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Interview Transcript with Karen Holst, Author of Start Within
Brian Ardinger: Karen Holst is the Author of Start Within. Karen and I met a couple months ago. Probably in mid pandemic. She had me on her show. She has a LinkedIn show that she hosts and you’re always bringing on some amazing guests. I had a great opportunity to talk to her and talk about what’s going on in innovation and entrepreneurship, and this intersection between corporate and startups and such. I’ll turn it over to Karen to talk a little bit more.
Karen Holst: Great. Thank you. I am coming in from New Zealand. I originally was in San Francisco and then moved to Montreal for a couple years and still had San Francisco based work. So, I never really changed my profile in LinkedIn. It was very confusing. I had these, this double life going on, where I was spending half my year in California and half in Montreal. And then had the opportunity to come to Auckland and, and it’s been an adventure, especially given the, the time that we’re in right now.
So, thank you for joining and I appreciate everyone sharing why they’re joining here today. And I, I will tell you what I get excited about when it comes to innovation. It is unlocking people and doing this work and oftentimes that can be myself when I feel blocked up or maybe a little over my head in what I’m trying to do. Or it might be the team members and the people I’m consulting and bringing along and doing this work. So that’s what I’m here to talk about today.
Quick introduction on myself. My background, I had started a company after acquisition. I joined the California Department of Education and had this moment of what does it mean to innovate in a large organization, a state agency, no matter. And that being very different and that leading to writing the book. I joined IDEO and I also teach through LinkedIn learning. So that’s the quick and dirty on me.
I want to share a quick story on the importance of being bold and what it means to innovate and be the person that’s igniting that in others. And this goes back to my ed tech startup. I was a co-founder in my early twenties and definitely feeling a little over my head.
We were going after another round of funding. And I really needed to catalyze teams to think differently and start solving new challenges. And I had reached out to a woman that I, I didn’t know, but she was someone I really respected in the corporate world and had grown businesses. She was gracious enough to give me 15 minutes of her time.
And I sat down with her in a video call and said, explain where I was coming from and wanting to, you know, ignite passion and innovation in others. What advice did she have for me in leading those teams? And she shared out of the gate, she said, don’t bake goods and bring them into the office. You’ll be seen as the mother caretaker, you know, the baker instead of the leader.
And I was floored by that response. One, I’m not a baker. I would not put anyone into the, the task of trying to eat something that I make. I, I can do maybe a simple cake with a mix and cookies. But that is not something I would pride and force on my colleagues.
But what I took out of that comment was, you know, assimilate. Fit in. And I looked around and I had, you know, an all-male board from our investment. We were still looking to diversify our team and hadn’t quite landed on how to do that. And so, I did slip a bit in my, what I think was my superpowers and being myself.
That is one of the takeaways is, you know, being yourself and acknowledging your strengths is a big part of this work and innovating. And also doing that with others when you’re leading others. So, to be yourself with the caveat of, but better. And I think what all of this leads to is whether you’re the optimistic yaysayer and that’s me, or the kind of cross your arm, realistic, you know, pointing and poking holes at problems. All of those are great perspectives to have. It’s trying to find that balance.
And it’s in yourself, it’s in the teams that you lead. It’s how your organization culture is built. All very important. And what it boils down to is being hard on the ideas and soft on people. So not focusing in on, you know, the person that’s sharing the idea or talking about it, but really about the, the thing that’s being said.
And I really want to go deeper in that today. We have such a short amount of time. I’m going to go quickly. Please feel free to ask questions throughout. I can’t see them. So, Brian, if you can let me know of any come in, I can slow down. I’ll just kick off with, Start Within framework. And that’s the book that I co-authored.
And then we’ll talk about the assumptions and mindsets about, around this work and go into two exercises that come from the book that you can use in your own work. Or you can take the teams. And then finish up with questions, of course. Where the book came from was again, when I had gone from my startup, I was hired within the California Department of Education to be entrepreneurial, but what that means within a larger state agency is very different.
