On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Robyn Bolton, Founder and Chief Navigator at Mile Zero. Robin and I talk about her experiences in the world of corporate innovation from her days at P&G to Innosight to today. And what are some of the stories and things that she’s learned to help companies navigate the world of disruption.
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Interview Transcript with Robyn Bolton, Chief Navigator at Mile Zero on Corporate Innovation and Disruption
Brian Ardinger: [00:00:30] Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another guest. Today we have Robyn Bolton. She is the founder and chief navigator at Mile Zero. Welcome to the show, Robyn.
Robyn Bolton: [00:00:53] Thank you, Brian. Thrilled to be here.
Brian Ardinger: [00:00:55] Well, I’m excited to have you here for a number of different reasons. You’ve spent your career at the forefront of corporate innovation. So, you worked as an intrapreneur at P & G. I believe you were part of the team that launched the Swiffer and the, and the Swiffer Wet Jet. So, congrats on that. You were a partner at Innosight, Clayton Christensen’s growth consulting firm, and now you’re the founder of Mile Zero, which is an innovation consulting and coaching firm.
You have been around corporate innovation, both inside corporations, doing it, helping companies grow and innovate. And then outside as a consultant. Where have you seen the most progress from companies when it comes to the concept of innovation? What has happened over the last 10, 15 years that hopefully makes these companies interact and do innovation a little bit better.
Robyn Bolton: [00:01:40] There’s actually that, as you can imagine, a tremendous amount of change that’s happened over the past decades. So, when I started in innovation at P & G in the late nineties, innovation hadn’t yet really become an industry. Entrepreneur was still synonymous with unemployed. I mean, it was just, it was before the first dot com bubble. Innovation was really just a company launching new products.
Now there’s a whole industry around innovation. You have admittedly consultants like me. You have venture studios, you have incredible firms that do market research that do prototyping, and you have corporate venture capital. There’s this entire industry and ecosystem that has been built up to support companies who want to innovate.
The other thing is innovation has just become part of the corporate language. Right. I don’t think you can tune into an analyst call. I don’t think you can read an annual report without seeing, or hearing innovation over and over. So, it’s just become part of the language and the lexicon of business. And what executives think about.
Brian Ardinger: [00:02:51] Do you think a lot of that is due to the part that the world itself is changing so much and disruption is happening at a faster pace? And then therefore companies have to adapt to this, or is there something?
Robyn Bolton: [00:03:04] I think it’s very much that the world is changing at a faster pace. It is easier to start a company than it’s ever been before. So, you’re just seeing a lot more traction amongst startups. And you’re seeing disruption as Clay Christiansen, coined the phrase. It’s happening more and more.
It used to be that it took decades and generations for disruption to happen. Now you just think about the last 10 years. And all of the industries that we’ve seen disrupted. So it’s become less of, I would say this nice thing to do, and more of a business imperative.
Brian Ardinger: [00:03:39] One of the things that I’m seeing out there is even though it’s becoming much more part of the lexicon and people are thinking about it and trying to do some things around it, it doesn’t seem to be actually impacting corporations. There’s still a lot of failure when it comes to innovation. Can you talk a little bit about why companies are still having struggles around innovation?
Robyn Bolton: [00:04:00] That’s actually the question that has plagued me, and I think a lot of folks who work in innovation. Innovation has been around, been talked about being worked on for decades, but nothing’s really changed when it comes to that success rate. And why is that?
It’s a lot of things. Companies got big by doing the same thing over and over and doing it better and better. And innovation is the opposite of that. It’s doing something you probably never done. And making mistakes and learning from them. So, it’s just the complete opposite of what a company is.
I think there’s also this very human element of companies are filled with human beings. And as human beings, we respond to incentives. And we respond to the things that benefit us. So just any rational human being in their role within a company is going to say, okay, what do I get paid to do? What do I get a bonus for?
Honestly, the tenure enrolls has so reduced it. I think it’s now like two years. That why would I spend time and resources and political capital on something that if it works, it will come to fruition maybe in five years when I’m long gone. Versus spending all of those resources and political capital on something that will most likely yield results in six months, when I’ll get the rewards for it. So, there’s just all of these human elements that are a challenge.
