Lessons from Corporate Innovators

Terri Lonier: Advisor to Chief Innovation Officers

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I first met Terri when we were both collaborating with Dennis Boecker at Bosch / The Chicago Connectory (who will be on next week’s episode of Agile Giants).

Terri has a fascinating background both having advanced degrees in the visual arts (MFA) as well as PhD in Business History. She has leveraged that to have quite an impact from early in her career as an advisor to Apple (12 years) to recently advising Chief Innovation Officers and other executives.

I enjoyed our entire conversation, but particularly

  1. Her insights around opportunities and traps around companies setting up innovation labs (starting at 9:07)
  2. The Creative Canvas she developed (starting at 12:01)
  3. The importance of having a diverse set of thinkers involved in innovation (starting at 15:47)

You can learn more about Terri here: https://terrilonier.com/

You can download the Creative Canvas she developed here: http://creativecanvas.org/

I also hope you’ll consider subscribing to Agile Giants if you haven’t already on:

Full Transcript

Sean Ammirati: 00:08 Welcome to Agile Giants, lessons from corporate innovators. I’m Sean Ammirati, your host, co-founder and director of the Carnegie Mellon Corporate Startup Lab, and partner at the early-stage venture capital fund, Birchmere Ventures. Each week, I’m going to talk to guests who are experts at creating startups inside large corporations. I believe, fundamentally, a startup within a company is the same as one inside the proverbial garage, a group of entrepreneurs trying to make the world a better place using new ideas and inventions. However, I also believe some of the techniques and processes are just inherently different. This podcast is going to explore those similarities and differences.

Sean Ammirati: 00:56 On this week’s episode of Agile Giants, I talk to Terri Lonier. Terri is an advisor to a number of chief innovation officers, chief executive officers, and has a really fascinating background with an MFA plus a PhD in Business History that we’ll talk about a little on the episode, at the end. I got to know Terri through her work with Bosch, and actually specifically through next week’s guest on Agile Giants, Dennis Boecker. Terri has great perspective in terms of how to set up innovation labs inside large companies. She also has created a really fascinating tool called the Creative Canvas, which I’ll link to in the show notes, and would encourage you to check out. And finally, I think she brings a great perspective on the importance of diversity of thought when companies are setting up these innovation groups. I hope you enjoy this week’s episode.

Sean Ammirati: 01:51 Welcome to another episode of Agile Giants. I have Terri Lonier with me today. Terri is an advisor to chief innovation officers. I met her through a connection with Dennis Boecker, who actually will be the next episode on Agile Giants, and was very impressed by the stuff she was doing. We kind of lost track and just recently got reconnected, but excited to have her on the podcast this morning. Terri, thanks for joining me. Maybe a good way to start is just for you to frame out what you do for clients, and what’s drawing you to working on this area of the innovation space.

Terri Lonier: 02:26 Sure, Sean. Thanks for inviting me. I’m an advisor to chief innovation officers, CEOs, and other innovation executives, and I help them turn ideas into reality. Some call me a thought partner, or their back-pocket advisor, or their innovation champion. Essentially, I serve as a confidential external guide, helping them clarify their strategies and increase the speed of their processes and their growth. Many of my clients tell me that what’s valuable is that I ask the questions that no one else does, or questions that others don’t feel confident to ask. I also bring the perspective of having worked with leaders of some of the finest companies in the world, so I’m able to share best practices.

Terri Lonier: 03:15 Clients tell me that they’re able to move at light speed instead of stumbling around and figuring things out on their own. I work primarily as an independent consultant, but I’ve also developed a talent pool of professionals with specific expertise. For example, one person specializes in web design and illustration. There’s also a graphic designer. We have a UX specialist who was at Google for three years, and there’s also a Harvard-educated anthropologist who advises on customer experience as well as international negotiations and culture.