We obviously had lots of government funds and policies to work through and to be responsible around. But also needed to move quickly. It was all about bringing technology into the classroom. So that has to move quickly, but also responsibly.
And it’s also bringing in different ways of thinking. I was looking around for tools to do that. And there’s so much amazing work out there on the culture of innovation and what leaders can do. But when you’re a doer and you’re tactically doing this work, I felt that there was an opportunity for Start Within in writing something about how to launch ideas within a big organization.
So that’s where it was born. It was focusing in on these doers. And I, I think so much about innovation is around this word that can feel very exclusive. But the people that are doing this work they’re innovators. They’re close to the problems that are plaguing the company, the customers, the employees. They see the problems and want to fix them.
So, they’re not just sitting back and saying, that’s a problem for someone else. They’re ready to take, you know, action. And they want to make things happen. In addition to that, the challenges, the tension is between getting them from that idea to actually seeing it through. That the organization that they work within there’s often bias towards doing things the same. Even when we say we want to do, you know, innovate and do things differently, we just have this inclination to go back to, you know, status quo.
There’s also this amount of work outside of, you know, this idea. It’s our day job, but we are hired to do our real responsibilities. And so that can feel overwhelming to try to juggle all of that. And then finally the tools and resources, the tactical support in making this happen. So again, this is where the framework for Start With and kind of was born from.
The book is written around having models to identify the viable opportunities, the exercises to unlock creative problem solving. So, each chapter has an exercise that you can do solo, or you can take back to a team and do together. Thinking about the process and, you know, launching an idea with an organization and what that means. And then the strategies to come, overcome the, the obstacles and the roadblocks that come along the way.
So, the three phases of Start Within starts with getting ready, then goes into getting set, and go. Briefly covering that, getting ready is all about identifying if your idea is ready to pursue. The assumptions and mindsets and the biases that we have around our idea that might get in the way. And then getting yourself and your idea organized so that when you’re moving forward, you have the right things in place.
The second section has the chapters around evaluating your organizational’s readiness. Building your idea around the processes in place and finding opportunities for, for new ways of thinking. And then aligning to the organizational strategies and finding the people, you know, the stakeholder buy-in along the way.
Finally, we finish up with go, and that is building your prototypes. Experimenting your way forward. How to turn a no into a yes, which we’re going to cover one exercise today. And then forming and supporting, support as you go and launching your idea. Today, we’re going to cover something from Chapter Two, Section One, Assumptions and Mindsets. And then something from Section Three, Turning a No into a Yes.
I quickly want to talk about an example of the importance of getting past assumptions and biases. So, in 1997, crash test dummy was kind of the official way that in the United States, we were testing the airbags and effectiveness of, you know, safety belts. And these dummies were built in the seventies by an all-male engineering team.
What we are finding today is that crashes are, are more likely to impact women, children, people of different sizes than these dummies that were built. And they were really reflective of the all-male American engineering team that built them. You know, they didn’t take into account all the different sizes and body parts that we have as humans.
The data today from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, females wearing a seatbelt are 17% more likely to be killed when in a frontal car crash than a male. And then there’s also a 2019 study from the University of Virginia that the odds of a female occupant being injured in a frontal car crash is 73% greater than the odds of a male occupant.
So, all of this was, you know, the crash test dummies were really built to prevent injuries and make the safest cars on the market. But there were assumptions and biases built in them as, you know, humans and making them reflect what they look like versus what, you know, the variety we have in riding and driving cars.
In the book, we talk about the layers of assumptions. I’m not going to go deep in them here, but it does start with ourselves, our background, and then goes out into the world that we are surrounded by. And all of this is part of when you recognize these layers and start to peel them back, you get closer to understanding what’s blocking great ideas from becoming truly innovative and just being more of the same and incremental changes.