Brian Ardinger: [00:05:35] I’m curious to hear your insights into what’s changed over the last 18 months. COVID radically accelerated virtually everything, and probably you and I have been talking about disruption in that for a long time.
And now it seems when you go into a boardroom, the executives, get it more than a theory, but they actually understand like, oh yeah, my entire business may have to change overnight. How has that affected people’s take on innovation. And what have you seen over the last, maybe 18 months?
Robyn Bolton: [00:06:03] I’ve really seen this just enlightenment and this opening up to the realities of innovation, because what makes innovation so hard is it requires change and change is uncomfortable and change is uncertain.
Well, COVID required to change literally overnight for a lot of companies. And suddenly leaders had an experience of change. They experienced the learning process and they experienced all of these things that go along with innovation, and they realized they could do it. And that it wasn’t as scary as they thought and that it was okay to make mistakes and then learn from them.
So, all of these things that you experience when you’re doing innovation that seem very scary and that you want to avoid, they suddenly did them and survived. And are thriving. In that way with every dark cloud has a silver lining. The silver lining of COVID is the companies now have a greater belief in their ability to innovate and to change and a greater openness to try new things.
Brian Ardinger: [00:07:14] Who’s doing it well now. And have you seen a shift in how companies are embracing innovation and maybe the tactics that they’re using?
Robyn Bolton: [00:07:23] There are a lot of companies who are doing it well. I think the common denominator there is that they are moving off of what I call the shiny objects. So that innovation theater, like let’s do a hackathon. You know, let’s have an accelerator.
Those things are all useful, but in isolation they don’t tend to yield results. And companies are realizing that in order to achieve their innovation goals, they have to approach innovation, invest in it, the way they invest in really any other function or competitive advantage that they’re building.
So, they have to take a much more thoughtful systematic approach. And that it requires change. So, one of the things I talked to a lot of my clients about is that innovation really is head, heart, guts. We absolutely in business, you have to understand things on a logical level. You know, you need data, you need reason and rationale, but we’re human.
And so, we decide with our hearts and we justify with our heads. COVID brought this heart experience of, oh, now I know what it feels like. I understand how my motivations are affected all of these intangible things. And then it requires guts to act. Companies and leaders are now realizing they have to invest for the long-term and that they need to speak to the three parts of themselves as a leader in order to really get innovation to stick.
Brian Ardinger: [00:08:51] I think the other thing that I’m seeing at least is that they’re seeing innovation, not as something that is done by a group, but it’s more integrated part of the culture that has to be created because of the rapid changes. And my belief is that everybody’s going to have to be flexing these particular muscles of resilience and adaptability.
And so how do you start teaching that in the context of what they’re currently doing, but also allowing them to understand that those muscles are going to have to be used if the organization is going to go forward.
Robyn Bolton: [00:09:20] I think you’re absolutely right. People tend to hear innovation and they think of new product. Right. And one of the first things I talk to my clients about is innovation is much more than that. And in a lot of ways, I think of innovation and especially the tools of innovation, really as a way to solve problems. So all of those skills that you use to create a new product, the skills of curiosity, empathy, questioning, rapid test, and learn.
You can apply all of those skills to any problem. So, these really aren’t skills that just the innovators need. These are skills that really are needed throughout the organization, regardless of where someone sits that reframe of, oh, innovation is about a product to innovation is how we solve problems, has really also led to a deeper engagement and higher priority being put on them.
Brian Ardinger: [00:10:19] You have to allow any associate within the organization to be able to raise their hand and say, Hey, I’ve noticed a problem. Or, Hey, I think there’s an opportunity here. What do I do about that? You know, do you have any recommendations or thoughts how the average employee within the company can begin to build that innovation muscle, especially when it may not be culturally appropriate yet within the entire organization?
Robyn Bolton: [00:10:40] Yeah. Sometimes it can be very scary to raise your hand and say, Hey, there’s a problem over there. Especially if like a lot of us, you’ve heard, from your boss, you know, bring me solutions. Don’t bring me problems. Well, you want to make sure you’re bringing a solution to a problem, not a solution to just an annoyance or something.