Terri Lonier: 03:51 Every client engagement’s a little bit different, and I put together a team based on that client’s specific needs. I enjoy my work very much, and I find it very fulfilling to play a part in bringing great ideas out into the world.

Sean Ammirati: 04:08 That’s awesome. I love that term, back-pocket advisor. I think that’s a great way to frame it out. I know, again, that you drive out these key questions as certainly essential. Sometimes the right question is as valuable as even the answer. That’s fantastic.

Sean Ammirati: 04:24 What got you into a role like this? I’m sure it’s something that a lot of people would think, “Man, I could use that help,” or, “Man, that could be a fun thing to do as a gig.” How did you actually get into doing this for CEOs, CIOs, that kind of thing?

Terri Lonier: 04:39 My background is a blend of three areas that I believe are increasingly important in today’s business world: the arts and design, entrepreneurship, and technology. I have a BFA and an MFA in the visual arts. My PhD is in business history, and I’ve been on the faculty of both business schools and art schools, along with founding several companies of my own, and investing in several entrepreneurial ventures. The technology part, I grew up with the personal computer industry in the 1980s and ’90s, so I have a deep understanding of where technology’s been, and insights into where it’s headed. I just really enjoy being a geek, Sean.

Terri Lonier: 05:22 There’s this unique combination of creativity, business, and technology that enables me to bring great value to executives as their trusted advisor. Along the way I’ve been a consultant to Apple for 12 years; I’ve worked with a lot of the leading high-tech companies, both in Silicon Valley as well as around the country. HP, Microsoft, Intuit, the list is on my website. It’s been great to be able to take those experiences and bring them to other companies as well. But most of all I think, Sean, I believe that there’s too many great ideas that are stuck inside of companies, and I want to help them get those ideas out into the world.

Sean Ammirati: 06:04 Yeah, I could not agree with you more on that, that there are just startups that need to be created in these companies. I know one of the ways that you do that is by helping companies create what are often called innovation labs, so you’ve a lot of experience doing that. That’s an area that a lot of people are increasingly interested in creating for their organizations. Maybe it’d be helpful for you to frame out two things about that. What do you think are some of the big opportunities around these labs? And then also, some of the big traps that you want to be careful of when building out an innovation lab.

Terri Lonier: 06:35 Sure. Let me give you two examples of some labs that I’ve been working with most recently. The first was, I was instrumental in helping Bosch, which is the global manufacturing company, develop their Connectory.

Sean Ammirati: 06:49 Right. And just a quick promo, that’s next week’s episode on Agile Giants, is Dennis talking about the Connectory, just for listeners. But keep going, sorry.

Terri Lonier: 06:57 Right. The Connectory is this innovation co-creation space in this community. Most people think of Bosch in terms of home appliances like dishwashers or power tools, but Bosch also has a very important presence in sensor technology and IoT, the Internet of Things. The name Connectory is this combination of connected and factory. It captures the exciting work that Bosch is doing in IoT innovation, and they’re bringing together startups and corporate projects, mentoring technology. Dennis will be able to talk in much more depth about that on your next session. The flagship Connectory’s here in Chicago in the Merchandise Mart. The Mart is recognized as the tech hub of Chicago. Bosch also has Connectory sites in Guadalajara, Mexico and Stuttgart, Germany.

Terri Lonier: 07:45 I’ve also been working with Oracle to develop their construction and engineering innovation lab, which is a simulated construction work site complete with a construction trailer on the site. We’ve created this realistic environment to showcase the value of new technologies and the data that they can yield in the construction industry. The construction industry, as you may know, is a very traditional, and a non-digital industry. On the innovation lab site, which is located just north of Chicago, we’ve created this immersive experience where visitors can interact with things like drones or autonomous vehicles, connected tools, sensors, AR/VR machine learning, and other developed technologies.