The first exercise we’re going to go through is debunk the truth. And again, this is something you can do yourself. So, if you have an idea, a, you know, problem you want to solve, you can do this solo. But I think it’s far better when you can find a partner and think about it out loud or better when you’re leading teams through this work as well.
So, the Debunk the Truth exercise is really about you have an idea you’re ready to go forward, or you have a problem that you think you’ve landed on, and before you move on, just pause and say, is what my assumptions and biases that are built into this idea this problem that I’m trying to solve. Actually, taking an account everything.
The steps that you go through, there’s five steps and it’s deceptively simple. You start by listing out the self-evidence statements. Then you’re taking out anything that is irrefutable fact. By the way, we’re going to go through an example of this. Next to that you’re putting the opposition statements. So, this must be true. Then you’re giving the statement an opposition. From that point, you reflect on what activities you can do to test and then you’re prioritizing them. So, this will all make sense as we walk through it.
To think about this, I just challenge you to think about what problems, what ideas are you trying to solve for right now. And that can be in building your business. That can be in specific to a product or service. But if you think about a specific idea or problem, it could be across the spectrum in this phase that you’re trying to solve for. Then as I go through these steps, you can think about the steps and how it relates to your work.
Now we’re going to go through the Debunk the Truth. So, the first step is listing out self-evidence statements about your idea. And this is really easy to do as a consultant or someone outside of the problem, because you can really poke holes. When you’re in it, and you’re stuck and saying it the same way over and over. But, you know, on a post-it note, you would capture self-evidence statements. About your idea. And each post-it note would be its own statement.
For the purpose of this exercise. The idea that I’m going to focus in on was one that I had done with a, a large software company and it was around automation. You know that they’re going to move forward on some innovation that would help automate and change their way of thinking. And way of working within the, the company. That would be the idea. The problem that they’re trying to solve for.
And thinking about the self-evidence statements, some of the ones that we captured were automation will save time. You know, that’s an obvious one. Automation will save money. In other words, automation will improve employee morale. You know, there was a lot of work that was being redundant, and these employees could be better using their time elsewhere. And that cost reduction is a business priority.
So, we captured lots and lots and lots. I mean, these are just for examples. We didn’t just spend a couple minutes thinking about it. We really started to go deeper. And when people would talk generically, you know, trying to get more specific or if they got very specific, trying to get more generic, we’re just pulling at this in different directions so we can get as much self-evident statements about that idea of improving automation.
This step that is Remove Irrefutable Facts. Most of what you say will not be removed. I mean, we’re trying to debunk the truth. So, if you believe everything to be true, it’d be, it’s an urge to say, well, these are all irrefutable. But one that we did, you know, cross off in this example was cost reduction is a business priority.
The CEO had clearly articulated that it was within all the KPIs and OKRs, and that is not something that we needed to debunk. It is a business priority. So, cost reduction is a business priority, we can take that off. And the rest of these, we kept up there as things to, you know, statements of opposition. That’s the second step.
The third step is for each of these truths, creating a statement and opposition. So, the thing that makes the opposite, the self-evidence statement here on the left automation will save time. The opposition statement is automation requires time. Self-evidence statement automation will save money. Opposition statement, it will cost money again. To create is one and to maintain is another. Or automation will improve employee morale. Automation may create fear for employees, job loss.
So, we went through each one of these statements in opposition and created truth. And created the opposition statement. And when you present this with the team and explain that we’re going to do the Statements of Opposition, as humans we immediately want to jump to this step. So we’ll say, well, automation saves time, and then we’ll immediately want to say, well, that could be, you know, actually the hope is that you could stay in the positive moment and capture as many of those, and then go to the statements of opposition. Rather than doing them concurrently.
There’s something about the brain that when you focus on the positive truths and then flip it, you get more creative and more insights. The next step is taking these statements of opposition and saying, okay, this is a new insight. Maybe there’s more to learn here. And once you’re identifying them, putting the activities that you could do to go after.
