447: What Innovators Do Differently with Hal Gregersen

By June 5, 2019Podcasts

 

 

Hal Gregersen reveals the key skills of disruptive innovators–and how you can get them too.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The core five skills required for innovation
  2. The questions disruptive innovators ask
  3. How to network for new idea

About Hal

Hal Gregersen is the Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management where he pursues his vocation of executive teaching, coaching, and research by exploring how leaders in business, government, and society discover provocative new ideas, develop the human and organizational capacity to realize those ideas, and deliver positive, powerful results.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Hal Gregersen Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Hal, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Hal Gregersen
Delighted to be with you, Pete, once again.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m thrilled to have you again. And so, last episode was 385 for folk who didn’t hear back in January, and we talked about questions, and it was so fun. But I’d love to hear, in the interim period, what are some fascinating questions that you’ve encountered in these months that have passed?

Hal Gregersen
Well, one that I bumped into came right after a speech at South by Southwest. I had the chance to get in the car and drive north of Austin, Texas to Waco, Texas and did some work with the folks at Magnolia, Chip and Joanna Gaines and their senior people there. And at the end of some conversations about where they’ve been and where they’re going, we actually explored, quite deeply, what kinds of questions really matter in this new launching point at Magnolia.

And one of the questions that crossed my mind, that we talked about briefly, was, “What is truth in a healthy relationship?” And I realized that when a relationship, be it at work or even at home, is unhealthy, truth takes on a completely different element or definition in unhealthy versus healthy relationships. And I honestly don’t have the perfect or great answer to that question. I’m exploring it. But it was one that’s caused me to think twice about the kinds of things I do at work and at home.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that reminds of the gospels with, I think, it’s Pilate who asked, “What is truth?” It’s like, “What a question, man. That’s tricky.”

Hal Gregersen
Well, I mean, whatever it is, truth, lie, but the notion is in a very unhealthy relationship, truth gets defined by a single person. So, think of an abusive boss or even an abusive partner or spouse. In those instances, the world revolves around that individual, and truth gets singularly defined by them. And their version of truth is very untruthful. It’s just full of shades of grey and ugliness. But in a healthy, equal sort of context relationship, be it, again, at work or at home, truth is a different thing, and it’s consensual, and we’re creating it, and it’s something beautiful versus the opposite.

So, again, it was an amazing conversation with Chip and Joanna Gaines and some of their senior people around some of the key issues, and they just raised some really important questions. And they care deeply about creating spaces there, in our homes especially, where truth can thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, we were just breaking the ice and then you’ve got some…

Hal Gregersen
We love to break deep ice. We love to break deep ice, right, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, I appreciate it. I’ll be chewing on it for sure. And I want to chat with you, in particular, right around now because you’ve got another book coming out here, The Innovator’s DNA. What’s the big idea here?

Hal Gregersen
Well, the big idea is this book is a revised version of one that came out in 2011, and basically, we’ve updated it. But here’s the genesis of the book The Innovator’s DNA. Jeff Dyer, a good colleague, and I were talking about the innovation skills of disruptive innovators, and we then crossed paths with Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School who coined the term “disruptive innovation.”

And we asked Clay, in a very direct way, “You made up, you created this concept of disruptive innovation arguably,” and the question we asked him was, “How do people like Jeff Bezos at Amazon, or Peter Thiel at PayPal, Niklas Zennstrom at Skype, this again was 15 years ago, how do those people get the ideas that actually disrupt entire industries?”

And Clay had his big, six-foot, seven-foot hands, scratched his head and thought, “I don’t know. I mean, we collectively concluded, ‘Let’s figure it out.’” And so, we interviewed a hundred plus of these people from all over the world, Diane Greene who founded VMware, Fadi Ghandour who founded a company in the Middle East called Aramex, and basically had the chance to ask them, “What were you doing when you caught the initial idea that led to a very disruptive organization that changed the world in the face of it?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s an exciting question, and I’ve enjoyed perusing your Appendix A, Sample of Innovators Interviewed, and it’s an impressive lineup there. So, what were they doing? Were they all showering? What were they up to?

Hal Gregersen
Well, what you do is you watch them go about their everyday work, and they spend 30% of their time doing something that other leaders don’t, even CEOs and founders. And here’s what they do. Number one, they wake up in the morning with a problem or a challenge to be solved or found. They are problem finders and solvers. That’s how they approach the world.