Terri Lonier: 08:34 Oracle has partnered with a collection of startups to showcase those technologies and how they can tie into Oracle Cloud software products to bring real value to construction and engineering projects. My work with these companies ranges from helping them develop or refine the initial concept and the focus, to making executive presentations to corporate boards, conducting stakeholder interviews to gain alignment, or teaching startup concepts and the entrepreneurial mindset to innovation teams.

Terri Lonier: 09:07 Back to your question about opportunities and traps, I think the opportunities affiliated with innovation labs are many and broad. They include things like creating a physical presence that facilitates this vibrant ecosystem, both inside the company as well as with strategic partners. Labs can also showcase to the world the company’s commitment to innovation, and they can more broadly impact the entire company culture. But just slapping the name innovation lab on a space, I don’t think is enough. I think you and I have experienced that in our own work. There has to be some deep thought and strategic focus about what the lab will contribute to the company, and that’s really different at every company. But they need to understand what they want that lab to do for them.

Sean Ammirati: 10:04 Sure. You’ve helped, I think, some of these companies figure that out, right? Do you have a process you take them through to kind of unlock that strategy behind it?

Terri Lonier: 10:15 Innovation’s really different in every company, so each client engagement is unique. To me, innovation’s always been this slippery term. It means so many different things to so many different individuals and companies. I’m currently working on a white paper on the Seven Dimensions of Innovation, and the unique perspective each company brings to innovation. For example, in some companies, innovation is very private and is focused primarily on R&D. It doesn’t leave anywhere outside the corporate walls. In others, innovation is very public, and it takes on this important marketing role. Some companies focus on incremental innovation, others on major breakthroughs. Some focus on product innovation, others on process.

Terri Lonier: 11:04 I work with companies on an individual basis and see where their alignment is in terms of their overall strategic goals of where an innovation lab will fit into that. But I think what’s most important, Sean, is for a company to be strategically intentional about what an innovation lab means to them, and what innovation in general means to them, and then execute from that focus.

Sean Ammirati: 11:29 That’s really interesting. We have, at CSL, five dimensions of differentiation, and then three prerequisites. I’m curious what the overlap between those is; we may need to talk offline on that. But that’s fascinating. Another thing that you’ve done that’s similar to something that I’ve been working on as well, is helping people create these canvases to help them think through different challenges. And specifically, you’ve created a canvas that I really like, called the Creative Canvas. I thought it might be interesting to talk a little bit about that, and how companies are taking advantage of that canvas.

Terri Lonier: 12:01 Sure. I developed the Creative Canvas after using the two main existing canvases, the Business Model Canvas, by Alex Osterwalder, and Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas, and using both those in the classroom and out in the field with clients. The Creative Canvas is different in that it’s an exploration and planning tool for creative projects. In using the other canvases, I realized that many folks are intimidated by business terminology; they’re not really from the business world. They also might be working on projects that don’t have traditional ROI metrics. The Creative Canvas springs from the foundation of the other canvases, and it makes it more accessible to a wider range of projects. It also adds some important elements, such as next action steps and accountability partners, so that those using the canvas know how to turn their ideas into reality.

Terri Lonier: 13:04 What I’ve experienced, Sean, is that many people will fill out a canvas, and they’ll say, “Okay, the canvas is done,” but they don’t know what to do to actually take that action forward, so I added those steps to the Creative Canvas. I wrote a tutorial on how to use the Creative Canvas on the back of the sheet, and it’s available to download at creativecanvas.org at no charge. It’s been exciting to see the Creative Canvas, how it’s been used across a wide spectrum of projects and a whole range of disciplines. So if your listeners want to download it at creativecanvas.org, I’d love to hear how they’re using it in their own work.

Sean Ammirati: 13:41 Yeah, we’ll make sure to include a link to that in the show notes. That’s awesome. I definitely would encourage people to try it; it’s very, very well done. Let’s talk about, maybe level up from that question a little bit and just talk more generally. What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for teams now trying to do innovation?