So again, on the left, you have the opposition statements and on the right, you’re seeing what were some of the activities that came from that, that we can find more learning to either prove the truth or disprove it. So, on the left automation requires time to create and maintain. Well, maybe we need to investigate frameworks that make automation more simple. Or automation will cost money to create and maintain. What’s the breakeven analysis that we need to do?
You know, one of the things that came out of that and the opportunities for learning was the team stepping back and saying, actually, you know, we know we want to save money, but we also know that it’s going to be a big overhaul if we want to do it right. How much are we allowed to move forward in automation? And how much is this going to have to be over a period of time?
It started to ask other questions. And some of the opportunities for learning was going back to leadership and saying, you know, here are the different scenarios. How do we want to break this down?
And then the final one was automation may create fear for employees. The activity was, can we interview employees about how they view the future? About how automation might affect their day to day? And they actually had some, HR had done some surveys already. So, in talking about this out loud, HR was like, oh yeah, we have some of this data. I can share that with you. And so, they were able to then go fine tune and go deeper in doing these interviews.
But again, you’re going to potentially have multiple activities to one opposition statement. You’re going to have a whole board of all of this. And you have to step back and say, all right, if we’re going to debunk the truth and start uncovering assumptions and biases, we can’t do all of these things. So, the final step is actually identifying what has priority. What has the highest risk if it’s not disproven or proven. And the highest impact to the efforts that we’re taking on.
So, in this example, as we rated it with this company, three of them that came up the, you know, higher impact was conducting the break-even analysis and interviewing employees, and then lower impact, lower risk was investigating frameworks that make automation more simple. They had spent a few years doing some of that research.
And so, they had some strong findings that they could rely on for that. But again, it was, this is how they would value, rank the activities. If you’re in a different company, doing the exact same exercise on the exact same idea, how you prioritize it might look very different. So that is a very, very quick version of this.
If you’re using this, I say you could do this in 15 minutes and get some people thinking differently. Spending more time going deeper is where you have the aha moments. The having 15 to 30 minutes per step, at the very least you could extend this over days and have it up there and kind of, you have the opportunity for it to ruminate and think about, but really the big opportunity in an exercise like this is also assigning someone to be the yaysayer and someone to be the naysayer.
And you might find people that are typically the optimistic person to say, hey, I want you to poke holes in this idea. Or the person that simply got has their arms crossed and can point out all the problems, asking them to be embracing the yaysayer and being the yes, and. And by putting that on people and the team you’re making them use their brain differently. And that is all what, you know, innovation is about, is unlocking people and being bolder and expanding their spectrum of how they think about problems and how they identify ideas.
So, the second exercise won’t take as long to go through. It’s also deceptively simple. I love this one for myself when I do it and I try not to do it by myself. I love to do it over wine with my husband, or I’ll find a colleague and do it over coffee. Or when I’m doing it, mentoring companies or executives and people within teams, this is a great tool to use. So, it’s called the One Maybe at a Time. And then we’ll go into the steps, which is the next slide.
Three very simple steps. You’re finding out why there’s a, about, you know, a barrier to the problem. You’re exploring the opportunities and then you’re finding the tactical solutions for how to move forward. So again, pausing here. What challenge are you currently, or might you be facing soon? An example that I hear often is cut back in resources. Whether that’s funding, the number of people that can work toward a project, these are all great barriers to consider.
But what challenge are you seeing right now? Or are you predicting and building for, into the future? If you think about that as we go through these steps, I’ll give you an example again, but you can use your challenge, your idea, as you know, we go through the steps as well. When I do this in Mural, you have the three sections, you can do it on a whiteboard. You can do it on a wall.
Each thing that you’re capturing is going to be on its own post-it note. But the first, very first part of the, the problem that you’re thinking about is the, the why behind there’s a barrier, the roadblock. The, the no, because, and I’m going to give an example from a different software company. So, I was hired to think about, you know, creating the, the 10 vision and working with the leadership to make their innovation roadmap happen.