And so, they have that mindset. And once they get into that sort of focus, it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to now try to figure something out,” and they do it with five very specific skills. They ask very challenging, status quo challenging questions, frequently and often. They observe the world like anthropologists. They’re carefully watching and paying attention. They network and talk to people who are the polar opposites of them, very different, in order to get new insights and spark new insights. They experiment and try things that other people aren’t willing to try, small, fast, cheap experiments.

And when they behaviorally do those things – questioning, observing, networking for new ideas, and experimenting – it actually gives them the ability to connect the unconnected, to think associatively, to put together ideas that other people couldn’t. Einstein called it “combinatorial play.” And imagine someone actively solving a problem, getting up, getting out, getting into the world, asking provocative questions, making deep observations, talking to creative people, experiment and trying things, and taking the time to associatively think and put stuff together that other people don’t.

Imagine that kind of active problem-solving process, getting primary information, primary data, versus other leaders, or people even in organizations, sitting in their office space being tasked with giving a creative new idea, and that’s basically all they do. They think.

Pete Mockaitis
“Go get an idea.”

Hal Gregersen
They think. They sit there and think with each other, and they talk in their office spaces, and they look at Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint files. And at the end of the day, if you’re betting your retirement income on the ideas that come out of those pretty stilled land, office space conversations versus this very active problem-solving and finding approach, of getting up, getting out, observing, networking, experimenting, questioning, and associatively thinking, you know, where would you put your retirement funds? And, basically, they go towards the people who are using these discovery skills to find and solve problems. Because when we use these skills that way, we actually reduce the probability of failure with our brand-new idea. It makes it more likely to happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it also sounds like a whole lot more fun.

Hal Gregersen
Oh, totally. Absolutely. Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Well, there’s so much good stuff in there, so I want to maybe start with the problem finding and solving. So, you say they spend 30% of their time doing stuff that others don’t, and that is they wake up, these innovators, and they just want to find a problem or solve a problem. It’s just like it sounds like in the first minutes of arising.

And so, those problems, are they kind of like all over the place in terms of, “Oh, this is an interesting thing I want to tinker with”? Or are they kind of pretty focused in terms of in their kind of functional or industry zones?

Hal Gregersen
They’re deeply focused within their own. They’re deeply focused within a space but they’re open to other surprises. And this is where, if you go to Jeff Bezos at Amazon, it’s like, here’s this guy working in financing, notices out of the corner of his eye, 25 years ago, that the internet was explosive growth rates of 1200% to 1500% per year, and he’s like, “What’s going on over there?” And that’s the point at which he then becomes very curious and very actively using these discovery skills to collect new data, and all of that work relentlessly trying to figure out, “What’s going on with this internet thing?” leads him to sell books on the internet which other people weren’t doing.

And so, the notion is we actually do care about something, as Richard Branson said, enough to do something about it. I remember this story of an animator at PIXAR talking about Steve Jobs getting in the elevator, 20 plus years ago, and surprising this young animator with a whole series of questions, again, two or three decades ago, around, “What kind of music do you listen to? And what are you paying attention to with your music? And where do you listen to your music? And how do you store your music?”

And he’s asking him all these questions about his music in the elevator, and Steve Jobs was trying to figure out the iPod. And it didn’t matter where he was, even if he was in an elevator with a stranger, he was trying to figure out better data to find and solve this issue around the iPod. And so, they care deeply about an issue.

And, frankly, I bet more than half of the leaders I interact with around the world really don’t care about the work they’re doing. They don’t care deeply about the problems and challenges they can find and solve in their own space. That’s the starting point to use these discovery skills to build something different.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it feels kind of like an obsession. It’s like, “I’m going to talk to anybody I bump into about this thing because it’s on my mind a lot.”

Hal Gregersen
And that’s how it works. And so, whether it’s David Neeleman who founded JetBlue in the U.S. a while back, and Azul Airlines in Brazil, and now he’s founding a new airline in the U.S. called Moxy, but Neeleman’s constantly exploring and trying to source new information with these discovery skills to be able to solve problems and build things other people don’t build.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And this reminds of the times I’ve certainly been in the throes of a question, and I just want to investigate. And I’ve often thought, “Boy, if I were to become a detective in law enforcement, I might become a terrible husband,” because it would just play in these, like, “Oh, I’m so close. How does this all fit together?”

