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March 2014
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TD Magazine

Lisa Bodell

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Long View: Lisa Bodell

LV
Founder/CEO
futurethink
New York, New York

Lisa Bodell is founder and CEO of futurethink, an internationally recognized innovation research and training firm that encourages businesses to embrace change. She also is the author of the provocative culture-change book, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution.

Can you talk about futurethink and how it came into being?

My company, futurethink, is a result of some early frustrations in my career that turned into inspirations. I often describe myself as a recovering ad agency person. When I got out of college, I wanted to light the world on fire and express my creative ideas by working at an advertising agency.

During that experience, it was surprising to me that ideas were only thought of as good if they came from the creative department; ideas from other departments didn't seem to matter. I thought this was shocking. Think about it: If a creative company like an ad agency thought this way, what hope did ideas have in other less creative businesses? How many good ideas went unrealized because people didn't feel they were creative enough?

So, I decided to leave the ad agency world and start my own company, teaching people how they can be creative and innovative. My belief is that everyone can be innovative; they just need to know how. Through my business, I set out to give people creative problem-solving tools and techniques that were very simple, and that they could use right away.

So that's been my focus for the last 17 years. Looking back, I think my agency experience—while sometimes frustrating—was very valuable. It pushed me to start my own business and really become the entrepreneur and innovation advocate that I am today.

Your language can be very direct and provocative—"kill a stupid rule" and "reward disruptors," for example. What is your approach to business innovation?

People are extremely busy, and I feel like we spend a lot of time during the business day beating around the bush, which wastes time, energy, and doesn't do anyone any good. Being direct can be very helpful, but you have to do it in the right way. I think people appreciate direct, provocative language as long as it's not personal. Its purpose has to be to awaken people, not offend them; to get them thinking in fresh, honest ways.

Getting teams to think differently is critical and isn't done nearly enough in my opinion. My belief is that in businesses today, we've become very complacent. It's much easier to be agreeable and not question the status quo than to be provocative or disruptive. But when we just go along with how things are, or when we just try to please everyone, we lose good thinking and become afraid of original ideas. We lack the drive to change things and make them better because we're already bogged down with low value tasks that take up our time—meetings, emails, processes, reports.

Within most organizations today, thinking has become a daring act. Our corporate cultures place more value on doing rather than thinking. To help change this, futurethink's tools are designed to get people thinking again in new and different ways—in very direct ways and provocative ways.

Our tools even teach people that innovation doesn't have to be about doing more. In fact, it can be about doing less or getting rid of things that aren't working, to make space for things that add more value. "Kill a stupid rule" is one of our clients' favorite tools for that reason—it gives people a simple way to eliminate things that aren't working and creates space for new and better things to happen.

How do you ensure learning transfer occurs after one of your keynotes or workshops?

At the end of my keynotes or at the end of our training sessions, we ask people to make a commitment to change. And to do this, they have to commit to trying one of the tools we teach in the next week with their team. I'm always amazed at the number of people who email us after they use the tools and tell us what ideas they came up with, what rules they killed, and the changes they made. It inspires me because they feel empowered to make things happen and they realize that they can do it—and it wasn't hard.

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Another thing we do to make learning stick is that we give teams very simple things to try to get innovation started—what we call "little-bigs." These are little things that can make a big difference in getting innovation moving forward at a company.

A little-big can be holding a meeting in a different place. A little-big can be telling people that they can't leave the meeting until they kill three rules. A little-big can be formally empowering people to change.

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In fact, we had a leader at a bank we work with tell us: "I sat my team down at our monthly status meeting and told them that by the next month's meeting, they had to tell me the five decisions they made without me that they normally would've asked my permission for. Amazingly, at the next month's meeting, all 12 people had made five decisions without me. That's 60 fewer decisions on my plate." Isn't that great? That was a simple way to teach people empowerment and autonomy. That's little-bigs.

What's one of the greatest challenges of helping affect change in an organization?

There're a few barriers to change that we have to work hard to overcome with our innovation tools and courses we teach. One of the biggest barriers is that within organizations, we aren't grooming leaders anymore; we're grooming professional skeptics.

Leaders today can more easily tell me what's wrong with an idea versus what is right about it. That's understandable since a leader's job is to make his numbers and eliminate risk. But not taking a risk and questioning every idea that comes across your desk can't stay the norm if a company is going to be innovative and successful. To overcome this skepticism, we teach people how to be open to ideas rather than being totally locked out and saying what's wrong with them first. We help them give ideas a fair chance.

What do you see as the future of a successful organizational environment?

To make change happen, you of course need endorsement from top senior management. But to make change stick over the long term, we have to start empowering people from the middle out.

Now, what do I mean by this? Well, everyone always talks about building an innovation culture from the top-down or bottom-up. But I believe that real change happens with the middle managers.

These people are the ones who are looked up to by the lower ranks, and have the respect of the higher-ups. They are the ones who are managing and doing the work, and can effect change every day in meetings, emails, and so forth. Empowering them to be advocates of change can make a huge difference with a ripple effect.

What projects are you currently working on?

Given that professionals today are time-strapped, visually oriented, tech-savvy, and mobile, we believe that the future of learning is in short innovative videos—learning everything from quick innovation tips to short how-to tutorials. People just don't have time for long e-learning courses that they have to do at their desk. They want to learn about a specific topic or technique and use it right away. So last year we started thinking: "How can we quickly help people learn impactful innovation techniques in a simple, visual way?"

We hired a writer, cameraman, and actors, and along with our own trainers, we spent the last year creating a suite of 50 dynamic videos that teach simple innovation tips, techniques, and best practices. All of our videos are 10 minutes or less. Some are just 90 seconds.

They show people in real-world situations quickly tackling innovation problems. You can watch on your laptop, iPad, or mobile phone. Most importantly, the videos aren't just fun to watch; they're immediately useful. We're extremely excited to have launched these. We believe videos will be the main delivery method for how we all learn in the future.

What do you enjoy doing outside of all of the things that you do in your professional life?

I travel to between 15 and 20 countries a year, and to keep my innovation juices flowing, I like to explore. The reason I like to do this is because in order to be innovative, you have to see new things, do new things, try new things. You have to stretch your comfort zone. When I go to a new country, I try to arrive a day early to explore and wander off the beaten path. That might mean finding offbeat, back roads places; experiencing cultural tradition; or visiting everyday places like the local grocery stores or museums. I want to get my hands on the cultural environment, to really know the local people beyond just a business setting, and I love it.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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