes in, and we want it to be better than the previous painting. As an adult, you lose a little bit of creativity. Do you have any suggestions for that? Regaining some of the creativity that artists and musicians and writers lose?
I think, maybe it sounds cliché, but really, I’m learning so much from my daughter. Let me go back to children, then we can talk about the adults. One thing that they say that is important is also how you praise children. You don’t say “Oh, you’re so smart!” or something like that. You say “Well, that’s a good effort!”! “You’re putting in a real effort” I think, maybe that’s the thing that we, as adults, deal with too. Maybe we were praised too much [when we were kids], or praised in the wrong way!
I think sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves from the get-go in whatever we are going to create or write or the next blog that we’re going to write or the next painting that we are going to do, the next music we are going to compose to be perfect, that we block our own creativity. So maybe the advice for adults would be, just start doing something, anything! And I mean just try the first one! That may not be perfect, but at least it gets you started and it gets you into it. If you’re thinking of starting a blog, maybe you already have a few good ideas.
Then, you can cross some options off, and come up with others and then you can try again. I guess you can do the same for art or music or anything else. And now that everything is digital, there is no reason why you can’t just try a different version.
TBM4W: So learn to fail, and observe children play.
Yes for sure. Because that’s a natural way to learn. That’s another thing that Maria Montessori said that that’s a natural way to learn. We learn by failing and maybe that’s the thing! We should let our kids fail a bit more and restrain ourselves from helping them right away as they are trying to screw a lid on a bottle. We shouldn’t just rush to them right away. We should let them try 10 different ways until maybe they’re really getting frustrated. Then maybe you can help. But before that, you shouldn’t.
TBM4W: Or maybe they’ve found the 11th way of screwing the lid on the bottle. It happens. What is it that you’re most proud of since you’ve started Shift Innova?
Just recently, a client of mine, a very successful founder who has grown his company from 2 people to 20 people in 6 years, said to me: “this is the first time that I can really see what is it that my business offers, and what is the value that I’m giving to my clients, and then how I can improve it”. I think those things are great for me to hear because it’s from people that I respect a lot.
TBM4W: Founders. You’re a founder. What struggles have you had to overcome since starting the company?
I think you start with an idea in your head of what you want to do and what are the services that your clients want from you. I use the same tools for my own business because they also help me change, iterate and try again. I think the struggle was that I had an idea of what it is that I wanted to do and offer, but that begun to change as soon as I started talking with potential clients. Sometimes I feel that I was also very lucky because I had clients right away. But sometimes you don’t learn when you have [immediate] successes because you think that “oh, this will work!” Then you realize again, that that could have been a one-off. Maybe the only way to have a scalable business is in a very different way or a different segment then you originally thought. So I think the struggle has been more from the learning and the changing a bit of focus and really getting to an offering and a service that could be easily explained, and that could be of value to clients. And as a consultant, you could also package it in the right way and be something that clients would pay for and that will deliver a good value to them. So for me, it’s about, again, trying and failing and trying again…
TBM4W: Did you have any specific obstacles as a female founder?
It was about the same time when my daughter was born and when I quit my corporate job and started my own business. I used to go to the playground a lot and I would tell some of the moms at the playground about what I was doing. And a lot of them would be like ‘omg, that’s so cool. I want to do something like that”. I can tell you, one of the first iterations of my business was more of a network of women consultants. I saw so much potential in a lot of these other moms at the playground that were ex-consultants, ex-corporate managers etc.. There is so much potential. So much experience! I thought that maybe we could create a network of women consultants or experts on demand. As I researched that, I noticed that there were a few already on-demand consultants, so maybe that wasn’t the answer! I know there is something called Power To Fly in New York that is a female network of women consultants. I try to use my weakness as ammunition, not a weakness.
As a woman, I have very good results helping female entrepreneurs. I think some female founders also feel very good with a female consultant. So maybe that in some way you could say it has been an advantage! I do also move around in the tech world and that is very male-dominated. I think what we [women] have to be even better for people to pay attention to us. I just try to have a product that is of value and hopefully communicate it in a good way.
On the other hand, I’ve always been very involved in diversity of course, and I just continue to do that. I guess I do as much as I can. There are some biases that you cannot, unfortunately, do much about. I lost some potential opportunities because of that but I don’t think I need to cry about it. I do as much as I can on my work and the networks I belong to, to change that.
TBM4W: You bought up diversity and equality. How do we encourage more women to come into the business and tech world? The number of women in tech is super low.
Yes, yes and even lower in the last few years than in the 80’s and 90’s. It does start with us, moms and aunts, encouraging younger children ever since they’re little. What I also saw somewhere is [women] talking about this leak. There are a few of us that have already been in the tech world but have left. I was going to be one of them. When I left CISCO, first I had an idea that had nothing to do with the technology and I was kinda brought back into technology by my first then client, which was a woman founder for a social CRM service. Many of us that already have been in the tech world [realize] that we have to be fighting so much, [and] at some point you’re like “You know what? Life is a lot of little things and I don’t necessarily want to fight every day!” Maybe it’s about us just staying in these business networks. I think that what you are doing, Monica, with the magazine, is another way of encouraging women into staying in the business and tech world. Listening to all the other women, reading about the other women that are doing great work. I was just listing to one of your previous podcasts about this woman coach and I thought that maybe [your magazine] is a lot about staying for the ones who are already in, and encouraging the younger generations to come in. Maybe that’s the way to stay or rejoin.
*This interview was first published in The Business Magazine for Women’s Issue No. 1, out 11/11/2016. To purchase this issue, click on this link.