Hal Gregersen
Yeah, exactly. But that’s how it works, Pete. That’s how it works.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so I imagine that, well, some have it, some have not found out ways to, I don’t know if the word is “control” or “harness” or “tame the wild stallions of obsessive innovative thought.”

Hal Gregersen
These hundred plus innovators, disruptive innovators, we interviewed for The Innovator’s DNA book, I don’t think they did shut it off, you know. They are relentless, obsessive problem finders and solvers. And so, I mentioned David Neeleman. Here’s this guy who grew up, he’s roughly my age, late 50s or early 60s, and this is 40 years ago. He bumps into a woman named June Morris, and they found Morris Air, and then that gets sold off to Southwest Airlines. And then David Neeleman gets fired from Southwest by Herb Kelleher because he’s too innovative, and he has a five-year non-compete agreement. He comes back and he founds JetBlue Airlines, and is incredibly successful by all metrics and standards.

Then he goes back to where he was born, in Brazil, to found Azul Airlines on a JetBlue model slightly modified for the Brazilian markets. And so, David, whenever he’s operating in the world, he’s asking these catalytic questions. And the first starting point becomes, “What’s going on here?” And so, David’s constantly asking of the world around him, “What’s working here? What’s not working and why?” And those are simple to ask but it requires huge trust to be able to get answers to them.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say trust, what do you mean?

Hal Gregersen
You know, if I walked outside of my office right now and asked the staff around me, “What’s working? What’s not and why?” They would be maybe looking at me, like, “Can I trust you with the real answers? This is working and that’s not.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s on their point of view.

Hal Gregersen
Exactly. So, it takes a deep commitment that I’m not just asking these questions to be clever or get a career advancement, I’m asking to make this place better off for us and for the people we’re serving. And that’s how David operates in the world. And so, you’ve got these relentless set of questions about the way things are, the status quo, and what’s working and what’s not and why, to lead him then to like, “Well, why don’t we try this? And how might we do that? And what if we try this?” These are very prescriptive world-changing questions.

So, his what-if question around, “What if we stopped having paper tickets? And what if we gave people codes over the phone to get on our planes at Morris Airlines?” ultimately led him, he actually was the inventor of electronic ticketing. And then when he goes down in Brazil, their issues of, “Where are we going to fly out of? What airport are we going to get some landing rights to?”

There were two major airlines in Brazil who’ve locked up all the major airports near Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In Sao Paulo, there was an airport an hour and a half away, and they actually got some landing rights there, ended up getting it all set up. And a few months before the launch of Azul Airlines in Sao Paulo, they realized the taxi ride from downtown Sao Paulo to the airport, on average, costs more than the ticket of the airplane. It was just too far away and too expensive.

And so, David’s like, “Well, why don’t we just build a huge bus system to transport thousands of people every day?” The senior leaders were like, “We’re not in the bus business, David.” And David’s response was, “Well, why not?” And he was persistent about it. And now they have these amazingly clean, Wi-Fi-equipped, very wonderful rides in downtown Sao Paulo to the airport.

Conversely, in Rio de Janeiro, they again couldn’t get landing rights at the main airport, but there was this airport off the Copacabana Beach in right down downtown Rio de Janeiro. There was a military airport that was not being used. And David and his team went to the government and asked them about it, and their answer was, “No, you can’t.” David’s response was, “Well, why not?” And he was completely persistent about this “Why not?” to the point that that’s where they finally started the Azul Airlines, was at that, “We’re not going to have it here” airport off the coast.

So, yeah, it’s just the way he operates and others like him. They’re constantly asking these questions of descriptively what’s working, what’s not and why, that leads them very practically to, “Well, how might we do this differently? And what if we try that and why not this?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So, boy, there’s so much there. I think maybe we talk about these people. I want to maybe touch upon some of the research in the book about nature versus nurture, if anyone is saying, “Oh, yeah, but that’s them and not me.” What do you have to say to that?

Hal Gregersen
Well, my first response would be, if I could see the hands of everybody listening to this podcast right now, and ask them, “How many of you define yourself as innovators?” If the group out there was like any group of leaders I asked that question of in the world, about at most 50% of the hands go up. And then I’ll ask them, “Well, do you solve problems?” And everybody’s hand goes up. And now I’ve got them cornered to that plan, it’s like, “Well, if you’ve got a problem you know the solution, and you have to create a solution, what do you have to do? Well, you’re an innovator, right?” And they’re like, “Oh, got me. You’re right.”