Terri Lonier: 13:58 Teams. I’d say there’s probably three that I commonly see. One is that in organizations where innovation is not a strategic priority, the innovation project is often in addition to a full-time job. So while the interest and enthusiasm is likely there, it’s difficult to make time to achieve results, because it’s always that add-on, and it never gets the focus it deserves.

Terri Lonier: 14:27 Another big challenge I see is that innovation teams mimic startups in so many ways. I’m sure you’ve experienced that as well. All too often, just like startups, they fall in love with a solution rather than spending time finding out whether there’s a real problem that needs to be solved. Too often, the enthusiasm lies in the new solution and trying to force-fit it to a market, and that’s a really dangerous path to go down. Usually does not end well.

Sean Ammirati: 14:56 Yeah, absolutely.

Terri Lonier: 14:58 The third challenge is innovation initiatives that don’t have high-level executive buy-in. An innovation project is difficult, and it needs high-level champions, ideally from the CEO on down. If that’s not there, it can be difficult or impossible to get the results and the full value from the effort. Those are the three big challenges I think I would say, is that it’s not a strategic priority, so it’s this add-on. The mimicking of the startups in that they fall in love with the solution. And the third is that there isn’t the high-level champions.

Sean Ammirati: 15:35 Yeah, that’s great. Let’s talk about who to get on those teams, as well. When you talk to a chief innovation officer or somebody, CEO trying to drive this change, who should they recruit to put on these innovation teams?

Terri Lonier: 15:47 I would advise a diversity of thinkers. A diversity of thinkers, personalities, and backgrounds. That mix is very powerful. It really allows the discovery phase to blossom. For example, coders or engineers can assess what’s possible. If there’s a marketing person on the team, they can advise on product market fit, particularly if it’s building on an existing brand identity. A finance person could bring in a P&L perspective. A sales professional can bring in real-life feedback from the field. These are the combinations that I have seen to have been really effective. I’m also, I have to say, always a fan of having someone with an art or a design background on an innovation team, because they always ask the questions that no one else ever thinks about.

Terri Lonier: 16:40 While the actual product development might be done by, say, a specific engineering team, I’ve really seen the power of bringing different perspectives together. For some companies, those other people may not be full-time members of a CIO’s team, but if they can have those interactions with the other areas of an organization, I think they’re really crucial to the overall success of an innovation project or an innovation initiative.

Sean Ammirati: 17:05 That’s great. It’s really this diversity of thinking is just so key. I hadn’t really thought about an art background as a way to find out. But I would imagine, I’m just thinking about some of the folks, besides yourself, who have some experience with MFA programs, and it is interesting.

Sean Ammirati: 17:23 This has been great so far. Let’s come back to this concept of innovation labs. You’ve don’t a couple of these. You mentioned earlier the Oracle one, the Bosch one. When you think about a successful innovation lab, if you could only point to one ingredient that’s key for its success, what would you recommend making sure is included?

Terri Lonier: 17:42 Hands-down, I’d say it’s clarity. Being able to answer, “Why are we doing this, what do we hope to achieve, and how will we know when we’ve achieved it?” I’ve seen far too much innovation theater, as it’s been called, the play-acting of innovation, which involves, usually, a lot of brainstorming sessions, lots of Post-It notes, whiteboard scribbles. But little comes out of it after the enthusiasm dies down, because they haven’t answered and gotten clear on why they’re doing it, what they hope to achieve, and how they’re going to measure when they get there. I’m just much more of a strategic and a pragmatic person, Sean. I want to see what a company wants to achieve, and then help them carefully craft a plan and a process to reach that target. So hands-down, it’s clarity.

Sean Ammirati: 18:35 Yeah, that’s awesome. What’s the most important role for a Chief Innovation Officer to play in that clarity that they’re driving? How can they be part of that?