There are several things employees can do to maybe lay the groundwork for a more welcoming reception to their idea. You know, one is to make sure that there actually is a problem to be solved. And it’s a problem that a lot of folks have, if it’s affecting the organization versus just something that’s annoying them.
Second is to draw a clear link between solving the problem and something that’s important to the company. Does the company have a strategic priority around the topic? Does the company have a KPI around the topic, make that direct link for why this should matter to the company?
And then third, approach it from your bosses’ point of view. I know a lot of folks go in and say, Hey, I have this great idea. And then they have no plan after that. Go in with a plan. Speak your boss’s language. Speak to the KPIs and say, okay, here’s what I want to do next. And so I have a plan in addition to the idea.
Brian Ardinger: [00:11:56] Yeah, I think that’s so important. I think a lot of folks that we talk to have an idea and they want to throw it over the fence for someone else to execute on that idea. But oftentimes the person who has that idea has that unique insight has that domain expertise, is really the one that should probably at least early on take that idea to the next concept. Do some further research, do some testing. See if there’s any evidence that they continue to put resources, dollars, time into whatever that next stage of the experiment might be.
And you mentioned KPI. So, I’d love to talk about the concept of metrics. How do you start measuring success and how do you know if you’re making progress? Especially when you know that innovation 8 out of 10 shots are not going to go into the goal. And it takes 5 to 7 to 10 years for some of these things to actually bear fruit. So how do you start measuring success appropriately? And how do you know that you’re making progress?
Robyn Bolton: [00:12:45] That’s the $10 million question. The holy grail is what are the best metrics for innovation? The best metrics I think are the ones that help you measure progress to your goal. So, for example, I have one client that hasn’t honestly in years, hasn’t launched anything new. They just need to launch things, launch it.
So have metrics around the launch and they need to launch quickly. So how rapidly are they going through ideas? How rapidly are they moving through the innovation funnel? Now I have another client that has been launching a lot of stuff and nothing is sticking. Then don’t measure how many launches you’re doing because you know, that’s a vanity metric.
So, it’s really starting with why are we doing innovation? What are the ways to measure how we’re progressing towards that goal, and use the first few months, year to set that baseline? A lot of people look to, oh, what’s best practice. Oh, what’s Apple doing? What’s Google doing?
Well, you’re not Apple. You’re not Google. So don’t benchmark yourself again. Benchmark against yourself or maybe your nearest competitors, and that’s really kind of the comparison and the improvement that you want to see.
Brian Ardinger: [00:14:03] So the next topic I want to talk about is what trends are you seeing that excite you when it comes to innovation? What are some of the new things that are on the horizon that particularly are jazzing you up and jazzing your companies up.
Robyn Bolton: [00:14:15] It’s a great question. I think there’s, as always, a lot of excitement around technology and, you know, things like AI, VR, you know, more immersive experiences. And I think again, another silver lining of COVID is since none of us can travel or go anywhere, people have been experimenting with how do you bring experiences into the home?
And so, there’s been a lot of leap forward in technology that would have maybe taken several years. So, I think there’s a lot of excitement around technology and using that to enhance, augment, even fill in parts of the portfolio. There’s also a lot of excitement around the talent that is suddenly out there.
I’m sure everyone’s been reading about the great resignation and what that’s doing is it’s making amazing talent available to a lot of companies that would have had a much harder time attracting people. So, there’s a lot of excitement there about bringing in different perspectives, bringing in talent that may not in the past, have been interested in coming to companies.
So, there’s this excitement around the diversity of talent. And then finally is what makes me most excited, is this realization amongst executives and managers and employees of, Hey, we can change. We can do something different. We are resilient, we can be creative, and we can be problem solvers. Just a complete mindset shift from kind of heads down, execute, to heads up. Think about the big picture, be creative, and solve problems.
Brian Ardinger: [00:15:58] Do you have any recommendations or thoughts around how to not fall back into that mindset of the way of the normal. You know, I know most people are still struggling with going back into the hybrid world. They’re trying to hold onto the fact that, well, now we’re going back to the office. Or we’re now we’re going back to what, the way it was before. Any recommendations or thoughts around how to not fall back into those old patterns?