And so, the issue is some of challenge of this nature versus nurture and “Am I innovative or not? Am I creative or not?” it all gets bundled up into these weird words of innovation versus “Do I just solve problems creatively?” The second part is, you know, truthfully, part of our discovery innovation skills are actually nature.

In fact, five systematic studies of genetically identical twins who, they’re born, but for tragic reasons they get separated at birth, and they grow up in different families and neighborhoods and context and schools, then they test them as adults. And about one-third of our ability to use these innovation skills regularly, of questioning, observing everything, experimenting and associational thinking, one-third of that is actually a bit genetic.

So, I’m very tactile. I touch and explore things with my hands. In the world, I got kicked out of school five times by the time I was in junior high school because I was always creating problems. But the issue is every one of those touchpoints, because I got more dopamine formed in my brain, caused me to get data that somebody is not touching doesn’t get. And all those datapoints of all those touches allows me to connect and see things other people don’t see. So, one-third of it is arguably genetic.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, that’s the majority.

Hal Gregersen
No, no, no, it’s one-third. The other two-thirds is pure nurture. It’s the families. It’s the schools. It’s the places we work. And all we have to do, Pete, is think of four-year olds around the world, and if they’ve grown up in reasonable homes and places, I mean, if it’s really extreme abuse, it’s a different story. But most four-year olds, what do they do? They ask a gazillion questions. They’re watching you like hawks and eagles. They are talking to just about anybody. They’ll try just about anything and they are exceptional at connecting the unconnected, and surprising you with ideas you never thought of.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Certainly.

Hal Gregersen
So, a 100% of us were once four-year olds, Pete. We had these skills. We had these creative problem-solving skills. But, unfortunately, sometimes homes and schools and even work can crush them. And so, given that two-thirds of the discovery creative innovation skills is just the world around us, is nurture, if we want to get better at it, it’s a choice. We just have to choose to use these skills to solve our problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s encouraging as compared to, say, IQ. It seems like we got a whole lot more room to grow and expand our creative skills than maybe our IQ.

Hal Gregersen
Oh, absolutely. And so, the data around this are, following what you just said, we are far more capable of making improvements around our creativity and discovery skills than we are around this thing we call IQ. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, then, let’s talk about how to do it. So, we talked about questioning and some detail last time and it was a blast. I recommend Episode 385, everybody. But anything else you want to add about questioning or should we kind of move into observing?

Hal Gregersen
No, I think questioning is a starting point. It’s like, number one, care about a problem enough to do something about it. Number two, start asking more questions. And if you have no other time than this, one way to ask better questions is what I call a question burst. Whatever your issue is, set a timer for four minutes, don’t answer any of the questions, don’t explain why you’re asking them to yourself or to other people, and in four fast minutes, generate as many possible questions as you can about the issue.

And simply doing that, if nothing else, will help any of us ask better questions to start down the path of getting better answers. And once we define two or three of those questions that really count, what we know from the data from “The Innovator’s DNA” assessment where we’ve collected data from self and 360 assessments of leaders from all over the world, all kinds of industries, 20,000 of them, we basically know that if we only asked questions, there’s no relationship with that in getting valuable new ideas, new businesses, new products and services and new process.

So, all we do is ask questions. We’re not going to go anywhere. It’s like spinning wheels. But if we ask questions and actively get up, get out into the world, and either observe like anthropologists, network for new ideas, or experiment and just try things, then there’s an interaction effect they call in regression analysis where, in fact, questioning and observing does deliver valuable new ideas. Questioning and networking does deliver valuable new ideas. Questioning and experimenting it does that.

So, it’s the combination of asking with doing that makes the big difference. And I’m happy to share an example too if you’re interested.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please do. Yes.

Hal Gregersen
So, you may have never heard of Rod Drury? Does that ring a bell?

Pete Mockaitis
I think it was the Drury Lane?

Hal Gregersen
No, that’s good. That’s really good. On Drury Lane in London. That would even work for the Gingerbread Man. No, not that Rod Drury. So, I had never heard of Rod Drury, and one of the things we did related to “The Innovator’s DNA” book is we worked with Credit Suisse, we built this innovation premium metric where we’re able to, with the share price of a company, a publicly-held company, determine if investors believed that this company is going to do valuable, new, and different things in the future.

