Dear Michelle, you have had a fascinating career with some truly great brands, whether it was in your earlier part working in industry, or now where you do a lot of teaching at universities. Tell me a bit about your professional journey.
I was an international relations major at the University of Pennsylvania and went on exchange to Spain and France during college. That, combined with the fact that my parents took me out of school when I was 8 years old to travel outside the US, instilled in me a lifelong interest in learning about other cultures. Some highlights of my professional journey include being a Vice President & General Manager of New Products at Pepsi-Cola, managing the Chocolate Beverages business at Nestle, worldwide responsibility for the Disney toy line at Mattel, and more recently teaching at top graduate business schools on 4 continents.
Starting off in international relations, how did you end up on the path of innovation?
I ended up working in new product development in one way or another for my entire business career, either on entirely new products or line extensions of existing brands! At some point I was asked to teach at IESE Business School in Barcelona, and it changed my life. As part of my preparation I read the Harvard Case about howFerran Adria, chef and partner at elBulli, named Restaurant No 1 in the World five times, innovates. This case study inspired me to write a book that would help companies of all types, all over the world, to innovate in a fun and more methodical way. The book, called Catalyzing Innovation, describes 60 different types of innovation, with inspiring cross-industry, cross-country visual examples and explanations of the strategies that enabled those products and services to grow and become more profitable.
A second thing the Ferran Adria case study has inspired me to do was to create the Inventours program. The program is all about getting executives tasked with innovation out of their countries and industries, and provide them with a unique opportunity to interact with the most creative and successful people I can find in different cities, in technology, product design, food, fashion, sustainability, social impact, architecture, so we can see how the mental and physical environments they create fosters innovation. The aim is for attendees to gain insights for improving their own product development processes. Participating executives come from a wide variety of functional background, industries and countries. Together they observe brilliant innovators and share their learning. It’s incredibly inspiring.
Can you share a few stories of innovation glory and innovation misery with us?
A few of my claims to fame are really simple innovations that didn’t cost much, but added value to the brands none-the-less. The learning is that innovation isn’t always complex, slow and costly. At Nestle, I worked on a brand called Beich Jumbo Taffy Caramels. The name was long and unmemorable. I came up with the name Laffy Taffy, and the over 30 years later, the brand is global and appears strong. We simply came up with a more clever and memorable name, added endearing characters to personify each flavour and added jokes to the wrappers to provide some free entertainment value, and people have loved it ever since.
Another example at Nestle was the Nesquik “Bunny Bottle”. At the time we had the same shape, generic bottle as Hershey Syrup, which was the market leader. We had tremendous equity in the beloved Nesquik Bunny and
weren’t using it. I had the idea to make a bottle in the shape of the bunny. We tried it as a temporary promotion and it was so popular, that it became the permanent packaging. I don’t find much misery with innovation because, even when you fail, you are learning. The trend these days, which I whole-heartedly support, is to set up lots of little tests along the path of product and service development, where you expect to fail and view each little failure as a learning and refinement opportunity. The biggest misery is when you don’t get feedback on your ideas along the way and by the time you launch, you’ve spent/lost a great deal of time, money and manpower.
You clearly had an amazing career in the corporate world, and it seems fun to go with it. What motivated you to get more into education?
I started teaching when I was invited to speak at the University of Maryland Business School. The chairman of the department liked my talk so much – perhaps because it reinforced what he was trying to teach – that he asked me if I had ever thought of becoming an adjunct professor. That started me on my path and I have now taught all over the world, including for Wharton, Columbia, NYU, Cornell, Berkeley, IESE, HEC Paris, Seoul National University and through IESE, to Graduate Business Schools throughout Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula.
From your deep insights into and understanding of innovation, what is your key advice to corporate innovators?
Four things come to mind:
- Hire for different skill sets and get feedback from “extreme/atypical users”.
Don’t only hire people with predictable, safe backgrounds. Prada hired the film director Wes Anderson to design the wonderful cafe at its new museum in Milan. IDEO hired a 91-year-old female engineer to develop products for seniors. Casa de Carlota in Barcelona has teams of professional designers, design students and people with Autism and Down Syndrome, the latter who are viewed to provide different but important creative insights, Smart Design interviewed people with handicaps and professional chefs to create it’s OXO Good Grips cooking utensil line.
- Empower/task the entire organisation to bring new ideas to the firm.
I believe every organisation can make itself much more innovative, quickly and inexpensively, by training the entire organisation to become the eyes and ears of the company, to always be on the lookout, and properly organising the new ideas so they can be found by brainstorming teams. If you’d like to find out more about my thinking on this, it was the subject of my TEDX Talk last year.
- Look to other industries and nature for analogies and inspiration.
Apple benchmarked jelly beans to figure out how to make their coloured glossy iMac computers, and referenced the mental image of infinity pools for iPad display screens coming close to the edge of the device. Engineers at Festo, the German manufacturing equipment producer, find inspiration for new machinery designs at the Stuttgart Zoo: one of their machine models its flexibility on an elephant’s trunk.
- Open up to more different ways of innovating.
Ways I elaborate on in my afore mentioned Catalyzing Innovation book include price point innovation, business model innovation, materials innovation, presentations & merchandising innovation, innovation around colour, size and shape, and many more.
Brilliant Michelle, many thanks for your time.