Robyn Bolton: [00:16:18] The tyranny of now will always get ya. I think it’s like sustaining any habit. I mean, essentially that’s what people have built are these habits around resilience, creativity, problem solving, and it’s hard to sustain habits. You’ve got to very consciously, deliberately, create time for the habit. It doesn’t have to be a big thing.
I’ve seen clients I’ve worked with when it kind of like is a parting gift of literally they just make a card that they take into a meeting and be like, right, these are the types of questions I’m supposed to ask in this type of meeting. And kind of creating these little cheats to remind them of the skills and habits they’ve built to try to prevent them from falling back. So it’s the things you do to keep a good habit going, you need the same kind of helps.
Brian Ardinger: [00:17:09] It’s definitely going to be an interesting world that we come into. And I think it’s actually more difficult to go back into this world than it was to go into the lockdown. Everybody was in the same boat at that time and had to relearn and learn things overnight.
Now this hybrid world is going to be a different type of shakeout. It’s almost like a reverse culture shock to a certain extent. So, we’ll, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. What kind of recommendations or resources would you recommend for folks that are interested in exploring innovation or strengthen their muscles around this particular topic?
Robyn Bolton: [00:17:38] I’m a big reader. So, I always kind of default to reading first. There are several great organizations that publish newsletters and quick articles. Innovation Leader is one of them innov8tors, which is spelled with an eight, primarily in Europe, is another one where they’re just constantly producing great materials, great resources, especially for corporate innovators.
You know, certainly all the magazines. HBR often has great innovation articles. And very selfish plug. I’m always publishing on my blog, Mile Zero.io, and just keeping up on latest thoughts, practices in the innovation space.
Brian Ardinger: [00:18:24] Absolutely. I would definitely recommend your blog and, and the stuff that you’ve written for Forbes and other places as well. It’s been very helpful for my journey as well. My last question is, do you have any interesting stories from your Swiffer days, or maybe an interesting client project that could summarize the ups and downs of creating something from scratch?
Robyn Bolton: [00:18:42] Oh yes. Oh my goodness. I have so many stories from, from the Swiffer days. I will say, one, I learned many valuable lessons from this, but myself and some of the guys from R and D. We were actually in Rome. And we were doing in-home visits with women. This was as we were developing Swiffer Wet Jet, just to understand their cleaning habits.
And what we learned over the course of a week is a surprising amount of Italian women have home buffing machines for their floors and daily would buff the floor. Would get down on hands and knees and scrub kind of like Cinderella, and just a completely different practice than what we’re used to here in the U S or in the UK.
Anyways, we went into one apartment and talking to the woman through a translator. We asked her, you know, okay, get prepared to wash your floor. We want to see how you do this. And she stepped away, came back in and she was completely naked. And we were not prepared for that.
First lesson I learned was this is why we carry notebooks is so that you can hide behind them. This is also why you do research in pairs because weird things will happen. And then when we asked her why she chose to clean that way, she explained that it was because her husband likes it when she cleans that up.
That was also what I learned that it’s okay to cut an interview short and just gracefully bow out. And maybe not consider that as a data point in the research.
Brian Ardinger: [00:20:15] Perhaps an outlier.
Robyn Bolton: [00:20:16] Yes. Perhaps we found an outlier.
For More Information
Brian Ardinger: [00:20:19] Thanks. Well, Robyn, I do appreciate you coming on Inside Outside Innovation to tell us some of those insights and some amazing stories. I’d love to have you back to tell some more in the future, but in the meantime, if people want to find out more about yourself or about Mile Zero, what’s the best way to do that?
Robyn Bolton: [00:20:32] Best way to do that is to go to Miles Zero’s webpage. It’s Mile Zero. So, zero spelled out Z E R O dot I O.
Brian Ardinger: [00:20:42] Excellent. Well Robyn, thank you again for being on Inside Outside Innovation and looking forward to continuing the conversation as innovation continues to move forward.
Robyn Bolton: [00:20:49] Absolutely. Thank you, this was great.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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Originally published August, 2021.