And so, part of the share price of a stock is related to things we’re currently doing, and for some companies, investors pay a premium because they say, “Look, you’re going to be doing something different, I think, in the future. I’ll pay you more than you deserve today.” So, this list we do every year for the last several years with Forbes, in collaboration with Forbes. And a few years ago, this company called Xero jumped onto the list. It’s one of the most innovative in the world. We’re like, “What’s that company?” In fact, it was near the top.

And when we looked at it, we discovered that Rod Drury founded this company that basically solved the exact same kind of software to small businesses and individuals that Intuit sells with QuickBooks and Quicken. And we called Rod Drury and we asked him, “How did you get the idea to build this company that outside of the U.S. is taking Intuit on head to head?” And his answer? He said, “I, for five years or more, watched and read everything that Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, did.” Now, that’s interesting.

And he said he literally would go to conferences to hear Scott and to watch how he operated as a leader. And here’s what he discovered. Scott Cook founded Intuit on his deep questioning and observational skills. He can really see things other people that don’t see. And so, Rod Drury noticed that. And what does Rod do? Well, he founded one software company, and then he’s like, “I think we could do something in this personal and financial and small business software.”

And so, Rod and his team went to 200 small businesses with questions swirling in their head about how to make small business software, financial software better for them. They went into 200 plus small businesses, and spent three to four hours in each of them, simply watching how they went about their day, and then talking to them about what they noticed and observed. That’s a 600-hour commitment by a founder. It’s not like delegating this innovation work to somebody else, it’s doing it yourself, which is what these innovators do.

So, what Rod discovered was many things. One, for example, was he watched these people come up, open their small business at the beginning of the day, get their cup of coffee or hot chocolate, go back to their computer two or three minutes later, and all of them were looking on the computer at basically the same information. So, pretend, Pete, you’re a small business owner, and you’re starting your new day, and you’re looking on your computer for some key information. What do you think that most important data that was that they were looking for?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, how much cash do I have in the bank right now? And how much cash do I need?

Hal Gregersen
Bingo! Bingo! Bingo! That’s exactly it. They were looking at their bank balances to figure out cashflow, “Do we have enough money to operate today?” And what they basically did was they took that observation, which at that point bank statements weren’t linked to this personal financial or small business financial software. They took that datapoint and a hundred or a thousand others to build a user interface, an introductory report when you log on, that’s incredibly intuitive and incredibly simple, and delivering the data you need to work today with your small business.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it must feel cool. What’s interesting about this synergy is questioning plus observing is because it might not occur to you to ask the question, “What is the first thing that you open up and look at in your financial software?” But once you do some observing, you’re like, “Huh, this is an interesting little pattern. I’m going to go ahead and kind of validate or vet by sending a survey to a bunch of people. And, say, hey, sure enough, everybody does this.”

Hal Gregersen
Oh, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I can see how they go back and forth there.

Hal Gregersen
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we talked about the questioning and the observing. So, then how do we think about networking and experimenting?

Hal Gregersen
Well, the networking piece to think through is, okay, they’re not networking to get a career advancement. It’s not networking to get resources. That’s a different kind of networking. This is a networking to expressly spark new ideas. And so, whatever your challenge is, whatever you’re trying to figure out, it’s like, “Okay, who are the top 10 go-to people that, if I talked with them, they would help me get a new idea, a new angle on this issue, possibly asking the questions I’m not caring about?”

And, in this instance, when we’re trying to get new friends, we usually try to find people who are like us. When we’re trying to get new ideas, the whole point is “People who are not like me.” That’s the point. They have a different technical background, they work for different organization, a different industry, they’re a different gender, a different generation, by age, different nationality, a different political group, a different socio-economic group. They’re different somehow, someway. They’ve lived in a different space and world enough that they can give me an angle I’ve never considered before.

And so, Marc Benioff, whom we first interviewed for The Innovator’s DNA book, and I re-interviewed for the Questions Are the Answer book that you and I talked about recently, but Marc, at the very core, is incredibly inquisitive and he excels at networking for new ideas. He calls them listening tours. He gets up, he gets out. When he’s got an issue, sometimes his listening tours last three months, sometimes one month.