Terri Lonier: 18:45 In terms of a role, I think it’s probably a multi-dimensional role. I think a CIO has to be a liaison, an advocate, in some ways a protector of the team. This person needs to build bridges among internal and external constituents and stakeholders. As we both know, it’s really a tough and and demanding role. The most successful chief innovation officers I’ve seen are those that are able to be modest about their own personal achievements and to showcase all those around them. That approach builds an incredibly strong momentum because you’ve developed a broad group of champions that can then support and communicate the work across the entire company. I think you’ll see that in your discussion with Dennis next time.

Sean Ammirati: 19:35 Yeah, for sure. I think Dennis is interesting because he’s that, and he’s also such a lifelong learner. He’s just really creative, really curious. There are so many people, I think, who could’ve gotten to his level of success and stopped learning, but he’s continued to push himself and pull the right people around him, like yourself, like the team at 1871. He’s done a great job doing that. I think he’s also done a good job on the clarity side, for what it’s worth. A lot of people in Bosch mean different things when they say innovation. Dennis’ definition has remained remarkably consistent with this outside-in, inside-out framework that he brings to it. Yeah, it’ll be a great conversation next week as well.

Sean Ammirati: 20:37 Before I ask you the last question, let me ask you, throw one wildcard at you. What is a business history PhD? That sounds awesome.

Terri Lonier: 20:46 I did my business history degree at New York University, where I was a MacCracken Fellow. My dissertation looked at the origins and the history of branding, and about how three nondescript commodity products in the late 1800s, early 1900s, essentially completely revolutionized the food industry and branding, which have now turned into billion-dollar brands. I looked at oats, which at the time were horse feed, sugar water, and cottonseed oil, which was a byproduct of the cotton ginning process, which was gumming up all of the equipment.

Terri Lonier: 21:31 Oats turned into Quaker Oats; sugar water, of course, was Coca-Cola; the cottonseed oil turned into Crisco. At this time, these were literally worthless commodities that entrepreneurs took and, through vision and through the power of branding, transformed them into what continue to be very major brands, and continue to influence the way that we currently market food, and our daily experience in the grocery stores. It was exciting to take a look at that work and to understand the impact that those early entrepreneurs could have on the development of our American economy and global capitalism in many ways.

Sean Ammirati: 22:18 Yeah. That’s amazing. I frankly would love to talk more about that, but we’re running out of time. So with that background now, you finish your PhD in that, and then you go on to have this really remarkable career both in academia and in industry. My last question to you is, I want to go back to maybe somebody who’s listening to this podcast today and finishing up their PhD in that program or some other program, and thinking, “Man, I hope to have the same type of career that Terri has had.” What advice would you give her or him?

Terri Lonier: 22:54 That one piece of advice? I would say, particularly when I’m coaching both emerging and established professionals, particularly those who are looking for a first job or a new job, I advise them to think about the job after the next one. Ask yourself, where do you want to be two jobs down the road, and how will this next job prepare you for that? For example, if you’re just starting out in your professional career, if you want to develop a broad base of skills, I advise, consider working at a smaller company. You’re going to do a wide range of tasks; you’re going to wear a lot of hats.

Terri Lonier: 23:33 But if instead you have a pretty good idea of the industry you want to go into, I suggest looking at larger companies within that industry, say with several hundred people at the company, because the network that you’re going to develop with all the people at that company are going to help you find the next position down the road. But the goal is the same: recognize that each job is one link in a larger career, and you’re building your skillset and your network along the way.

Sean Ammirati: 24:04 Awesome advice. Terri, this has been amazing. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat. It does really feed in nicely to next week’s conversation with Dennis, as well. So thanks for the time, and I hope you [inaudible 00:24:16] the rest of your day.

Terri Lonier: 24:17 Thanks, Sean. It’s been great to be with you.

Sean Ammirati: 24:26 I hope you enjoyed this episode of Agile Giants. If so, consider sharing it with a friend. And if you think it’s worth five stars, which I hope you do, please go to iTunes and rate us, so that others can find this content as well.

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