As I was there and looking around recognized that they had a very big problem in diversity. Something that they recognize as well. There were no women in leadership. The diversity of the people that worked there, they had a lot of work to do.
And so, towards the end of my project, raising that to the executive that had brought me on as an issue that I’d like to try to address. I got a big fact, no. Because we just hired someone to lead D and I efforts and they’re, they’re getting onboarded. They’re going to take this on. Other, no, because that I would, you know, captured in doing this exercise was, well, no, you weren’t hired to do this at all. This is completely out of the scope. No, we don’t have the money to, to help, you know, pay for you to do this work. No, you’re not an expert in this besides, you know, just being an experienced human in, in the corporate world.
So, there were lots of No Becauses and some of them, I heard. Some of them, I believed to be there. Some of them, I predicted if I tried to take this work on. Capturing each of them on a post-it note, and then I paused and said, where’s their room for me to do something like what’s the, maybe if what’s the reframed approach. And again, when you’re thinking about innovation, people can get blocked up and wanting to go towards the big prize.
But if you can find these incremental tears and thinking differently. And exercising the muscle of finding new ways forward, this will only lead later on down the line to the radical, big thinking. So, I, I love this example for very tactical specific needs. But it is a sprint towards the innovation marathon.
It’s just one of the things that’s going to continue to tweak you and make you better at doing this work and leading this work. So, the maybe if in this example, recapturing the, you know, reframing the opportunities. Maybe if I talked to hiring managers, actively recruiting, we could evaluate effectiveness of currently posted job openings.
This was something I could do without big lift. This is something that could make an immediate impact. And teaching and learning from it. Wasn’t going to step on any toes. There were some other ideas that we came up with too. I, I sat down with a team of women that were very passionate about this. And thinking about what we could do that was not going to go against what we’re there hired to be doing.
Final step is the Then What. Like, what is the action plan? What are you going to actually do to move forward and start testing how to move beyond this moment. And that was creating the volunteer led task force that would review the current job postings. When we did that, there were ideas of putting the job postings in front of women groups, programmers, engineers, product leaders, and getting their feedback.
And the feedback immediately was so helpful. It. It allowed us to rethink how we wrote those job descriptions and what requirements we had. In all of this, again, doesn’t necessarily feel like a truly innovative new approach. But just the exercise of doing something where you don’t accept, no. You find a new way forward. That kind of re pulled back some of the scar tissue of like, oh, you know how things are around here?
No, you know, can’t make change without it being slow. People started to see that if they move forward, even if it’s slowly, incrementally. That they can make a big impact. So, I really love this exercise for that reason because it’s super simple. It’s easy to do and can make an impact in the long run.
Again, this is a, an overview of how you might want to use this either with yourself or by leading teams, but you can do it in very quickly. Spending more time and reflecting, I think, to get true new, you know, ways of approaching it’s coming back to it and continuing to say, where are their new opportunities to experiment our way forward?
So that is the very, very fast version. If you want to reach out. Just to highlight what we covered, two exercises, this is a way to reach me. I teach an innovation product innovation course on LinkedIn. That’s the Bitly. You can find the book on the Link, or you can email me directly. And of course, I’m on LinkedIn. So, you can find me there as well.
Brian Ardinger: I love that very much, Karen. You know, the book is great because it’s, it’s so tactical. You know, it forces you to, you know, here’s the questions I need to ask myself or my team. And it gives you that kind of playbook in a variety of different circumstances. So, I encourage people to check that out for sure.
Thank you for coming out and being part of this. I know you’ve got a whole day ahead of you. It’s early morning there in, in New Zealand. So, I appreciate you coming out for IO2020 and being a part of it. I want to thank all the attendees for jumping in here. Thanks again.
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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