He literally goes and embeds himself in a space in order to figure out what’s going on by talking to rich people, poor people, business leaders, government leaders, religious leaders, small businesses, large businesses, non-businesses, literally dozens, hundreds of conversations, collecting information, getting surprised in order to formulate an idea that otherwise he wouldn’t.

So, one of their ideas is this thing called Chatter, which is kind of this integration of Facebook and Twitter internally to facilitate conversations and get work flowing better on their systems. That idea came from a regular dinner that Marc holds with young leaders out in Silicon Valley to get new ideas, and that’s where that spark came from.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then so you’re networking for new ideas, and one of the guidelines is you want to talk to folks who are unlike yourself. But it sounds like they can be from any industry, or functional area, or geography, or socio-economic background. So, what am I kind of looking for when I’m choosing who to get in the room?

Hal Gregersen
Well, often it’s somebody who’s dealt with a problem similar to the one we’re dealing with. And so, if I’m a radiologist working in CAT MRI scanning machine, and I’m having trouble getting kids to settle down and be quiet and be comfortable in this space, I might go talk to dentists who deal with some of the same challenges, and ask them, “How do you deal with this issue? How do you approach it?” And they might get some incredibly new ideas otherwise they wouldn’t get.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Now, I mean, there’s a historical example that’s absolutely fun around this. Have you ever heard of Kutol Wall Cleaner?

Pete Mockaitis
No, I haven’t.

Hal Gregersen
So, back in the 1940s, you and I, if we lived in a home, we probably had wallpaper on the wall. It was paper and we had a coal-burning stove, and the coal put out soot. By the end of the year, the spring, new spring, our walls will be black, not white, because the soot is all over the walls. So, Kutol Wall Cleaner was this putty-like substance that was rolled up and down the wallpaper, because you couldn’t wash it, in order to clean that black soot off, and you’d buy gallons of it to clean your walls off in the spring after a long cold winter.

And after World War II, these coal-burning stoves, they were no longer going to be used because electric and gas-burning stoves were replacing them, so there’s no more market for Kutol Wall Cleaner. So, imagine being the president of that company. It’s the market-leading wall-cleaning putty company on planet Earth, and your market now is disappearing because there’s no more need for it. And the founder actually passed away accidentally, tragically in an airplane accident, so his son took over in the middle of this downward transition, and then the son got cancer, so then they’re really in difficult straits.

And the family is sitting around the table trying to figure out, “What do we do next? The machines aren’t even running. We’re not going to have a spring this year. What are we going to do?” And at the dinner table is a daughter-in law of one of the founders who’s a school teacher, and she raised the problem at school, “You know, it’s cool when the kids do their art stuff. If they used sculpting clay, it stains their clothes with all the color, and if they used the stuff you make with flour, salt and water, it just doesn’t work as well.”

So, somebody at the dinner table says, “Why don’t you take a can of Kutol Wall Cleaner to school tomorrow and see if it works for your sculpting class.” They did. It was incredibly successful. That became Play-Doh.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. Same stuff.

Hal Gregersen
Same stuff. So, all they did, the only thing they did was they changed the label on the can, removed the borax cleanser, put in almond scent. They sold the same stuff in the same can within the same factory. It used to be 37-cent wall cleaner, and it was a $1.50 one for the Play-Doh. And they sort of hit a wall with trying to market it.

Pete Mockaitis
The wall.

Hal Gregersen
There was this kid show called “Captain Kangaroo” like “Sesame Street” but way, way back. And they went to “Captain Kangaroo” and said, “Would you put this Play-Doh stuff on your show so we can sell more of it?” And said, “Here’s how much it would cost.” And they’re like, “We’re just barely digging out of a real hole here. What else can we do?” Captain Kangaroo says, “You give me 5% of your profits in the future and I will put it on my show three or four times a week.” He did and now it’s billions of cans later, you know, incredibly successful.

Pete Mockaitis
Captain Kangaroo grew the…

Hal Gregersen
Yes, sure. So, the point here, Pete, is Play-Doh never would have happened if people wouldn’t have been sitting at a table and talking across industries, education and wall cleaning, in order to solve a problem. And then having an experiment, “Just try some at school tomorrow. Small, fast and cheap to make it work.” And it did.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Well, Hal, tell me, if you’re thinking from the perspective of a typical professional as opposed to a CEO or head of a product, what are some of the top things you’d recommend we do to get better at some of these skills right away?

Hal Gregersen
Pay deep careful attention to the world around you and find an opportunity or a problem or a challenge related to your employees or to your customers that if you did something about it, it would make their world better. That’s the first step. You have to care about something that you want to do something about it. Once you have it identified, then it’s actively, use these discovery skills to find a solution.

And so, just today I was talking with a leader in my office here today who has a legal training and is trying to figure out the new legal tech integration with basically it’s technology, AI, machine learning, deep learning, what’s the impact going to be in the legal field. And I said, “Well, on one hand you can just sit in your office and think it, or you could use these skills and do something about it.”

So, starting point A, build your questioning muscle, your questioning skill by doing that question exercise about your challenge. Take four minutes, generate as many questions as you can, you’ll find some you didn’t discover before, and pick one or two that really matter. Starting point, ask a different question.

Then, I want you to get up, get out, get into the world. So, in this case, it was for this lawyer, “Go and observe the people who are actively using artificial intelligence in their legal work, watch them do their work. Watch people who are not doing their work. Learn about how both of their worlds operate.” Then I said, “Go talk to other people who are integrating AI into their world, biotech, fintech. Have conversations with them and even beyond that world, maybe in the world of transition and change due to technology.”

Then I said, “Try a few small, fast, cheap experiments based upon what you’re learning to see if it might work. And intentionally, once a week, step back with all this data you’re getting, observing, networking, and experimenting, and take a moment to think to yourself, ‘Is there anything I’m learning new, different, surprising from observing, networking, experimenting, anything new and different, surprising, that would be relevant to this problem I’m trying to solve?’”

If we don’t take the moment to make those connections, they don’t get made. And in the business life, we often miss that simple but important element.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, Hal, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about your latest favorite things?

Hal Gregersen
Whether you are leading yourself or leading your team or leading an entire organization, everybody is looking at how you find and solve problems. And all I know is if you walk into the most innovative companies in the world, these are not passive problem finders and solvers. The senior leaders, the executives who innovate and disrupt, they actively use these five discovery skills over and over and over to do their work. And that’s what makes them so good.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Hal Gregersen
Favorite quote. You ask me difficult things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m honored to hear that from you.

Hal Gregersen
No, there was one I ran across. I was playing with two of our grandchildren at the beach, treasure hunting actually, and as I was looking out over the water and the sun was coming in, I had this quote come into my mind by E. B. White, “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” It was just that moment of wonder, “What new treasure are we going to find in the beach? What new treasure are we going to see in the sky?” And to always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder is a creative way to start and end every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Hal Gregersen
I’m in the middle of reading The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines. I’m a fan of Magnolia. It’s basically their life stories behind the creation of this incredible business that they’ve created. And the powerful thing that I get out of it is they are very, very different people, Chip and Joanna Gaines. But they deeply admire and respect and honor each other’s instincts about how to do things and what they might do next. And that is partly, I think, not partly, I think it’s been crucial to their success and what they’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share in your speaking, your teaching, your book that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and get quoted back to you often?

Hal Gregersen
Innovation is a choice. We all wake up, we all go about our life be it work or at home, and we all have demands that force us just trying to get things done every day. But one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and others is choosing to innovate, choosing to create something new and different, choosing to build a future that looks different than the one we’re living in today. And what’s really cool about making that choice to innovate and create is it not only gets us brand-new ideas but it also buys us more years here on planet Earth, more healthier, we have fewer heart attacks, less depression. It’s just going to lead to consequences that can build a better world not just for us but for those that we care most around us.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Hal Gregersen
Easiest is HalGregersen.com. But if you look up Hal Gregersen online, you can chase me down at MIT or beyond and we can connect with each other.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or a call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Hal Gregersen
Leadership is not about us. It’s about building other people, and it could be those that are working directly with us, it could be the next generation who’s going to take our place. But, at the end of the day, leadership is not about me. It’s about somebody else becoming better at exactly what you and I talked about, Pete, finding and solving the most important problems to make this place better.

Pete Mockaitis
Hal, it has been a fun and inspiring. Yet again, I wish you all the best with this book and your questions and all your adventures.

Hal Gregersen
Thank you. And, Pete, same to you. Wish you well in your journey and adventure. In my simple terms, quest well. There you go.

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